Spencer House

A private guided tour of the magnificent State Rooms, followed by optional lunch.

From the announcement in the Winter Newsleter :

Spencer House at 27 St. James’s Place is a mansion in St James’s, London, and is the property of the Earl Spencer. The house was commissioned by John, 1st Earl Spencer, in 1756, requiring a large townhouse to cement his position and status. The architect he chose was John Vardy who had studied under William Kent. Vardy is responsible for the facades of the mansion that we see today. In 1758 James ‘Athenian’ Stuart who had studied the arcadian values of Ancient Greek architecture replaced Vardy as the architect of the project; as a direct result of this Spencer House was to have Greek details in the internal decoration, and thus it became one of the first examples in London of the neoclassical style, which was to sweep the country.

As the home of successive Earls and Countesses Spencer the state rooms of the house became a theatre for the pageant that was London high society. The Spencer family lived at the mansion continuously until 1895, when the house was let. The Spencers returned for a brief while in the first quarter of the 20th century; then again the house was let, at various times as either a club or offices. During the Blitz of World War II it was stripped of its few remaining authentic treasures, specially made furniture, and fireplaces.

The house was recently restored, and key pieces of furniture returned to their original locations, along with paintings in the State Rooms borrowed from the Royal Collection, the Royal Academy and Tate. Spencer House remains in the ownership of The Earl Spencer, the current titleholder being Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer, brother of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Together with Lancaster House, Bridgwater House, Dudley House and Apsley House, Spencer House is one of the last of the many private palaces which once adorned central London.

 

From the report by Peter Cook in the Spring Newsletter :

The celebrated writer Arthur Young said of Spencer House in 1772, “I know not a more beautiful piece of architecture…. All in richness, elegance and taste, superior to any home I have seen.” We therefore gathered, 30 of the Society, for a visit to a House that we soon discovered exceeded our expectations. Connie Sangster introduced us to our guide, Rosalind Hutchinson, who gave us a most informative and amusing tour.

Spencer House was one of the great houses of London, built 1756-1766 by the 1st Earl Spencer as his London address. The ‘Palladian’ architect John Vardy was responsible for the external elevations and the ground floor ‘state’ rooms which had a Roman flavour. He was followed by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart who introduced a Greek character to the first floor rooms. The Earl and his wife played a central role amongst fashionable London society so the house was well known for hosting lavish parties.

Towards the end of the 19th century the house was remodelled internally, but shortly after the work was completed, the Spencers moved out to their country estate at Althorp. Spencer House then had a number of tenants including the Duke of Marlborough. In 1910 the Spencers returned, completing a substantial restoration in 1926. Just a year later they moved out, never to return, although they retained the freehold. They took with them most of the furnishings and paintings, and then later during the Blitz the Earl also removed doors, chimney pieces and chair rails to safety.

The Ladies’ Army and Navy Club rented the house from 1927 to 1943; followed by the nation’s Nursing Services until 1948, when the auctioneers Christies moved in while their property nearby was rebuilt following WW2 damage. These and other tenants had their own design ideas which resulted in much of the historic decoration being painted over.
In 1985 the Spencer family assigned a 125 year lease to J Rothschild Holdings and thence to RIT Capital Partners, who, under the chairmanship of Lord Rothschild, completed a magnificent 10 year restoration. The ‘state rooms’on the ground and first floor are exquisite, and in fact many of the expert craftsmen responsible for Spencer House regaining its full splendour, soon found themselves at Windsor Castle after the 1992 devastating fire.

The superb appearance of the restored state rooms was greatly helped by the Spencer family who allowed copies to be made of the furniture, artefacts and architectural detail which had been removed to Althorp. Mantle pieces were replaced with carved Carrera marble, and all the doors have the distinctive gilded S (for Spencer) ‘finger plate’ with the head of Bacchus on every door knob. The chandelier in the Dining Room was made for a Maharaja’s Palace. As the candles heat the air, the chandelier swivels very slightly – giving a 19th Century disco effect! The 2cwt light in the stairwell was made for the Doge’s barge. In its day the 2nd Earl’s collection of books in the Library was regarded as the greatest in private hands in England and abroad. A frequent visitor to the house was the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, of Window Tax and Hair Powder Tax fame.

Today Spencer House is a working establishment for RIT Capital Partners’ offices. But the eight state rooms are used for weddings, charitable functions, and formal dinners and, during the London Olympics, by the Olympic Committee. This is truly a magnificent house and we had a wonderful visit.