Spencer House (Central London): a house built for a man with diamonds on his shoes

Another restoration project.

Reason to visit: the magnificent Palm Room dripping in gold and exemplifying Palladian fashion in the mid-18th C.  Also, earliest painted grotesque room in Europe.

A very knowledgeable and well-dressed gentleman called Robin was our guide at 10.30 on an overcast Sunday morning: entry is on Sundays only by timed entry for a guided tour lasting one hour.  I arrived at 10.15 and was joined by five others on the tour.

How did you find us” we were asked?  “The house isn’t widely advertised“.  I’m not sure why it isn’t but maybe this is one secret treasure trove that the Rothschild Foundation are keen to keep the ordinary tourist far away from and only open its doors to the special few who make an effort to find it.  Even so, as the only surviving 18th century grand entertaining townhouse in London that has survived virtually intact and although there are only eight rooms to see (hallway, stairs, study (original private dining room), library, reception room, palm room, music room, formal dining room, upstairs ballroom/Great Room, Lady Spencer’s room (now red but originally green) and painted room covered in the earliest grotesques in Europe) it is on a scale and level able to rival Buckingham Palace (which is only 5 mins walk away and closed for much of the year).

The entrance is at the far end of a secluded street off St James’ and it is wasn’t for the smallest 15 cm x 5 cm black sign painted with ‘Spencer House’ in white lettering on the front step you’d be forgiven for thinking the house was nothing but another office block or tightly closed private residence.

Spencer House was built in 1756-66 for John, first Earl Spencer, who came into his fortune aged 21 and arranged a clandestine marriage to his childhood sweetheart – they snuck away from his coming of age celebrations and only once the marriage became public did they go on honeymoon.  His wealth was enormous and he had no need to marry for money.  He had wedding shoes made with diamond buckles at a cost then of £32,000.

The house is devoted to John’s love for his wife.  John bought himself a plot of land across the way from Buckingham House, overlooking the Green Park and commissioned John Vardy, a pupil of William Kent, to build him a Palladian mansion.  The structure and ground floor were completed in two years.

Later, James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, worked on the house for six years from 1758. His work was slow (apparently he frequented nearby pubs more than the house) but he created a fine example of applying accurate Greek detail to interior decoration.  A neoclassical gem.  Throughout are references to love and marriage.

Henry Holland was brought in by the second Earl during the 1780s & 90s.  He made some alterations (including making the corinthian columns ionic (the new scagliola has been well done), changing the colour of some wall coverings (he thought red was better than green for displaying pictures), knocking through an alcove at the bottom of the stairs to make a study/ante-room out of the initial private dining room and taking out some chimney pieces.

I was pleased to see Naples Yellow in the study/ante-room, the same as used in my hallway. The ante-room is only the second room on the tour after the entrance hall and it was here we were told only the shell of the building is original.

In 1942, having until then survived unscathed during the war, Lord Spencer (who had removed soft furnishing and furniture to Althrop for safe keeping when war broke out) arranged to strip the house of all its fixtures and fitting: doors, chimney pieces (save two), chair rails, cornicing, skirtings.  Everything.  These were incorporated into Althrop and when Althrop was then listed a Class I building after the war nothing was returned to Spencer House.  Spencer House was let and remains offices to date.  The tour therefore focuses on the State Rooms: their refurbishement was a condition of the Rothschild Foundation obtaining its lease of the whole building (offices included).

The restoration took the house back to its splendor post-Holland and so his alterations remain.  However, while the whole house had been used as offices since the 1920s the later division of some state rooms needed reversing, making the restoration more than just a cosmetic touch-up.

Fireplaces and other architectural details were copied from those at Althrop.  The V&A and private collectors are lending the house some of the original furniture (e.g. the seating in the Palm Room and the console tables in the ball room), some original pieces have been bought and brought home (e.g. the chairs in the study) and others (re)created (e.g. the side tables in the Palm Room – mahogany bases painted with roman mosaic tops, the console tables in the formal dining room (faithful copies) and the solid Cuban mahogany doors throughout with recast brass door furniture incorporated Bacchus’ face on the knob and an elaborate ‘S’ (for Spencer) scroll).

When the house was built there was no garden.  Later, the houses facing onto the park negotiated with the Crown to lease a strip of land for gardens.  The garden has been restored and there is a good view from both floors, but we were told that due to conditions of the lease the public are rarely allowed entrance – only one day in 2011.  I wouldn’t make a separate trip to stand in the garden: a lawn with pebbled paths and green landscaped bushes.

Photography inside is strictly limited so I have no more pictures unfortunately.  I will have to refer to Hudsons and the web for memories.

When visited: 2011

Stars out of 5 (house): *****

Stars out of 5 (garden): *

Nearest town: London

Website: http://spencerhouse.co.uk/

Theme tune: The Sun has got his hat on (and the gold in the Palm Room certainly has come out to play)

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