The Revival of an Age of Elegance; Spencer House

An 18th century stately home in the center of London has been restored by Lord Rothschild. But Spencer House will be expected to pay its way, Eluned Price reports.

Few of the great mansions which once lined the avenues from the Mall to Piccadilly survive. Fewer still enjoy anything like their former splendor. When Lord Rothschild’s company RIT Capital Partners took over the 125-year lease of Spencer House five years ago, he embarked on a heroic venture to restore the house.

The interior designer David Mlinaric was responsible for restoring the decoration inside the house, and now the scagliola pillars and pilasters gleam, gilded Corinthian capitals glitter and once again the Great Room is as Young beheld it: “… the cieling (sic) which is coved, is in mosaic’d compartments, green and white and gold; gilt medallions are let into it. The door-cases exceedingly elegant, their cornices supported by pillars, finely carved and gilt.”

The anteroom is back to biscuit, gold and white, the hangings are a red and gold brocade shot with turquoise. Santi di Tito’s Knight of Malta and Family, from Lord Rothschild’s collection, survey the rejuvenated rosettes in the apse. The dining room will be hung with the five Benjamin West paintings commissioned by George III for Buckingham Palace but never until now hung together. The Royal Doulton company is making 4,500 pieces of china and the damask for the curtains has been especially woven to the original designs.

Spencer House opens officially on November 19, as a glorious mix of museum, art gallery and formal entertaining rooms.

Henry Wrong, who retired as general administrator of the Barbican Centre last November, took over the running of Spencer House a week later. He said: “I have moved from the ugliest building in London to the most beautiful.”

The house had been let go somewhat over the years. The first Earl Spencer married his sweetheart Georgiana Poyntz in secret on the evening after his coming of age in 1755. They processed in state from his home at Althorp, Northamptonshire, to London and the following year acquired the site in St James’s Place. Within months the ground floor was finished, and when the house was completed it was as much a paean to their connubial bliss as a celebration of the finest art, architecture and craftsmanship which the 18th century could afford. As the diamond buckles on Spencer’s honeymoon shoes were worth then Pounds 30,000, we may assume that, whatever the couple’s problems, they would not have been typical first-time buyers.

The house, designed by John Vardy and re-modelled by James “Athenian” Stuart, expresses the contemporary preoccupation with classical antiquity. Columns of every order, Greek and Roman friezes, reliefs of Venus, Bacchus and Apollo abound. “The carving and gilding is unrivalled,” Young wrote: swagged with laurels and festooned with flowers, no surface is untouched.

Whether the house’s 20th century tenants have appreciated their lodgings is a matter of surmise. In an unlikely succession, the stalwarts of the Ladies’ Army and Navy Club preceded the British Oxygen Company, who in turn ceded to the intelligence unit of The Economist.

Lord Rothschild and his company have taken five years and Pounds 18 million to restore Spencer House. The advisory panel was chaired by Colin Amery, the architectural historian, and included John Harris, keeper of drawings at the Royal Institute of British Architects, Gervase Jackson-Stops of the National Trust, and John Martin Robinson, then with English Heritage. Joe Friedman was commissioned to research the history of the house, which runs to two volumes.

While the rear wing of the house is given over to offices, all the principal, or “fine rooms” as Mr. Wrong calls them, have been restored in the 18th century manner, and will be used to much the same purposes as the originals. The state rooms will host official banquets, some royal functions the fiftieth birthday party of Constantine, the former Greek king, was held here in September and corporate entertainment.

Spencer House will be open to the public for six months of the year, two days a week. The aim is not to recoup the cost of restoration, but to finance the running costs of the house as a gallery, with pictures on loan from, among others, the Queen’s Collection, and as a museum, with furniture from the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The most magnificent feature of the house is the carving. From the gilt-brass handles and escutcheons, enscrolled with the Spencer “S” in acanthus arabesques, to the marble chimney pieces which he will replicate when he has found sufficient fine marble, it is the work of Dick Reid, Britain’s foremost master carver. He made the waterleaf door and window architraves, the overdoors with their console brackets on either side and the fluted dados.

The Palm Room is his piece de resistance. Working from old photographs and Vardy’s original designs, he has reproduced the pillars carved as palms in the blend of theatrical and oriental popular with the later Georgians.

The barrel vaulted ceiling above the stairwell, the arches of the anteroom, the ribbed and coffered coves of the Great Room are studded with rosettes picked out in gold leaf.

The Painted Room, trailing blue convolvulus over a green ground, was refurbished under the British Oxygen Company’s tenancy. The first neo-classical painted room in England, it celebrates love and marriage, with Venus, Hymen, Cupid and putti surrounded by birds and flowers.

Unfortunately the exuberance of nature does not extend to the garden, which adjoins Green Park. In 1772 Young found nothing “more pleasing than the park front, which is ornamented to a high degree, and yet not with profusion”. Only a few lone clumps of white nicotiana, a stunted mahonia and some scrawny box edging the lawn remain.

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