Amazing interiors: Spencer House, London

We continue our look at the most amazing interiors in Britain with a tour of the magnificent 18th Century residence, Spencer House. This is aristocratic living at its most sumptuous... 

by Nigel Andrew

Time was when every grand aristocratic family, not content with the stately home in the country, felt it must also have a London town house. And many of these town houses were more like urban palaces – indeed Buckingham Palace itself began as Buckingham House, London residence of the Duke of Buckingham. Most of these great town houses, which reached a peak of grandeur in the 18th and early 19th century, were demolished early in the 20th, or survive much altered and put to quite different uses (Burlington House, for example, now houses the Royal Academy).


Spencer House circa 1800.

Only one of these London palaces – Spencer House, overlooking Green Park – survived everything the 20th century could throw at it, and came through largely intact and in a fit state to be restored to its former glory.

Portrait of John Spencer, 1st Earl Spencer (1734-1783) by Thomas Gainsborough

Portrait of John Spencer, 1st Earl Spencer (1734-1783) by Thomas Gainsborough

'London living at its most sumptuous'

Like all the other families, the Spencers found themselves unable to maintain a London house on such a grand scale, and moved out in the 1920s. They took most of the contents of the house with them, much of it to the family seat at Althorp (where Lady Diana Spencer grew up) – but, unlike most of the aristocratic families, they didn’t sell up to the property developers and the demolition men, but kept possession, selling leases to a succession of occupants. Finally, in 1985, the lease was bought by RIT Capital Partners, whose chairman, Lord Rothschild, was determined to restore Spencer House to its former glory. It took twelve years – from 1987 to 1999 – to complete the bulk of the restoration, with another five years before the superb replica marble chimneypieces were all carved and installed (by the York master carver Dick Reid and his team). Where possible, original furniture, paintings and sculptures were returned to the house, and, where not, suitable replacements were bought, or borrowed from other houses and collections. The result of this painstaking and scrupulous restoration is that Spencer House is now as like its original glorious self as it could possibly be – the only 18th-century palace in London surviving in its original form and with many of its original furnishings. And, happily, it is open to the public every Sunday (except in August). If you want a taste of 18th-century London living at its most sumptuous, this is the place to go.


The entrance hall. Image credit: Spencer House.

Vardy and Stuart

While you wait to join the guided tour (there is no free-range option, but the tour is excellent value anyway), you can admire the dignified classical entrance hall, a little-altered survivor from the house’s original design by John Vardy. A classicist working in the Palladian style, Vardy built the shell of the house and was responsible for its overall design, but his work on the interior finished with the ground floor. For the upper floor, where the grandest of the state rooms are, Lord Spencer – this was John, the First Earl – dispensed with Vardy’s services and brought in the man of the moment, James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, whose style, inspired by his studies of classical Greece, was all the rage in the 1760s.


The staircase shows the distinct styles of the ground and first floors. Image credit: Spencer House.

The architectural history of the house was further complicated when the Second Earl brought in another fashionable architect, Henry Holland, to ‘modernise’ Vardy’s ground-floor interiors. However, the division between Vardy’s Palladian-classical ground floor and Stuart’s lighter, more decorative Greek-classical first floor remains clear enough.


The Morning Room. Image credit: Spencer House.

Unfolding grandeur

Downstairs, the relatively plain Morning Room (which probably served as a waiting room or place of business) opens into the considerably grander Ante Room, with its splendid apsidal alcove, into which Henry Holland inserted double doors.


The Ante Room. Image credit: Spencer House.

Vardy’s diagonal coffering inside the apse (inspired by the Temple of Venus in Rome) survives, as does his lightly gilded cornice and ceiling, from which hangs the first of the house’s grand chandeliers. The modern colour scheme – muted Naples yellow on the walls, red and gold silk damask curtains - was devised to marry Vardy’s original scheme with Holland’s alterations, and it works very well.


The Library. Image credit: Spencer House.

The Library was much altered by Holland, but two Vardy doorcases and the marble chimneypiece were expertly re-carved by Dick Reid and his team. One of Holland’s better alterations was to widen the window looking out onto Green Park, making French doors onto the terrace. When the house was built, there was no garden, and a public footpath passed outside the window, but that situation was rectified in the 1790s.


The Dining Room. Image credit: Spencer House.

The grandeur of the house begins to become fully apparent with the next ground-floor room, the Dining Room. This large room, hung with suitably large paintings, has a fine ceiling based on Inigo Jones’s at the Whitehall Banqueting House. At either end stand Ionic columns faced with scagliola – Holland’s work – and from the ceiling hangs a chandelier that came from an Indian palace. The carved and gilded side tables were part of the original Vardy scheme, while the Carrara marble chimneypiece is another example of Dick Reid’s carving skills.


The Palm Room. Image credit: Spencer House.

The wow factor

The climax of the ground-floor tour is the extraordinary Palm Room, into which the gentlemen would retire after dinner. Here Vardy loosens up and lets his imagination go, creating something that would not look out of place in the Prince Regent’s Brighton Pavilion. The classical columns mutate here into palm trees, with extravagant fronds framing the arches. Everything is generously gilded and the colour scheme is made up of white, pale green and equally pale pink, all very light and glittery. In the domed and coffered alcove stands a reproduction of the Venus de Medici, to give the gentlemen something to look at while they drink their port. Of all the downstairs rooms, this is the one with the undeniable wow factor.


The Staircase Hall. Image credit: Spencer House.

There are more wows to come as you tour the upstairs rooms - though, like the downstairs rooms, they begin quietly.


The Music Room. Image credit: Spencer House.

The Music Room is elegantly restrained, but it does have another Carrara marble chimneypiece (carved by Dick Reid), a handsome looking glass in the manner of ‘Athenian’ Stuart, and a fine chandelier.


Lady Spencer's Room. Image credit: Spencer House.

Lady Spencer’s Room, a private drawing room, is several degrees grander, with an elaborate gilded cornice, frieze and ceiling – the last unfinished, as the notoriously tardy Stuart never painted the promised classical scenes. The pink, biscuit and blue colours of the ceiling are set off by rich red damask walls, against which are hung an impressive range of Dutch, English and Italian history paintings and landscapes. The room also displays some fine English and French neoclassical furniture, and yet another brilliant replica chimneypiece by Dick Reid and his team.


The Great Room. Image credit: Spencer House.

From Lady Spencer’s Room you pass into the largest and most sumptuous of all the state rooms – the aptly named Great Room. This served at once as a setting for grand receptions and balls and as a picture gallery, and was clearly designed to impress. The door and window architraves are correctly classical Greek, as are the vases in the four corners of the ceiling, the coffering of which is derived from a Roman model, as is the frieze. Panels in the ornate painted and gilded ceiling portray Bacchus, Apollo, Venus and the Three Graces, representing conviviality, the arts, love and beauty. The three splendid chandeliers were made to an eighteenth-century design, incorporating old glass. The spectacular gilt marble-topped pier tables and tall looking glasses are faithful copies of originals that were removed to Althorp.


The Painted Room. Image credit: Spencer House.

Light and colour

After the imposing, almost oppressive grandeur of the Great Room, the Painted Room comes as a glorious surprise. Here all is light and colour and, as the name suggests, brightly painted surfaces. The versatile Stuart painted much of it himself, and seems really to have enjoyed himself creating his notion of what an upmarket domestic interior would have looked like in the classical world. This room, finished in 1765, has a good claim to be the earliest complete neoclassical ensemble in Europe – and it’s certainly one of the jolliest. The decoration of this astonishing room was intended as a celebration of love in general and the happy marriage of the First Earl Spencer and his wife Georgiana in particular. Venus, Cupid and Hymen feature everywhere, with scenes of dancing, music and drinking, and panels depicting the judgment of Paris and a wedding in ancient Greece. Exquisitely painted pilasters and a lovely frieze of rose wreaths and garlands lead the eye to a gilded ceiling painted with dancing nymphs. The elegant neoclassical armchairs and sofas were designed by Stuart for Spencer House and are back in situ, on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum. The flamboyantly classical chimneypiece, too, was made to Stuart’s design. Opening into an elegant apsidal alcove, well lit from outside, this is a most beautiful room. It was badly damaged by a nearby bomb in World War II and its restoration was a long and demanding job, but the result is spectacular – a fitting climax to the tour of a house that is a brilliant showcase of what can be achieved by sensitive, informed and painstaking restoration. The state rooms of Spencer House are open to the public every Sunday (except August) from 10.30am to 4.30pm, and for pre-booked groups on Monday mornings. Rooms can also be hired for private or corporate events. The house is at 27 St James’s Place, London SW1A 1NR.

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