Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Spencer House





One of my favorite sites in London is Spencer House, located in St. James. Built in the mid-eighteenth century for John, first Earl Spencer (yes, those Spencers), the house's first architect was John Vardy, a student of William Kent. It was Vardy who was responsible for the exterior of the home as well as some of the interior rooms, though unfortunately for him, he was later replaced as chief architect by James "Athenian" Stuart, a disciple of Greek architecture. Stuart's influence is seen in the classic Greek detail throughout the interior, making it one of the first examples of neoclassical architecture in England.

Throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, subsequent generations of Spencers set about at refreshing and remodeling the interiors of the home, including a remodeling led by Henry Holland. After all, the Spencers were a prominent and highly social family, so Spencer House had to reflect this. Interestingly, the Spencers lived in the home until the late 1800s, at which time they leased the house to the Duke of Marlborough and his wife (Consuelo Vanderbilt) as well as various organizations. During the blitz in WWII, the contents of the home, including the fixtures, were removed and shipped to the Spencer estate Althorp for safe keeping.

Fortunately for us, Spencer House is now restored to its former glory and is open to the public. Of course, the fact that Spencer House is one of the few remaining private palaces in London makes it important. But the other nice thing is that it doesn't seem to be on many tourists' radar, meaning no long lines!

(One tidbit of info that I just gleaned- Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, was the daughter of first Earl Spencer and thus lived in the home until her marriage to the Duke of Devonshire. For a great book on Georgiana, you might want to read Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman. Or, I suppose you can wait for the upcoming movie based on Foreman's book. But the book is really a good read.)



The Palm Room was used by gentlemen after dinner. It was Vardy who was responsible for the design of this room.



The magnificent Great Room. According to Spencer House's website, the coffered ceiling and frieze were inspired by the vaults at the Temple of Concord and Victory in Rome.


The Painted Room (c. 1759-65) was one of the first completely Neoclassical rooms in Europe. Designed by Stuart to celebrate the marriage of the first Earl Spencer and his wife, the room is dominated by images of marriage and festivity, all inspired by ancient Greece and Rome.


Vardy's design for the Ante Room- originally conceived as the Spencers' private dining room- includes a stunning coffered apse. It was Henry Holland who inserted the mahogany double doors under the apse in 1792.


I like to purchase guide books from the sites I visit- just in case I missed something on the tour. I also like to mark the date of my visit on the inside cover. This might become especially helpful when my memory starts to fail me- hopefully not anytime soon!

16 comments:

  1. I just finished the book and cannot wait for the movie! Speaking of Devonshire, have you seen the photos of the Sotheby's exhibition of modern art installed at Chatsworth? It such a lovely setting for these massive pieces and on the whole is beautiful and surprising. Then again most anything would look good if it had Chatsworth peaking through the background.
    I am now onto rereading Brideshead Revisited in anticipation of that film also.

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  2. Outstanding post Jennifer!

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  3. It's a marvelous place smack in the middle of London, so indeed you would expect long lines of tourists but as you say, it is blissfully under-attended. In fact on my last visit there was no one apart from myself and travelling companion, so we got what amounted to a private tour by a most erudite and affable guide. David Mlinaric was part of the distinguished group that restored Spencer House. Perfection to my mind; yet when James Lees-Milne saw it he was utterly under-whelmed, comparing it to Malletts i.e. a fine antiques shop in Mayfair! You just can't please some people.

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  4. Looks like something for my London List!

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  5. Toby- I was in a group with five others, and it too was led by a wonderful guide. It's really a hidden gem. It's not one of those knock your socks off, over the top kind of places- rather a discreet and elegant house.

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  6. Meg- Yes, you must visit it!

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  7. The movie is out now! It opened last weekend.

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  8. Just Wonderful Jennifer!

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  9. A place I have been, I am half British and love these old building. It is amazing on how they lived. Sometimes I wish we could turn back the clock.

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  10. Courtney, I visited Spencer House two years ago and absolutely loved it. We also toured Buckingham Palace (the QUeen was on holiday) and I loved each one equally!

    Thanks for the post, as it was good to reflect on our marvelous visit to London! I want to go back!!!

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  11. Thanks so much for sharing! And ditto your recommendation of "Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire" by Amanda Foreman -- I read it a few years ago and it is a fabulous book!

    I might need to dig it out and re-read before seeing the movie!

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  12. Great tip for a winter deal to London. The walls and architecture are exciting; I'm seeing a lot of green and gold lately and love it. But the rooms look cavernous and empty. I'm guessing they were meant for large receptions, and that there must be more private spaces tucked upstairs?

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  13. I won't miss this next time I'm lucky enough to cross the pond. A great post. Cheers, Homer

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  14. Jennifer, that's a great post. What a classic design.

    Just to share with you, unless I visit on the spur of the moment, what I do now with homes and museum exhibits is grab a copy of the exhibit or guidebook on eBay or amazon for cheap, and I actually find I like reading the book first. Very enjoyable, but if I go unexpectedly, I always buy the book there, because I want to go over and over it in my mind!

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  15. Thanks. I will go in a couple of weeks, when I am in London. My friends held their wedding reception there, (the groom was a scion of the Spencer family), but unfortunately I was living abroad. It looks as though it would tick all the boxes for my neoclassical passion.

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