Amazing Interiors: Pitzhanger Manor

Nigel Andrew visits the newly restored country home of the design genius Sir John Soane…

Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing was the country home of the great architect and interior designer Sir John Soane, whose extraordinary town house at Lincoln’s Inn Fields I’ve written about before. The setting of Pitzhanger Manor could hardly be described as rural now, but, considering it’s only eight miles from central London, it’s quite delightful, with the open space of Ealing Green setting off the front of the house, and Walpole Park – formerly Pitzhanger’s gardens – spreading out behind. The tall façade of the house, with its caryatids standing on tall Ionic columns and its inset relief panels, suggests something very special inside – but for years the interiors were barely recognisable as the house Soane built. When I was growing up in Ealing, Pitzhanger Manor housed the public library – and it continued to do so until 1984. After that, a long process of gradual restoration got under way. The most recent round of work began in 2011, and is now triumphantly complete. The Manor and the adjoining Gallery (currently hosting a fascinating exhibition of Anish Kapoor mirror works) reopened earlier this year, with the house’s interiors repainted in Soane’s original colour schemes, under the direction of Julian Harrap Architects, and original features, including the conservatory and the roof lantern, reinstated. In terms of décor at least, this is the house as Soane knew it, a showcase of his architectural and decorative skills.

Marbled entrance hall ceiling. Photo © Andy Stagg.

As you pass over the threshold, you step immediately into Soanean space and light (his lumière mystérieuse). From this small, but double-height, space, teasing views of other, brighter interiors open out in all directions. A warm light, filtered through the coloured glass of the Tribune above, gilds the sombre walls, painted in black and amber marble effects, with plaster medallions painted to resemble brass. In its virtuoso management of space and light and colour, this vestibule is a small masterpiece in itself. One of the rooms opening from the Vestibule is the surprisingly small Breakfast Room, a light and airy interior in shades of blue and grey, with green and porphyry red marbling. The ceiling (or ‘canopy’, as Soane liked to call it) is in the four-cornered ‘handkerchief dome’ form that was his trademark, and is lightly patterned with a variant of the Greek key motif. At the centre an oculus opens onto painted blue sky, and the Greek key pattern reappears in the fireplace decoration. Recessed caryatids stand in the corners, and there are empty niches set into the walls. These would have held some of Soane’s prized classical antiquities. It is at this point that one begins to realise what is missing from Pitzhanger Manor – the great collection of antiquities, pictures and curios that used to fill it and is now housed in the Soane Museum at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Pitzhanger Manor was designed as, in every sense, a show house, built to show off Soane’s cultivated taste and knowledge of the classical world, as well as to advertise his abilities as architect and designer. It was also intended to display his social status (he had risen from humble origins and married well) and to act as the breeding ground for an architectural dynasty. Sadly, this last element in Soane’s plan did not work out: both his sons proved difficult and feckless (and one of them criminally fraudulent), and neither showed any interest at all in architecture. When Soane’s dynastic dreams died, and his wife began to crave city life, he decided to sell Pitzhanger and move all its contents to London. That is why the restored Pitzhanger is virtually empty. This has an obvious down side – the house we now see is not the combined art gallery, museum and overflowing treasure house that it was when the Soanes were living there – but the up side is that there is more space for visitors to roam at large, and those colourful decorative schemes come into their own, revealed in all their glory.

Breakfast Room. Photo © Andy Stagg
Library. Photo © Pitzhanger Manor & Gallery Trust. Credit: Angelo Hornak

Next after the Breakfast Room comes the Library. In the absence of its books and antiquities, it is all the easier to appreciate Soane’s brilliant manipulation of space and light to turn what is basically a simple cube into an intriguingly fluid and open space. Three double doors open from the Library, and light from the garden enters through the conservatory windows and is amplified by mirrors (always a favourite Soanean feature). The walls are grained to look like satinwood, and another canopy ceiling – this time in a ‘starfish’ shape – is painted in a trellis pattern with delicate foliage and flowers, giving a pleasing plein air effect. The Small Drawing Room that opens off the Library was called by Soane ‘the retiring parlour’. Its deep red walls were designed to show off some of his precious paintings, which included two Canalettos and the originals of Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress (extremely expensive, and sadly prophetic of his elder son’s course through life). These are now at Lincoln’s Inn.

Small Drawing Room. Photo © Andy Stagg

The grand Eating Room occupies the lower floor of the extension built onto the original house by George Dance – with the help of his young pupil, John Soane, then just setting out on his career. When Soane, thirty-plus years later, bought Pitzhanger, he demolished the house, but left the extension as a reminder of his master and of his own early years. The Eating Room offered plenty of space for the large dinner parties and entertainments that the Soanes liked to host. Soane kept the room and its decoration as it was, but changed the colour scheme to the pale blues and greens that we see restored today. The ceiling, with its complex pattern of geometric shapes and leaf patterns, is to Dance’s design. In its day, this room housed a dining table, 14 chairs, and large statues carrying oil lamps – all gone now, of course (along with the carpet – all rooms are now uncarpeted, which is eminently practical but does take something away).

The Eating Room. Photo © Andy Stagg
Stairway hall. Photo © Andy Stagg

Time now to climb the splendid staircase, which runs from the relative gloom of the basement floor to the ample light of the upper levels. Presiding over it is a statue of Minerva, standing on a pedestal adorned with bull’s heads and a swag, copied from the temple of Vesta at Tivoli. The showpiece interior of the first floor is the Upper Drawing Room, which occupies the upper level of the Dance extension. Like the Eating Room below, it has a Dance ceiling – one that Soane particularly admired for its ‘profusion of ornaments, exquisite in taste and admirable in execution’. He changed only the colour scheme, using the same pale greens and blues as in the Eating Room. The surprise of the Upper Drawing Room is that the walls are not painted but hung with fashionable block-printed Chinese wallpaper. This was repainted by hand in the course of the restoration, and its flowing patterns of foliage, flowers and birds are perhaps the nearest thing to straightforward prettiness in the décor of Pitzhanger. In the Soanes’ day, this room was used for music, dancing and after-dinner tea drinking – and to house some of Soane’s ever growing collection of architectural books and folios.

Upper Drawing Room. Photo © Pitzhanger Manor & Gallery Trust. Credit: Angelo Hornak

On the other side of the landing from the Upper Drawing Room is the Tribune, composed of four internal walls of amber-coloured glass, the source of the lumière mystérieuse that colours the Vestibule. Oddly, the Tribune has a solid ceiling, so its light comes obliquely from the large skylight over the stairs. More light floods down from the dramatic Lantern over the attic floor (where the servants were housed). This feature, with its blue and orange stained glass, is visible from the outside, and might have been designed by Soane to show potential clients something rather grand that they could recreate in their own country houses. Downstairs again, at semi-basement level, is a remnant of one of Soane’s more romantic schemes. The Monk’s Dining Room was, in its day, a melancholy Gothic fantasy space, rich in fragments of medieval sculpture and stained glass – much like the Monk’s Parlour at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Sadly, nothing remains at Pitzhanger but the space that once contained it.

Conservatory. Photo © Andy Stagg.

So that is Pitzhanger Manor – a superb restoration of a great Soane building, full of dazzling colour, unexpected views and angles, mysterious light and dizzying tricks. Without its contents, you might say it is more of a shell than a house – but what a shell! It’s a wonderful survival in suburban West London, and vividly demonstrates the sheer brilliance and originality of Sir John Soane. At Pooky we make beautiful lamps for beautiful interiors. Browse our affordable designer lighting here.