Having lived in London for 35 years, I thought I knew its architectural highlights pretty well, but this book is a revelation. It shows an aspect of the city that I hardly realised existed. I had always believed that, in what must now be called the Downton years, Britain’s grandest families preferred to sacrifice their London palaces in order to hang onto their country seats. The French had their priorities the other way about, our attachment to rural life being one of the things that made us British. Devonshire House, on Piccadilly, which was demolished in the 1920s, along with so many other Georgian buidlings, symbolised this retreat from the capital. This narrative remains broadly true, but the joy of Great Houses of London is that it shows how much more survived than one might have thought.
Beginning with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lambeth Palace and Ashburnham House, owned by Westminster School, the author takes us suavely around Marlborough House, 10 Downing Street, the Mansion House, Spencer House, 20, St James’s Square — all familiar enough. But it is the cumulative effect which is impressive. There are also some surprises.
While Spectator readers might have visited Home House (a club, if not quite of the kind they usually frequent), Sir John Soane’s Museum, Apsley House (another museum, although still partly occupied by the Duke of Wellington’s son) and even the Speaker’s House in the Palace of Westminster, they may not have entered the House of St Barnabas, the Georgian corner house which Stourton
hails as ‘the mistress of Soho Square’. Although 1 Greek Street, as it is otherwise known, began life as a speculation, it was souped up by the sugar planter Richard Beckford, uncle of the Regency collector William Beckford, in the 1750s. Dollops of creamy Rococo plasterwork were ladelled onto the walls and ceiling, shown here in delicious photographs by Fritz von der Schulenburg.
As might be imagined from a Chairman of Sotheby’s UK, Stourton’s prose is as limpid as it is learned. He has also got through doors that might normally be closed. Seaford House, ‘the grandest house in Belgrave Square’, with its ‘gorgeous interior of onyx halls and gilt drawing rooms,’ is maintained by the Ministry of Defence.
William Burges’s Tower House in Melbury Road, more medieval than the Middle Ages, is owned by Jimmy Page, former guitarist of Led Zeppelin — who has, incidentally, kept it up to the nines. 3 Grafton Street, Mayfair, which Sir Robert Taylor designed as a speculation for the 3rd Duke of Grafton in the 1760s, was first occupied by Admiral Howe, who would trounce the French in the Glorious First of June (1794). Having declined into corporate use as — don’t laugh — a Greek bank, it has been restored to domestic splendour, Edwardian staircase hall (marble-lined in the Giant’s Lavatory style) and all, by a private individual. Wow!
It might be objected that the title of this book has been stretched, particularly in the modern period. The astounding cabinet of curiosities which is Malplaquet House on the Mile End Road, home of the museum curator Tim Knox and the garden designer Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, is glorious more than great. Charles Jencks’s Holland Park house, one of the defining works of post-modernism, isn’t on the same scale as the Brazilian Embassy in Mount Street. Richard Rogers’s house in Chelsea, which eviscerates a perfectly pleasant corner of St Leonard’s Terrace, built in the 1840s, is a kind of anti-house. How different are Quinlan Terry’s Regent Park villas — though I’m not sure I’d call them ‘great’ either.
These modern examples, though, illustrate a fundamental truth about Great Houses of London. If ever there was a book which had found its time, this is it. While the old ‘In and Out’ on Piccadilly — Matthew Brettingham’s Egremont House — is, for the moment, in a sorry state, it is now the exception. Debenham House, 15 Kensington Palace Gardens and Dudley House are all being restored at this moment. This brings Stourton to ‘the curious realisation that more of the great houses of London are back in private occupation today than at any time since the second world war’.
Throughout what estate agents call ‘prime central London’, architects are busily engaged in creating opulent dwellings, often behind old facades, thanks to Russian, Indian and Asian billionaires, royal families in the Middle East, Greeks escaping the meltdown. (As one Khazakhstani plutocrat was overheard to say recently, ‘London is the only city where I can hold my wife’s hand in public.’ He could dismiss his bodyguards.)
Watch the property values rise: according to the estate agent Savills, London’s top real estate should be regarded as a major export, given the foreign exchange that it generates. Natives who despair of inhabiting the centre of their own capital city, or of ever entering the new palaces — secret, if under-occupied — that arise, will need more books like Stourton’s to reveal the domestic world that such superwealth creates.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 27 October 2012