Just back from a fascinating afternoon exploring a beautiful stately home in the centre of London whose name, although possibly not its location, will be familiar to most: Spencer House. Tucked away behind St James’s Street, with wonderful views across Green Park, this eighteenth century palace was built between 1756 and 1766 for John, the first Earl Spencer – an ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales. Described as London’s only great eighteenth-century private house to remain intact, it is also the only neo-classical house in London that is open to the public. Its eight State Rooms can be viewed once a week, on Sundays, and we took a guided tour around them which I would thoroughly recommend – our guide was excellent.
The building’s history, and that of its inhabitants, is just as fascinating as that of its interior. In 1755, John married Georgiana Poyntz at Althorp, the Spencer family seat in Northampton. Theirs was a true love match and in 1756 the Earl commissioned Palladian architect John Vardy to build them a home in London. Responsible for the external elevations and the ground floor rooms, Vardy was superseded by James “Athenian” Stuart in 1758; Stuart had recently returned from Greece – and, under his guidance – the House became a pioneering example of neo-classical architecture. A third architect, Henry Holland, would partly remodel the House in 1783.
Both well-educated and highly intelligent individuals, the Earl and Countess Spencer were heavily involved in political and philanthropic activities, as well as being patrons of the arts – Spencer House played host to many concerts, plays and salons. The Spencers were a sociable couple and very much wanted their London home to be synonymous with entertaining and enjoyment, not just be seen as a showcase for design – something very much in evidence .
Despite its lengthy association with the House, however, the Spencer family has not lived here since 1895 – although it still owns the freehold to the building. Over the years, Spencer House has been rented out to a number of organisations including the Ladies’ Army & Navy Club, Christie’s and The Economist, culminating with Rothschilds taking on the lease in 1995. It has experienced some turbulent times: during World War II, every single item in Spencer House was moved to Althorp – doors and chimney places included. That said, the House was incredibly fortunate and did not sustain any direct hits during the Blitz, unlike many of the buildings around it.
For ten years, from 1981, Spencer House underwent an extensive renovation, and it was re-opened by Princess Diana in 1991. It is, I can testify, a very welcoming of environments – we received the loveliest of greetings when we arrived for our tour – and each of the State Rooms is special in its own, unique, way. From the exuberance of the Palm Room, whose decorative features were chosen for the specific purpose of promoting 18th century conversation, to the Music Room, which contains not just a Canaletto painting but also a 2012 Olympic torch (yes, really), you would have to be made of stone not to fall in love, a little bit, with the Spencers’ London abode.
For my part I have to confess, perhaps unsurprisingly, to being bowled over by Spencer House’s Library. It’s as elegant as the other rooms but manages, somehow, to be far more intimate – you could curl up in here with a book for hours and lose all track of time, before repairing to the Dining Room for the most lavish of dinners. Somehow, I feel that the Earl and Countess would approve.