Survey of London: Volumes 29 and 30, St James Westminster, Part 1. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1960.
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No. 91 Pall Mall: Buckingham House
Occupied part of the site of the Royal Automobile Club
Buckingham House took its name from George Nugent Temple Grenville, first Marquis of Buckingham, who in 1779 inherited his uncle's house in Pall Mall. This house had previously been occupied from 1710 to 1726 (fn. 7) by Thomas Pitt (1653–1726), the East India merchant and governor of Madras, father of Thomas Pitt, first Earl of Londonderry, and grandfather of William Pitt, first Earl of Chatham. Between 1714 and 1726 the younger Thomas Pitt dated several of his letters from Pall Mall. (fn. 8)
From 1737 to 1779 the house was occupied by Richard Grenville (1711–79), the statesman. (fn. 9) In 1743 he wrote to the Countess of Denbigh that having hopes of the land tax being removed he 'was upon the point of sending peremptory orders to Duffour to fit up our Pall Mall palace in the most expeditious and most expensive manner, according to the designs he has shewn you, and which have met with your approbation; but happily for me you have waked me out of that fit of extravagance'. (fn. 10)
Grenville succeeded to the title of Earl Temple in 1752. On his death in 1779 the title passed to his nephew, George Grenville, who assumed the names Nugent and Temple in addition to his patronymic. George Grenville (1753–1813) was prominent in political affairs in the 1780's and in 1784 he was created Marquis of Buckingham. (fn. 11)
As Earl Temple, he purchased in 1781 the house adjoining his own on the east, (fn. 12) and for the next two years this house was occupied by his younger brother, Thomas Grenville (1755–1846), the statesman and book collector. (fn. 9) In 1783 the Earl obtained a renewal of the Crown lease of this house (fn. 13) and probably in 1785–6, (fn. 7) shortly after his elevation to the marquisate, he 'laid the said two Messuages together'. (fn. 13)
The architect employed by the Marquis at this time may have been Robert Furze Brettingham. (fn. 14) (fn. 1) The Marquis's later remark about architects' plans being 'varied in the execution' may reflect some dissatisfaction with Brettingham's work, and when he wished to rebuild the two houses a few years later he employed Soane.
In 1790 the Marquis of Buckingham petitioned the Crown for an extension of his interest in both houses. The Surveyor General's report described the eastern house as a 'substantial modern built house', but the front part of the western house was old, although recent additions had been made at the back. There was a difference of over three feet between the floor levels of the two houses, and communication between them was very inconvenient. (fn. 13)
In the course of correspondence over the renewal of the lease, which was ultimately granted in 1792, the Marquis stated that he reserved his right to alter his plans 'as I have been long enough engaged in building to know how often Plans are varied in the execution'. (fn. 13) In the event the relationship between architect and client seems to have been particularly harmonious, for Soane selected this commission for special mention in his Memoirs 'in order to record two circumstances: the first, that no deviations were made from the original designs, from the commencement to the completion of the works; and, secondly, that in consequence of the designs of the Architect not having been interfered with, the estimated expense was not exceeded'. (fn. 15)
Soane's first plans and estimates for rebuilding Buckingham House—'the greater part was wholly rebuilt and the remainder . . . entirely gutted, and even changed in the exterior walls' (fn. 16) —were drawn up in March 1790, when he spent several hours in consultation with the Marquis. These consultations went on over the following two years and work eventually began in the summer of 1792. (fn. 17) The house was completed in 1795, (fn. 18) and its cost was about £11,000 (Plates 224, 225, 226, 227). (fn. 16)
The chief craftsmen employed by Soane were P. Norris, bricklayer; Richard Holland, carpenter; James Nelson, mason; William Rothwell, plasterer; John Mackell, smith; Richard Laurence and David Bryson, carvers, and John Crace, painter. (fn. 19) Nelson was responsible for all the chimneypieces (fn. 20) except two. One of these last was carved in dove marble by Charles Peart, mason, for £51 16s., and the other, for the drawing-room, had been carved by John Bacon and bought for £75 (half its original cost) from the Earl of Hardwicke; it was said to be 'not the worse for use'. (fn. 20) (fn. 2) The firm of Eleanor Coade supplied the artificial stone coat of arms on the parapet for 45 guineas, the eight statues for the staircase at 15 guineas each, and 68 whole, and 14 half, balusters (see below). (fn. 21)
Before the Marquis of Buckingham died in 1813 (fn. 11) further alterations were made to the house under Soane's supervision. (fn. 16) The Marquis's son, Richard Temple Nugent Brydges Chandos Grenville (1776–1839), later Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, (fn. 3) shared his father's high esteem of Soane and employed him on several projects. One of these was the repair and redecoration of Buckingham House in 1813–14 at a cost of over £2400. One of the craftsmen employed was Thomas Grundy, who executed a statuary marble chimneypiece costing £40. (fn. 22)
The Duke later found himself in financial difficulties and approached Soane for a considerable loan, offering part of his art collection as security. In 1827 he contemplated selling the house to the Travellers' Club. The club made an offer of £25,000 for the house without the furniture, but Soane valued it, considering 'the improvements now making', at £32,000. (fn. 23) The Duke's son, Richard Plantagenet (1797–1861), who succeeded to the title in 1839, (fn. 11) continued to occupy the house for a few years after his father's death, (fn. 7) but in 1847 he was forced to sell much of his property (fn. 24) including Buckingham House.
The purchaser of the house was Kensington Lewis, of 18 Stratford Place. Lewis proposed to demolish Buckingham House, and in a letter written in November 1847 to the Commissioners of Woods and Forests he described his ideas for the future of the site; 'I shall most likely let the Ground to one of the established Clubs (the old University or Parthenon) who have out grown their present houses', or build 'Club Chambers suitable for the Noblemen and Gentlemen of the adjoining Clubs somewhat on the Plan of that in Regent Street (fn. 4) but very far superior both in point of Architectural elevation as well as Interior arrangement as I consider that a decided failure. . . . I shall most likely copy the elevations of the Treasury if the Commissioners approve of that which I consider one of the handsomest Buildings in London.' (fn. 16)
Despite the warning of their surveyor, James Pennethorne, that Lewis was a speculator who had already erected inferior buildings elsewhere, the Commissioners agreed to grant him a long lease on condition that within seven years he would demolish Buckingham House and erect a club-house or club-chambers. In 1851 Lewis unsuccessfully proposed a number of ingenious uses to which the house might be put during the Great Exhibition, but he was two years behind in the payment of his rent, and he only managed to clear off the arrears by means of a mortgage. (fn. 16)
In 1852 Buckingham House was unsuccessfully put up for auction. (fn. 25) Several clubs, including the Junior United Service, contemplated purchasing it, and in 1854 and 1855 the Carlton Club took up temporary residence there during the rebuilding of its club-house. (fn. 26) In the latter year the Government (in the words of The Builder) 'walked in and swallowed it up', (fn. 27) the Crown lease being transferred to the Commissioners of Works for the benefit of the War Department. (fn. 28)
The War Office continued to occupy Buckingham House until 1906. (fn. 29) The house was demolished in 1908 for the erection of the Royal Automobile Club. (fn. 30)
Some of the fittings from the house were saved. In 1867 the Office of Works had offered £180 for four white marble chimneypieces 'of elaborate workmanship' in Buckingham House which it wished to place in the new Foreign Office. The offer was based on a valuation by a 'competent person' consulted by George Gilbert Scott, the architect for the Foreign Office. An independent estimate made by the British and Foreign Marble Galleries placed their value at £450, but the Office of Works refused to pay as much. (fn. 28) In 1902 the Office of Works again made an offer of £500 for thirteen chimneypieces in the buildings occupied by the War Office in Pall Mall; one of these chimneypieces was in the hall at Buckingham House. The offer was accepted and they were removed to the new War Office building in Whitehall. (fn. 31)
The Soane drawings relating to Buckingham House include one dated 1790 described as a 'Plan of the Old Houses forming the Site of Buckingham House in Pall Mall', and another dated 15 March 1790 (fn. 32) which represents their 'Elevation towards the Street' (Plate 224a, 244b). So far as the eastern house is concerned, the plan (coloured red) corresponds with the elevation which shows a house of approximately mid eighteenth-century date with a simple Palladian front, three storeys high and three windows wide, built, presumably, of brick and sparingly ornamented with a pedestal-course below the first-floor windows and a crowning triangular pediment, dressed with a modillioned cornice and containing an oval window in its tympanum. The plan of the western house (coloured black) bears no relation to the elevation, which shows a three-storeyed house-front of about 1700, possibly refaced in the mid eighteenth century to accord with its neighbour to which, however, it is inferior in scale. This front has a central doorway, with a simple classical doorcase, and five windows somewhat irregularly spaced in each upper storey. Cast shadows suggest that this house was set back from its neighbour, whereas the plan shows a house with a front that adds four bays to that of the eastern house, making a symmetrical seven-bayed front which, in fact, Buckingham House had. It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that the plan is really an early design, perhaps by R. F. Brettingham, for an economical remodelling of the united houses, leaving the eastern more or less intact and rebuilding at least the front part of the western.
In a report on Chandos (i.e., Buckingham) House, dated 14 November 1827, (fn. 16) a surveyor wrote that 'The Elevation towards Pall Mall being uniformly faced with Portland Stone, conveys an impression that the property is of a more substantial quality and more perfectly modelled in regard to strength, levels, light, etc., than is in fact the case, but the number, spaciousness and connection of the principal Apartments of the One Pair Story as well as the ample size of the Eating room and Library on the Ground Floor, give much value to this Residence.' The long-sectional drawing of the staircase (fn. 33) (Plate 226a) confirms this report, showing that the ground-floor level in the partially reconstructed eastern half was about eighteen inches higher than that in the rebuilt western half. The staircase well was, in fact, most ingeniously designed to disguise and reconcile the different floor levels in the eastern and western halves of the building.
Soane's plans (fn. 34) (Plate 225a, 225b), retaining as much as possible of the eastern building, were extremely clever, resulting in a fine sequence of variously shaped rooms quite in the Adam manner. The oval entrance hall, not quite central on the Pall Mall front, opened to the west end of the staircase hall, a flat-sided oval having its long axis parallel with the front. From the staircase hall symmetrically placed doors or lobbies led to all the groundfloor rooms—the large bow-fronted eating-room (south-west), the deep oblong drawing-room (north-west), and library (south-east), and 'Lord Temple's Room' with an adjoining dressing-room (north-east). East of the great staircase, which stopped at the first floor, was the service stair. On the first or principal floor there were no changes of level and all the rooms had communicating doors. The arrangement was very similar to that below, with an ante-room over the entrance hall, serving a shallow oblong drawing-room (north-east) and a deep oblong and segmental-ended drawing-room (north-west), this last communicating with the large bow-fronted drawing-room (south-west). A short passage, following the curve of the staircase well, led past the principal bed-chamber and dressing-room, to the service stair which alone gave access to the upper floors.
The pattern and scale of Soane's new front (Plates 224c, 225c) were doubtless determined by the window openings in the retained eastern house. (fn. 5) His design was, in essence, a conventional Palladian composition carried out in Portland stone, three storeys high and seven windows wide, the piers flanking the middle window being narrower than the rest. The details, however, were more typical of Soane, the mouldings having the precise delicacy of marble-work. The masonry courses of the ground storey were divided by narrow channels, the windows having flat arches with channel-jointed voussoirs. There were three windows evenly spaced on each side of the Doric porch which was composed of two pairs of columns, with plain attenuated shafts and necking mouldings, supporting a triglyphed entablature broken by a large framed tablet, and surmounted by a delicate iron railing, with elongated S-scroll panels between diamond-patterned standards, the design anticipating the staircase railing within the house. The ground storey was finished with a plain bandcourse and the upper face, two storeys high, was of plain ashlar. Each of the seven tall rectangular windows of the principal storey was dressed with a moulded architrave, rising directly from the bandcourse, a plain narrow frieze, and a cornice, the middle window alone having the added ornaments of patera-stops in the frieze and a low-pitched triangular pediment. The chamberstorey windows were square and had moulded architrave-frames, and above the delicately moulded crowning cornice was a balustrade, divided into seven bays by appropriately placed dies. The balusters, which were of Coade stone, were omitted from the middle bay in favour of the Buckingham coat of arms and supporters, also of Coade stone.
The most striking internal feature was the great staircase (Plates 226, 227), which might reasonably be regarded as a Soanic variation on Kent's wonderful staircase in No. 44 Berkeley Square. The plan was very similar—an elongated flat-sided oval compartment in which the stair rose in a single central flight to a landing, and returned in curved and parallel flights to the Ushaped landing-gallery on the first floor, the well following the form of the compartment. The walls of the ground-floor stage were plain, setting off to great advantage the simple elegance of the stair railing, a series of panels formed of elongated S-scrolls, like calligraphy in wrought iron. The straight-sided walls of the principal stage were also plain, as a ground for the doorcase consisting of architrave, narrow frieze and dentilled cornice, framing the tall doorway centrally placed in either side. Each semi-circular end was divided into three equal bays by Ionic plain-shafted columns, the west screen being open to an ante whereas the east screen was closed by an arcaded wall. These columns carried a moulded architrave and a deep frieze finished with a moulded and ornamented band, all these members being continued across the straight side walls. The frieze was adorned with twelve large roundels, modelled in high relief in the style of antique gems. In the attic stage, centred over the four columns in each apse-end, were four Coade stone copies of the Erechtheum caryatid in the British Museum, these supporting a moulded cornice and a deep plain cove surrounding the central lay-light. The wall behind the caryatids was pierced by three low arches, and on each straight side of the attic was a wide opening, its segmental arch intersecting the cove of the ceiling. All of these openings served to light the top-floor gallery, and although Soane had intended to use solid-looking vase balusters in the linking balustrades, economy appears to have forced him to re-use late eighteenth-century turnings instead. The caryatid motif was echoed in each of the large side wall openings, where on plain pedestals stood statues of Grecian female cupbearers, perhaps also of Coade stone. Soane's lecture-diagram (fn. 35) shows the striking effect of this staircase in its original colouring—blue-grey walls and Sienamarbled columns with bronzed capitals and bases. (fn. 6)
The oval entrance hall also had a deep frieze decorated with high-relief roundels, but in general the interior decorations were extremely simple, most of the rooms having merely narrow enriched friezes and ceiling borders of reeding with paterastops. The doors, generally, were divided, each leaf having three equal oblong panels. The library walls were designed as a series of arched recesses, containing the bookshelves, and the deep recess at the west end of the room was flanked by Ionic plain-shafted columns.
The alterations carried out in 1813–14, under Soane's directions, were largely confined to the ground floor, where a large south-east room was formed for the Marchioness, replacing the original library and dressing-room. The bow-fronted eating-room became the library and the front drawing-room was altered, by introducing a screened ante at its south end, to serve as the eating-room.