Vanished splendour of London's houses


So much attention is given to old houses which have been demolished in Dublin that it sometimes appears as if similar losses never occurred in other cities. A new publication looking at London properties demonstrates the falsity of that perception.

At the end of the 19th century, the English capital was replete with superb townhouses belonging to members of the aristocracy, many of whose families had lived in these buildings for centuries.

In scale and decoration, they were palaces, an urban equivalent of the country houses owned by the same small social group. But by the outbreak of the Second World War, many of the greatest properties were gone for good, the majority of them knocked down in the 1920s when key sections of the city were redeveloped. The decline began in 1874 with the demolition of Northumberland House, a vast 16th-century mansion at the bottom of the Strand which was cleared away in a reorganisation of the Charing Cross/Trafalgar Square junction.

At the time, this loss must have seemed like an isolated incident, as London continued to attract both the old and new rich, and demand for palatial properties reached unprecedented levels. Some of the most sumptuous houses of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras were erected along Park Lane. One was put up by Alfred Beit, uncle of the late Sir Alfred who came to live in Ireland at Russborough House.

A key group of Rothschild homes, at the Piccadilly end of Park Lane, vanished due to road widening which would eventually leave the Duke of Wellington's Apsley House sadly stranded in a constant traffic jam.

Number 5 Hamilton Place, around the corner from Park Lane, was the home of Leopold de Rothschild. Surviving photographs show that, like so many other houses owned by this family, the interiors, although late 19th century, were inspired by 18th-century French decoration.

But modern conveniences were not forgotten either; the Hamilton Place house had one of the first hydraulic lifts in the country and was seemingly so expensive to operate that it cost more to go from the first to the second floors than to travel all around London by horse cab. Close by was Londonderry House, which survived longer than most of its equivalents and was noted for the splendour both of its interior decoration and the receptions given in the principal rooms. The house, and its famously vast ballroom, continued to be used by the Marquess of Londonderry until the Second World War - but by the 1950s it was available to hire and eventually suffered the same fate that had already befallen so many others.

A near-neighbour was the even larger Dorchester House, built in the middle of the 19th century for the enormously rich art collector Robert Holford in the style of a Roman palazzo.

It was demolished in 1928 when the pictures assembled by Holford, considered in some circles to be as fine as those possessed by the Marquess of Hertford (and now in the Wallace Collection), were dispersed in a series of sales. Another famous, and now vanished, building in the same part of London was Brook House; when replaced by a block of apartments in the mid-1930s, the penthouse was designed in the style of a luxurious transatlantic liner for Lord and Lady Louis Mountbatten.

The walls of Lady Mountbatten's boudoir were covered in a series of grisaille canvases by Rex Whistler which were removed during the Second World War and so survived demolition. In photographs, Brook House has a transitory appearance, as though it were intended to provide a series of smart stage sets for a play by the Mountbatten's friend Noel Coward.

Other lost London houses seemed to be so vast, and so beautiful, that their destruction was inconceivable. Among these were Chesterfield House and Devonshire House, the former built by the fourth Earl of Chesterfield who is now best-remembered for the series of instructive letters written to his illegitimate son.

Parts of Chesterfield House's interior, designed by Isaac Ware in the 1740s in an anglicised version of French rococo style, were salvaged when the building was demolished in 1934 but the urbane taste of its original owner disappeared forever.

A decade earlier, the lavish 18th-century decorations of Devonshire House, built to the designs of William Kent in the 1730s, had also gone. This was perhaps the greatest, the grandest, and architecturally most important, of all London houses, the scene of so many great social gatherings over some 200 years.

One of the last of these was the costume ball hosted here by the eighth Duke of Devonshire and his wife in July 1897 to mark Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. The Duchess was dressed by the couturier, Worth, as Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra; the Duke attended his party as the Emperor Charles V after Titian.

Guests were photographed in their costumes and later presented with a commemorative album of pictures by the Devonshires. And that is all that now remains of these long gone houses; photographs which give at least some idea of their magnificent interiors and furnishings. Seeing what has been destroyed helps to put the losses of Dublin into perspective.

London Interiors from the Archives of Country Life by John Cornforth is published by Aurum, price £35 sterling