Outing to Spencer House 20th November 2016

On a cold and blustery Sunday morning, 53 early risers set off for London
to visit an architectural gem that is rarely open to the public. 
Spencer House in St James’s is the city’s only grand 18th century
town house to survive in its original condition, albeit restored to
exceptional standards. Built in 1756-66 by John, the 1st Earl
Spencer, the house was meant to make a statement.  He had
inherited the fortunes of his great grandmother, Sarah Duchess of
Marlborough and his grandfather, the 3rd Earl of Sunderland.  At
his coming-of-age ball at Althorp, the family seat, the young Earl
secretly married his childhood sweetheart, 18 year-old Georgiana
Poyntz, on 20 December, 1755.  Unusually for that era, the
marriage was a love match and their splendid new house, overlooking
Green Park, was to be their love nest.  Designed for
entertaining at the heart of fashionable society, it was also a
showcase for the Earl’s growing art collection.

Like many young blades, Lord Spencer had ‘done’ the Grand Tour of
Europe, bringing home not only art and artefacts, but ideas and
influences acquired on his travels.  The classical styles of
Italy and Imperial Rome were notable influences.  But when the
painter and architect, James ‘Athenian‘ Stuart, returned from a
trail-blazing trip to Greece, where he carried out the first accurate
survey of ‘The Antiquities of Athens‘, a passion for a ‘purer‘
form of neo-classicism was kindled. The merits of each were hotly
debated by the Society of Dilettanti, a group of English aristocrats,
veterans of the Grand Tour, all dedicated to ‘Roman Taste and Greek

Gusto’, under the benevolent gaze of their mascot, Bacchus, the god
of wine!

Three architects were key to the design of Spencer House.  John Vardy,
a pupil of William Kent, started the project in 1756.  He
designed the external elevations, the ground floor rooms and some of
the furniture, taking inspiration from Imperial Rome.  In 1758,
he was superseded by the man of the moment, ‘Athenian‘ Stuart,
who brought the new ‘pure’ Greek taste to the State Rooms on the
first floor.  By applying accurate Greek detail to the interior
decoration, the house embraced the early neo-classical style, to
claim a unique place in the development of English architecture.
Later generations of Spencers continued to employ leading designers
of the day to modernise and refurbish the house, including Henry
Holland, ‘Capability’ Brown’s son-in-law, who, in the 1780s to
90s created a library, modified the ground floor rooms and added
French doors to the terrace.
Through the changing fortunes of the Spencer family, and despite the best
efforts of the Luftwaffe in world war two, during which most of the
original fixtures and fittings were removed to Althorp for
safe-keeping, the house has been preserved more or less intact.
 Later tenants, including Christie’s the auctioneers and
British Oxygen Co., also played their part until, in 1985, when it
was acquired by RIT Capital Partners, it found its perfect patron in
Lord Rothschild.  Under his chairmanship, the house has been
restored to its original splendour, with a level of craftsmanship
that sets the ‘gold standard’ for accurate restoration work.

In the skilful hands of celebrated interior designer, David Mlinaric and
the Committee of Taste, the principal rooms have been recreated as
they would have been in the late 18th century, incorporating modern
facilities and heating, and a suite of offices, while maintaining the
integrity of the building.  Paintings, sculpture and furniture
have been lent by Her Majesty The Queen, the V&A, English
Heritage, the National Trust and private owners, so they can be
returned to their original places.  Furniture and architectural
details, now at Althorp, have been accurately copied by a team of
master craftsmen and reinstalled.  Once again, the house is in
demand for functions, parties and weddings.

With an expert guide, we toured the rooms, each more impressive than the
last, from the calm of the library to the formal dining room, to the
exuberant gold, green and white Palm Room,
that wouldn’t look out of place in Trump Tower!  The Great Room,
with its gilded ceiling, sporting cherubs and griffins, once
described as the finest room in London, led us to the Painted Room,
designed in celebration of Lord and Lady Spencer’s happy marriage. 
Its walls are covered with paintings and panels depicting cupids,
nymphs, gods and goddesses, garlands of flowers, bunches of grapes,
and scenes of music, drinking and dancing.

By now, we, too, were thinking about refreshments.  After an
inspiring morning, we strolled up to Piccadilly, where some of us
headed to the cafe at the Royal Academy and browsed for gifts in the
RA shop, before heading for home.

Grateful thanks to Sue Glyn-Woods for opening up this architectural jewel box
and showing us some of the finest 18th century interiors in England.

Kristian Perry