Survey of London: Volume 45, Knightsbridge. Originally published by London County Council, London, 2000.
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The creation of Albert Gate in the early 1840s by the greatest speculative builder of the day, Thomas Cubitt, gave early Victorian London a landmark whose original effect has long been lost and is now difficult to envisage. Cubitt's two mansions, famously dubbed 'Malta' and 'Gibraltar' because they were so large they 'would never be taken', attract little attention today on account of their size. When new, however, they towered prominently over the neighbouring buildings. Moreover, since the opening of Edinburgh Gate in the late 1950s, Albert Gate has been closed to traffic, and its redundancy serves to emphasize a certain obscurity of position — aligned not with a major road but the relatively minor William Street.
The core of Cubitt's development — the two great Italianate houses flanking the gateway — remains essentially as built, though No. 1 Albert Gate (the French Embassy) was extended in the early 1900s in similar style. An even larger third mansion, Hyde Park House, built by Cubitt a decade after the first two, was replaced in the 1960s with the present Modernist block, No. 60 Knightsbridge.
The origins of Albert Gate go back to January 1838, when Sir Charles Morgan and his wife Sydney, the Irish popular novelist, took up residence in a new house in William Street, on Cubitt's Lowndes estate development. Building on the estate was in its early stages — two or three houses only being erected in William Street, and Lowndes Square not yet begun — and the district still retained something of a rural air. Conscious that the pretty 'green swards' over the way from her new house would soon be lost to building, Lady Morgan focused her considerable energies on obtaining an entrance into Hyde Park opposite the top of William Street. From here the trees in the park were tantalizingly visible beyond the buildings on the road-side strip belonging to Westminster Abbey. In August 1838, supported by other local residents, Lady Morgan petitioned the First Commissioner of Woods and Forests, Lord Duncannon, to re-open what she claimed to be 'an ancient gate' on the site of the Fox and Bull inn. Her authority for this claim was 'a curious account' of the district given her by the poet Henry Milman, Prebend of Westminster Abbey, which linked the spot with the Knights of St John of Jerusalem and the monks of the Abbey. Cubitt, her landlord, 'a good, little, complying man' with whom Lady Morgan had developed a particular rapport, also supported the plan, to the extent of being 'willing to incur the expense of the alteration'. But it was turned down by Duncannon, who was worried that consent would encourage a rash of similar requests elsewhere around the park. Lady Morgan then appealed directly to the Queen, with a petition signed by the Duke of Wellington and 'all the respectable inhabitants of Cubittopolis'. She also won the support of the Duchess of Kent, the Queen's mother and Ranger of Hyde Park. Duncannon had eventually to concede defeat, but saw no reason to modify his own view of the scheme, which, he later wrote, 'had been urged on the Queen by other parties'. (fn. 4)
Quite apart from the simple opening of a gate into the park, Lady Morgan's campaign had a wider aim, the improvement of the Abbey land opposite William Street. Historical associations notwithstanding, this was now a far from beguiling spot. It was crossed by the Westbourne brook, a 'ditch of filth and infection' flowing through the narrow gap between the buildings in High Row and Park Side. There were two public houses here, the Fox and Bull and the White Hart, the former prosaic in its newness, the other old, but shabby and unprepossessing. Worst of all was the Cannon Brewhouse, casting a permanent pall of smoke over the whole neighbourhood. As early as May 1838, according to Lady Morgan's diaries, Cubitt had declared his intention of buying out the brewhouse, and without waiting for a decision on the gate he went ahead and bid for the brewery and other properties on the site. Presumably he planned to recoup the cost through a considerably more ambitious development than the gate and 'sort of little rustic bridge' that Lady Morgan had in mind. (fn. 5)
After this initial flurry of activity the project hung fire, for reasons not entirely clear. Duncannon's continuing hostility was doubtless one factor. Another may have been uncertainty over the future of an official proposal, also suggested in 1838, for a new road into Hyde Park from Knightsbridge, opposite Sloane Street, which, had it gone ahead, would seem to have made another entrance into the park so near as William Street quite superfluous. (fn. 6)
Consideration was evidently given to a much grander Albert Gate project than that eventually adopted. Various undated drawings, of unknown provenance but possibly produced by Cubitt's office for submission to the park authorities, show the proposed gateway opposite William Street as part of a scheme incorporating Nash-like terraces of palatial houses, set back from knightsbridge behind plantations. One variant would have involved the complete redevelopment of Park Side, another the rebuilding of the whole of High Row as well. (fn. 7) The work would certainly have needed the consent of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, and it was perhaps with this grand scheme before him that in March 1841 Duncannon sought out their feeling as to granting long leases on their property, subject to statutory powers being obtained. In principle they had no objection. (fn. 8)
Cubitt was now in a position to break the impasse. With the Cannon Brewhouse and Fox and Bull already in the bag, and negotiations for the White Hart and other property east of the Westbourne continuing, he made an offer to Duncannon to construct the new opening to the park at his own expense, arching over the watercourse, erecting a lodge and gates, and undertaking to build houses on long lease over the adjoining ground, 'so as to form good looking sides to the new Entrance'. Duncannon, while remaining 'very averse' to the idea of a new gate, had to concede that it offered an opportunity to improve the district, which, in his words to Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister, 'is not to be overlooked'. (fn. 9)
The sticking-point now was the question of the ownership of the ground. It was essential, in Duncannon's view, that the Crown should have more control of the development than leaseholds from Westminster Abbey offered (Cubitt was, presumably, offering to build on sub-leases from the Crown). In practical terms this meant buying the freehold not just of the gateway but of 'reasonable space of ground on either side', without which any plan of this kind would be 'highly inexpedient'. (fn. 10) A clause allowing the Dean and Chapter to sell their freehold or grant long leases was accordingly added to a new Metropolis Improvements Bill, which was passed in May 1841. (fn. 11)
The ground covered by the Act comprised the Cannon Brewhouse site and the strip extending eastwards as far as No. 22 Park Side. But the Westminster Abbey authorities proved reluctant to give up more land than was absolutely necessary, and at first agreed only to sell part of the authorized site, with the bed of the Westbourne well off-centre. It was not until June 1842, nearly a year later, that the Crown was able to buy the remainder of the ground delineated by the Act. (fn. 12)
As the bed of the Westbourne, where a brick sewer had to be constructed, dictated the line of the new roadway, it was impossible for Cubitt to achieve a formal symmetry, and his initial plan, based on the reduced site, was distinctly lop-sided. In this first version, the roadway, narrower than eventually laid out, was divided at the north end by a small island with a gatekeeper's lodge and closed off by railings, with a single gate, not wide enough to admit carriages, between the lodge and the western house. The scheme was shown to the Queen and approved in May 1841. Among the drawings submitted to her were eyecatching 'before' and 'after' views, the latter for some reason omitting the lodge and railings altogether (Plate 114a). This view suggests that a substantial brick terrace was in mind for the site adjoining the eastern house, should it become available. (fn. 13) After the rest of the site was secured in 1842 the proportions of the layout were changed: the eastern house plot was deepened and that of the western house curtailed, the intervening roadway was widened and fitted with gates broad enough to admit carriages, and the central island dispensed with altogether.
The additional land to the west, where the Cannon Brewhouse had stood, was sufficiently large to allow for the building of one or more extra houses, and when it was eventually built over in the 1850s, the effect was even more unbalanced than the 1841 scheme had been. Having obtained the freehold of the site of the new gate and the two flanking houses, the Crown had little interest in retaining that of the large western plot, which was later sold to Cubitt for £10,534. However, the Crown wished to retain the right to approve any building erected on the ground. Cubitt resisted this, but agreed to submit the parkside elevation to the Commissioners of Woods and Forests for approval, a condition he was not entirely scrupulous about observing (see page 53). (fn. 14)
It is not clear when the name Albert Gate was first suggested. Lady Morgan in her published memoirs refers to 'My first shaking of the Albert Gate!' in a diary entry of May 1838. But this was well before the Queen and Prince Albert were formally engaged, and it seems likely that this comment is a considerably later interpolation. (fn. 15) Following the Queen's marriage, in February 1840, the name was a fairly obvious one to choose, given the Queen's personal involvement in approving the design of the entrance, and the fact that her own name had already been appropriated for a new park gate in Bayswater Road.
The gates and lodge
The entrance into the park originally comprised a short stretch of new roadway between Knightsbridge and South Carriage Drive, a set of gates, and a residence for the gatekeeper. The gates were modest in scale and comparatively simple in design, their chief decoration being a pair of bronze stags on the outer piers. And these were not new: attributed to the Dublin-born sculptor, Peter Turnerelli, after prints by Bartolozzi, (fn. 16) they formerly graced the Piccadilly entrance to the Deputy Ranger's Lodge in Green Park. This lodge having been earmarked for demolition, Cubitt stepped in to acquire the stags for Albert Gate: 'it occurs to me that the piers … with the 2 handsome stags on the top might be worked into an appropriate design to form part of the new entrance'. But demolition was delayed, and while he obtained possession of the stags, the stone gate-piers could not be dismantled in time for him to make use of them at Knightsbridge. (fn. 17)
This was probably the reason behind a late change in the intended disposition of gates and piers. A drawing published with Cubitt's authority in March 1844 shows he had planned to site the stone piers between the pavement and roadway, flanking the carriage-gates. In the changed arrangement the stags were placed on new brick-and-stucco plinths built into the adjoining garden walls. The gates themselves, made of iron and 'of a very chaste design', were fixed in August 1845. (fn. 18) Originally there were three pairs of cast-iron piers, each decorated with a pattern of oak-leaves and acorns and surmounted by a large gas-lamp. Two piers were removed before the end of the century to widen the carriage openings, when the original gates were presumably enlarged or replaced. In the 1950s the gates, though not the piers, were dismantled and apparently sold or destroyed: their present-day replacements were erected in 1984–5. (fn. 19)
Once the island in the centre of the roadway intended in 1841 had been sacrificed for wider gates, there was no room for a gatekeeper's lodge at street level, and Cubitt provided one as unobtrusively as possible in the garden of the eastern house (fig. 11). Semi-submerged, so as not to interfere with the view from the house, this two-room dwelling, with an outside wash-house and w.c., gave trouble from the start. By 1853 what the Builder dubbed the 'living sepulchre' at Albert Gate had claimed the lives of two keepers 'through diseases arising from its unwholesomeness and dampness'. But a Board of Health inspection found the rooms to be 'as good as those which are inhabited by the great majority of the servants of the nobility of the West end of the Metropolis'. (Cubitt had said much the same himself, when submitting the plans in 1843.) Complaints about dampness continued and eventually the lodge was deemed unfit for occupation and the keeper moved to Prince of Wales Gate, where a second (east) lodge had been built at the time of the Great Exhibition as a temporary police station. The old dwelling was not removed until 1901. Latterly it was occupied by squatters: in 1898 the two rooms were home to a family of seven. (fn. 20)
Beneath the roadway at Albert Gate, the Westbourne was canalized into a brick sewer, but further north the stream bed remained open. In April 1844, citing the 'great objections' made, perhaps by prospective house-buyers, to the 'drain-like appearance' of the channel, Cubitt persuaded the Commissioners to allow him, at their joint expense, to do away with it by extending the Albert Gate sewer as far as Rotten Row. This work was completed in November 1844. (fn. 21)
The Albert Gate houses, 1843–5
Building work on the two mansions began in 1843. By the autumn the eastern house (No. 1) was in carcase, and in the following May both houses were said to be nearly completed, though in all probability work continued into 1845. Prince Albert viewed them in April of that year, when he was thinking about plans for the new Osborne. No. 1 was leased to Cubitt by the Crown in January 1846, and No. 2 in December 1847; both leases were for 99 years from 1845. (fn. 22)
Designed in Cubitt's office, the buildings are Italianate in style, with fully stuccoed façades, originally intended to be coloured and jointed in imitation of Bath stone. (fn. 23) The elevations were adapted from those approved by the Queen in 1841 (Plate 114a), to fit the altered dimensions of the plots — a consequence of the enlargement of the site. No. 2, in 1841 a bigger house with five-bay fronts to Knightsbridge and the park, was shorn of a bay on its north and south sides, while at No. 1 the original three-bay elevations were simply stretched to fill the extra space (Plate 23a).
Other modifications were made to the 1841 designs. At each house the porch was extended over the pavement, the main cornice was raised to the top of the building, balconies were added to the second-floor windows, and on the park side an intended full-height segmental bay, not unlike that at Cubitt's own house in Clapham Park, was dispensed with altogether. (fn. 24)
Rising to over 75 feet, with five full storeys, the two mansions were the largest speculative houses yet seen in London, and they were soon the best known, featuring in cartoons and the target of smart witticisms. The most famous quip, likening the houses to Malta and Gibraltar 'because they would never be taken', proved prophetic in the case of No. 2, which, unlettable in its original state, stood empty for many years. H. G. Davis damned them for their size and, as he saw it, lack of architectural quality: 'Though so gigantic, they are not imposing; of an unusual altitude, they are destitute of ornament'. (fn. 25) As a type, however, they proved very influential. John Elger's development at nearby Princes Gate was designed under their shadow, and their progeny can be seen all over South Kensington. The greatest tribute, however, came from the Queen and Prince Albert, who chose Cubitt to rebuild Osborne House for them, and in the 'Cubitt style' as redefined by the new houses at Albert Gate.
In building these exceptionally tall houses Cubitt made use of a hoist, a device then still sufficiently uncommon to merit a comment in the pages of the Builder. (fn. 26) At No. 2 (as recent works have revealed) and probably also at No. 1, he experimented with iron floor-joists in conjunction with traditional timber ones.
Within, the houses were planned along similar lines around three sides of a central top-lit hall and staircase compartment, with an entrance, under a stone-columned portico, in the centre of the Albert Gate front. At No. 1 the accommodation comprised: on the ground-floor, a 'great dining-room' facing the park, and two other rooms 'suitable for a library and a reception room'; on the first floor, a suite of drawing-rooms; on the second floor, six rooms of varying size 'intended for sleeping apartments for the family'; and on the upper two floors, 'smaller chambers for superior domestics'. However, the amount of floor space was soon being criticized as rather meagre, considering the height of the building, and to a disproportionate extent taken up by the staircase. (fn. 27) The planning at No. 2, no doubt originally intended to mirror that at No. 1, had to be adjusted to suit the peculiar circumstances of its original occupation (see below).
No. 1 Albert Gate: the French Embassy
In March 1844 the Illustrated London News published a view and a laudatory account of Albert Gate which claimed that various noblemen were 'desirous of inhabiting this splendid edifice [No. 1], as soon as completed'. However, it was not an aristocrat, but an archetypal Victorian selfmade man, George Hudson, MP, the Yorkshire linendraper turned railway promoter, who bought it. He paid the purchase price of £13,667 13s out of the large sum which 'admirers' had subscribed as a testimony of their respect (in hope, no doubt, of receiving an allotment of shares): Mrs Hudson reputedly spent another £14,000 on furnishings and decoration. The purchase was completed in January 1846, when Cubitt granted Hudson a 75-year lease at an annual rent of £150; at the same time Hudson took a separate lease of a coach-house and stable in William Mews, another Cubitt development, behind Lowndes Square. (fn. 28)
Already dubbed the 'Railway King' and 'Napoleon of
the Railways', Hudson bought No. 1 at the height of his
fame and in furtherance of his social ambitions; and while
his star remained in the ascendant the great and the good
readily overlooked his uncouth manners to pay him court
there. The journalist G. A. Sala mocked their avaricious
came the nobles of the land, humbling themselves on their gartered knees, and pressing the earth with their coroneted brows, and calling him King of Men, that he might give them shares. (fn. 29)
But Hudson's fraudulent share dealings eventually caught up with him and he was obliged to give up the house, which he sub-let in 1853 to the French ambassador, Count Walewski, for £1,800 a year. A few months earlier Walewski had been interested in leasing the still unoccupied No. 2, and had wanted Cubitt to make a carriage-entrance there, closer to the house. To help Hudson secure the ambassador's tenancy for No. 1, Cubitt undertook £600worth of work in the house, at 'great inconvenience' to himself. Hudson footed the bill, but had to be pressed hard for the money. (fn. 30)
Ambassadorial entertaining drew Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to No. 1 for a Bal Costumé in 1854, when the house was fitted up for the occasion by Cubitt. Generally the early ambassadors were not thought to be much of an improvement on the first occupant; nevertheless, as Sala observed when writing about Walewski's successor, De Persigny, 'the nobles and princes were as glad to come to his merry-makings as in the old time, when the now brokendown Railway Stag held high court there'. (fn. 31) (fn. 1)
No. 1 has been continuously occupied as the French Embassy since 1853, although in 1947 it ceased to be the ambassador's residence. In 1898 the French Government purchased the freehold from the Crown. The Embassy's lease (renegotiated in 1859–60) was not due to expire until 1920, but the ambassador, concerned about rising property prices in the latter part of the 1890s, had urged his government to move speedily: 'the market trend would be greatly accelerated in the event of a change of sovereign and the more continuous residence of the Court in the Capital'. (fn. 33)
A condition of the sale prohibited unauthorized alterations to the elevations of the building, and the exterior remains relatively little changed. A conservatory, now removed, was built over the porch in 1903 (Plate 23c 23c), (fn. 34) and an extra attic storey was added in 1997–8.
The interior, on the other hand, has been much altered. Since official entertaining moved out with the ambassadors to Kensington Palace Gardens after the war, the Albert Gate building has been used chiefly for offices, and the fine interiors recorded in photographs, showcases of French art and taste, have largely disappeared. Much of the decoration of these rooms was carried out in 1900–2. (fn. 35) Particularly convincing were the first-floor drawing-rooms, where gilded and painted plasterwork and boiseries (some of it possibly authentic) re-created the interior of a Parisian hotel of the Louis Seize period (Plate 24a 24a). The sixteenth century was evoked in the library (on the ground floor overlooking the park) where the walls were adorned with carved wood panelling in the style of the sculptor Jean Goujon.
Cubitt's staircase compartment in the centre of the house remained more or less unaltered until the 1930s, when the lower part was remodelled by Fernand Billerey, the embassy's official architect, and the upper flights of the cantilevered staircase, between the first and second floors, were removed. (fn. 36) Surviving original features include the domed skylight, the decorative plasterwork, and the arcaded passage all around the compartment at fourth-floor level — an arrangement also found in some of Cubitt's houses in Eaton Square (Plate 24b, 24c). The servants' staircase in the south-east corner of the building is also original: lit by windows looking on to Knightsbridge, it is, somewhat surprisingly, visible from the street. (fn. 2)
No. 58 Knightsbridge: French Embassy extension
By the mid-1890s the French Embassy had outgrown its accommodation at No. 1 Albert Gate. New chancellery premises and a reception room were deemed to be 'absolutely necessary', and while the ambassador urged the case for more space with the Quai d'Orsay, he sounded out the Ecclesiastical Commissioners as to the possibility of building an extension on their land next door. (fn. 37)
Negotiations were protracted, partly because the minister at Holy Trinity was concerned about the effect such a building might have on the already inadequate natural lighting in his church. Eventually an accommodation was reached, and in 1899 the Ecclesiastical Commissioners granted the French Government a 999-year lease of all the ground between No. 1 and Holy Trinity (which included the site of the White Hart). (fn. 38)
The new building was designed by Olivier Carré, assistant architect at the Ministère des Affaires Étrangères. However, he was constrained by convenants restricting the height and external detailing of the building, and the result is a relatively plain block, three storeys high above a basement, with stuccoed elevations and some Italianate touches echoing Cubitt's adjoining house.
Building began in 1899, but soon ran into difficulties. The rising price of labour and materials, blamed on the Boer War, resulted in a considerable overspend and there was a marked slowing down in the rate of progress. It was not until the end of 1901 that the superstructure was complete, though not yet stuccoed. Concerned about the management of the project, the authorities in Paris sent over Louis Bernier fils, architecte des Bâtiments Civils, to investigate. He criticized Carré's professional conduct, and a subsequent enquiry found that because Carré was over stretched by other commitments his tender documents had been insufficiently detailed and the specifications inadequate. (fn. 3) Meanwhile, work continued under the supervision of Edward Goldie, the local site-architect who was also responsible for the ordinary maintenance of the embassy building. Early in 1902 Carré was relieved of his responsibilities for the extension, which was completed later that year under Bernier's superintendence.
The shell was conventionally constructed (by Pattinson & Sons) with stuccoed brick walls. But for the floors, brackets and balconies Carré employed Hennebique's 'indestructible and absolutely fire-proof' system of reinforced- ('ferro-') concrete construction, not yet widely adopted in London, owing to the London County Council's reluctance to sanction its use. Exempted by reason of its diplomatic status from the requirements of the 1894 London Building Act, No. 58 is almost certainly the first significant non-industrial building in London to utilize structural reinforced concrete: earlier use had been largely confined to structures erected on land belonging to the dock and railway companies, where the LCC's writ did not run. The council took an interest in the work and early in 1900 its Architect inspected the floors; later that year an official LCC report concluded that Hennebique's concrete was acceptable, provided it was constructed with care. The floors at the embassy extension were formally tested early in 1902 by the Ingénieur en Chef des Ponts et Chaussées, in the presence of Goldie, the contractors for the concrete (A. Jackaman & Sons), the agent for Hennebique's patents in England (L. G. Mouchel), and two civil engineers. (fn. 39)
The self-effacing exterior was in marked contrast to the interior, where the first floor was given over to a lavishly decorated pair of state reception rooms — a banquetingroom on the Knightsbridge side and a ballroom overlooking the park (Plate 25). In the ballroom — 'probably without a rival in London', in the view of a contemporary magazine — the long north and south walls were lined with projecting pairs of sumptuously modelled Corinthian columns below a compartmented and ornately decorated plaster ceiling, the heavy plasterwork being fixed to the underpart of the concrete beams forming the floor above. Concrete was also used in the construction of the columns, though probably only for the core, the decoration of the capitals and the shafts being presumably modelled in plaster. Double doors in the south wall of the ballroom communicated with the adjoining banqueting-room, where, under another ornate plaster ceiling, the walls were hung with Louis Quatorze tapestries. In 1904 Mouchel singled out these apartments as good examples of how admirably reinforced concrete 'lends itself to ornamentation'. (fn. 40)
No. 2 Albert Gate
Although reported in March 1846 to have been bought by a Sir Roger Palmer, No. 2 remained empty and on the market for ten years. (fn. 41) Cubitt's hopes of finding a buyer during that time were more than once disappointed: a proposal to establish a club there in 1851 soon petered out, and in 1853 a potential tenant in the person of the French ambassador was lost when he settled instead for No. 1. (fn. 42) When No. 2 was eventually occupied late in 1856, it was not as a single dwelling but divided in two, the southern part being let to the London and County Bank, which had its own separate entrance in Knightsbridge. (fn. 43) This part-commercial occupation lasted until the bank moved to a new building near by in 1885, but it does not seem to have blighted the residential eligibility of the northern half, where the first private inhabitant, from 1856 to 1868, was Colonel Fulke Greville, MP. He was fortuitously absent in September 1858 when a gas explosion rocked the house, severely injuring three female servants, one fatally. (fn. 44) Greville's successors here were the 1st Earl of Feversham, followed in 1875 by the banker Arthur David Sassoon, a younger brother of Sir Albert Sassoon, who added a conservatory over the portico (now removed). (fn. 45)
After the departure of the bank, Sassoon took over the old premises and reinstated the two halves of the building as a single house. At the same time the interior was lavishly redecorated by G. Jackson & Sons of Rathbone Place, specialists in papier mâché, carton pierre and composition ornament, with the builders Sprake & Foreman of Pont Street (Plates26, 27). (fn. 46) The most spectacular new feature was an opulent marble staircase, with a gilded balustrade incorporating lyres, torches and foliage (Plate 26a, 2ga). The staircase walls were lined with variegated marbles, offset by large tapestry panels set in marble frames. Elsewhere, the decoration though sumptuous was more conventional (Plate 27). Several of the principal rooms, including the large ballroom on the first floor, were in the French taste (Plate 26c).
The new décor made a suitably luxurious backdrop for the Sassoons' renowned hospitality, which reached its apogee in 1889 when the Shah of Persia was their guest, both here in Albert Gate and at their house in Brighton. (fn. 47) Sassoon died in 1912, but his widow lived on in the house for another thirty years, until her own death in 1943. After the war No. 2 was occupied commercially, and a mansard floor added. In 1993–5 the building was expensively refurbished as the Kuwaiti Embassy by the Whinney MackayLewis Partnership.
Of Sassoon's fine interiors the only substantial survival is the marble staircase, now, however, shorn of its tapestry panels (pieces of damask have been substituted), and with a modern glass lift-shaft inserted into the well. The panelled segmental-vaulted passage from the front door to the staircase compartment is probably another relic from the Sassoon years. The decoration of the other principal rooms is mostly post-war work: it includes, on the ground floor, a marbled former banking hall.
The Chinese Collection at Albert Gate in 1851
With No. 2 standing empty and no tenant in prospect, Cubitt was reluctant to press ahead with more speculative development on the large plot to the west (where the Cannon Brewhouse had stood): 'I would rather not venture upon a further outlay at present', he told the Commissioners of Woods and Forests in January 1847. What he really wanted was 'a Commission to erect a House or Houses in accordance with the views of a Customer'. In the meantime he laid the area to turf, restored the boundary wall on the park side and put up an iron railing along Knightsbridge. In 1851, no taker having yet come forward, he allowed the site (by then his freehold) to be used for a re-run of the Chinese Collection, an exhibition of Chinese artefacts first shown in London in the 1840s at St George's Place (see page 24). (fn. 48)
After closing in 1846, this exhibition had toured the English provinces, before returning to America in 1850, where P. T. Barnum displayed it at his American Museum in New York. (fn. 49) The prime mover in its restaging at Albert Gate was the curator, William B. Langdon, who seems to have acquired the collection after the death in 1844 of the original owner, Nathan Dunn. Francis George Herbert of Queen's Buildings, Brompton Road, a silversmith, with whom Langdon stayed in 1851, organized the construction of the exhibition hall. (fn. 50)
the celebrated Chinese Collection in the newly erected Celestial Palace, Albert-gate … is now in a forward state of completion, the whole collection having been re-arranged, enlarged, and beautified. (fn. 51)
This was somewhat disingenuous: the truth was that after its travels, far from being enlarged, the collection had dwindled to less than half its original size. (fn. 52)
The pretentiously named 'Celestial Palace' was a singlestorey gallery 100ft long, with a raised central section and subdivided internally (Plate 126a). The only known illustration of the front — a small vignette — shows a symmetrical and classically proportioned structure, not unlike a Nonconformist chapel, the raised section having a small pediment and a cupola-like feature, possibly a ventilator. Panels and friezes of Chinese characters decorated the exterior. The entrance was in the centre of the Knightsbridge front, through a decorated porch faintly echoing the style of Brighton Pavilion. The 'Palace' was substantially constructed, with brick walls, finished with a stone cornice, and, apparently, a wood-and-canvas roof. The builder was Walter Longhurst, also of Queen's Buildings. It was later claimed that the promoters had been obliged to provide a more strongly built structure than the 'merely temporary' one originally intended, and had lost money thereby. (fn. 53)
The Collection opened to the public on 21 April 1851. A highlight of the show was the series of daily concerts performed by a Chinese family, previously engaged by Barnum for the exhibition in New York. They made their first appearance at Albert Gate on 1 May 1851, the same day that the Great Exhibition itself opened. The 'family' consisted of a professor of music, his two young children, a lady vocalist (with feet 'of the most aristocratic proportions'), her maid, and an interpreter. (fn. 54) Hector Berlioz, an official judge at the Great Exhibition, went to hear them: 'I have never heard anything so strange in my life', he wrote of the professor's voice, 'hideous snorts, and groans, very much like the sounds dogs make when they wake up'. By comparison the lady vocalist had a heavenly voice, but Berlioz doubted if she was as 'small footed as she would have you believe'. (fn. 55)
Although the Collection was ideally placed to catch the Great Exhibition crowds, and at first did so, it had a poor and ultimately loss-making season. After closing, the Collection was sold at auction and dispersed, and early in 1852 the Celestial Palace itself was demolished. (fn. 56) Two years later, William Langdon, the former curator, sailed for Australia, where he died in 1868. (fn. 57)
Hyde Park House, No. 60 Knightsbridge (demolished)
By the time the Celestial Palace was being demolished, Cubitt had found a single 'customer' for the site, who commissioned a mansion there for his own occupation. He was Captain Thomas Leyland (born Naylor), of Westbourne Terrace, the eldest of three wealthy brothers whose family fortune was founded on banking interests in Liverpool. All three spent lavishly on building and collecting fine art, and Thomas's Knightsbridge house was as much a showcase for his collections as a private residence. (fn. 58) Begun in 1852, but still incomplete at the time of Cubitt's death three years later, the house was on a truly palatial scale, the interior vying in opulece with any in the metropolis (Plates 23b, 28, 29).
Architecturally, the exterior was not remarkable. Like the two earlier houses in Albert Gate, Leyland's was designed in Cubitt's office, and the elevations, although 'arranged to meet the ideas of Captn. Leyland', were in exactly the same style. James Pennethorne, who vetted them for the Commissioners of Woods and Forests, was unimpressed and condescending: 'they are not superior to the ordinary character usually adopted for the Street Architecture in London'. He nevertheless let them pass, 'as the House from its size will be quite of the first class and suitable only for the residence of a very wealthy person'. (fn. 59)
As first intended the house was almost square in plan, with an eleven-bay façade on the park side and a nine-bay front to Knightsbridge. To this core was soon added a west wing of five bays, facing the park, but only after Cubitt had routed the Commissioners in a dispute over the design. Not anticipating any problem, he had agreed to build the wing before obtaining approval for the elevation, and this was withheld because the Commissioners disliked the difference in height between the proposed three-storey wing and the five-storey house. Taken aback, Cubitt responded with a spirited letter (which he failed to sign) in which he justified his action by drawing a dubious distinction between the architectural design, 'which is the Commissioners' business', and the height of the building, 'which is not'. He also reminded them of all he had done for Hyde Park — removed an offensive brewery and 'a nest of houses occupied by the lowest class of persons', replacing them with mansions, and sustaining a heavy loss in the process. It was a brazen strategy but it worked and the Commissioners withdrew their objection. (fn. 60)
In November 1855, less than a month before his death, Cubitt sold the freehold to Leyland. Work continued for at least another two years, and the house was not occupied until 1858. (fn. 61) Known as Hyde Park House, it was numbered 3 Albert Gate in 1877, and renumbered 60 Knightsbridge in 1903.
Like Nos 1 and 2 Albert Gate, Leyland's house was planned around a central, top-lit staircase compartment, though on a very much larger scale (Plates 28a, 28b , 29a ). From the outer hall a short flight of steps, flanked by two recumbent lions in white marble, led under a stone arch to an imposing imperial staircase with a highly decorated bronze balustrade, clearly derived from those at Northumberland House and Buckingham Palace. This led to a spacious first-floor landing or gallery extending round three sides of the compartment, with triple-arched openings supported on Corinthian columns of variegated marble.
On the ground floor the principal apartment was the dining-room on the park side, which had an elaborately modelled plaster ceiling and cornice, damask-hung walls, and a servery at one end divided from the dining-area by a pair of marble Corinthian columns.
On the first floor was a suite of drawing-rooms, the largest of which, in the centre of the north front, was also used as a ballroom (Plate 29b29b). Two screens of Corinthian columns, here fluted, divided this long room into one large compartment, with two smaller ones at either end. Photographs taken in the early years of the twentieth century suggest that the drawing-rooms had been redecorated in the French taste. By contrast, the décor of the dining-room and staircase was probably still the original.
Also on the first floor was Leyland's picture gallery, a toplit apartment on the west side of the house, with a mirrored end-wall to give the impression of a room twice its length (Plate 28c). A description of the gallery in 1898 mentions paintings by Breughel, Gainsborough, Luini, Memling, Pisano, Rubens, Tintoretto and Van Dyck. In addition to the pictures the gallery was packed with furniture and objets d'art, including sculpture, porcelain, and metalwork. More sculpture was displayed around the hall, landing and staircase, and in the glazed conservatory above the porch — here an original feature, unlike those at Nos 1 and 2. (fn. 62)
In 1883–4 Leyland built some additional stables immediately to the west of the house, on the northern part of the site of No. 11 High Row. The freehold of No. 11, and of the adjoining Fox and Bull public house at No. 10, had been purchased by his son, Colonel Tom Naylor-Leyland, also of Hyde Park House, who let the rest of this ground to the London and County Bank for new premises. (fn. 63)
After Captain Leyland's death in 1891 the house descended to his grandson (Sir) Herbert Naylor-Leyland, his son having predeceased him. Herbert's American wife, Jennie, was a leading society hostess, and in the 1890s Hyde Park House provided the setting for parties and receptions attended by the cream of late-Victorian society, from the Prince of Wales downwards.
Though widowed while still young by her husband's death in 1899 aged only 35, Lady Naylor-Leyland continued to occupy the house and to host receptions there until 1923. In that year it was bought by the Royal Thames Yacht Club, which removed here from Piccadilly. (fn. 64) After nearly forty years in the building the yacht club found the cost of upkeep too onerous, and in 1961 Hyde Park House was demolished.