Soho Square Area: Portland Estate, Nos. 31-32 Soho Square, Twentieth Century House

Pages 115-121

Survey of London: Volumes 33 and 34, St Anne Soho. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1966.

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Nos. 31–32 Soho Square: Twentieth Century House

Twentieth Century House was erected in 1936–7 from the designs of the architect Gordon Jeeves (fn. 3) for the Twentieth Century-Fox Film Company. The elevations are of red brick and artificial stone in the Neo-Georgian manner. There are five storeys and another lit by dormers in the roof (Plate 71c).

Figure 29:

No. 31 Soho Square, plan in 1690: No. 32 Soho Square, plan in 1913

Twentieth Century House occupies the site of three old houses, Nos. 31 and 32 Soho Square and No. 67 Frith Street. Both the first and last of these houses had originally formed part of a large corner mansion built between 1677 and 1680 which also extended over the adjoining site of the present No. 65–66 Frith Street. The former No. 32 Soho Square had a separate history (see below).

No. 31

This site had a frontage of 48 feet to Soho Square and about 110 feet to Frith Street. In June 1680 Richard Frith and William Pym leased the 'great messuage' there to Cadogan Thomas of Lambeth, timber merchant, for fortynine years at a ground rent of £20 per annum with an additional rent of ten shillings a year for the upkeep of the garden, rails and fountain in the centre of the square. The house may still have been unfinished, but in this instance the lease granted to Thomas did not include the usual peppercorn rent for the first year. (fn. 4)

The ground plan of this house (fig. 29) drawn on a conveyance of the property in 1690 (fn. 5), shows it to have been built with two ranges of rooms extending from north to south, parallel with Frith Street, the back range broken in the centre by a large area open to the garden on the west. The rooms were arranged in two groups, separated by a pair of closets, suggesting that the building was planned for an easy conversion into two houses. On the ground storey, the southern part contained a front hall, a front room with a closet adjoining, and a large back room on the north side of the dog-legged staircase. The back range of the northern part contained a square hall entered from Soho Square and leading to a spacious open-well staircase, and in the front range were two large rooms, separated by a closet and a service stair.

As the parish ratebooks for most of the 1680's are missing it has been impossible to discover when the house was first occupied, but in June 1690 the creditors of Benjamin Hinton, to whom Cadogan Thomas had mortgaged the property in September 1680, assigned the lease to Paulet St. John, third Earl of Bolingbroke, for £1,800. Lord Bolingbroke lived here until 1705, when he sold the house to Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell for the sum of £2,257, which probably indicates that he had embellished the house during his period of residence. (fn. 5)

Sir Clowdisley Shovell retained the house until his death in 1707. His widow then divided it into two separate dwellings, both still of considerable size. The northern half of Frith's original mansion later became known as No. 31 Soho Square and, though subsequently much altered, it survived until its demolition in 1936; the southern half in Frith Street had a similar though separate history. The two parts of the one old house were occupied separately and intermittently by Lady Shovell until her death in 1732, by her daughter Elizabeth and the latter's first and second husbands, the Lords Romney and Hyndford. From about 1744 to 1747 one or both parts of the original mansion was occupied by the Venetian envoy, and part of the curtilage, which extended back to Dean Street, was fitted up as a Roman Catholic chapel for his use (see page 131). A later occupant of the house fronting Soho Square (No. 31) was the portrait painter, Allan Ramsay, who lived here from 1761 to 1767. Part of the house in Frith Street was occupied from 1770 to 1772 by another artist, Johann Zoffany. (fn. 6)

The ratebooks indicate that between 1768 and 1778 both parts of the original old building were partially rebuilt and improved. During this time the portion fronting Frith Street, still a building of considerable size, was further subdivided into three, to provide one large house to the north (No. 67 Frith Street, demolished together with No. 31 Soho Square in 1936 for the erection of Twentieth Century House) and two smaller houses to the south (now demolished, on the site of the present No. 65–66 Frith Street). (fn. 6)

A comparison of the view of the house shown in the aquatint of the west side of the square in about 1816 (Frontispiece) and in Tallis's view of 1838–40 (fig. 6) shows that the rusticated ground storey and the stucco embellishments of the windows, seen on Plates 70b and 95b, were later additions. The elegant porch of Ionic columns, plain shafted, supporting an open pedimenthood, was presumably added when the house was altered in the 1770's.

A drawing by Hanslip Fletcher (Plate 96a) shows one of the principal rooms, with its walls panelled in two heights, the chair-rail, panel mouldings, and dentilled cornice being enriched with carving. The fine Palladian chimneypiece, possibly an importation, had tapered jambs carved with floral pendants below the scrolled trusses supporting the frieze, which was carved with floral festoons flanking an Aurora-head tablet, and the dentilled cornice-shelf.

No. 32

This site has now lost its separate identity and since 1936–7 has formed part of that of Twentieth Century House (Nos. 31–32 Soho Square).

By June 1680 Richard Frith and William Pym had leased this house, the southernmost on the west side of the square, to Thomas Pitcher, (fn. 7) citizen and fishmonger, (fn. 8) probably identifiable with Thomas Pitcher of Deptford who supplied Frith with tiles. (fn. 9) The house was then probably only partly finished, and its first known occupant was Thomas Mansell, who moved here from Gerrard Street in 1691–2. Mansell was the head of a prominent family in South Wales. He was an active Tory politician and was created Baron Mansell of Margam in 1711/12. In 1719 he handed over the house in Soho Square to his eldest son Robert, who in the previous year had married a daughter of Lady Shovell, their neighbour at No. 31. After Robert's death in 1723, the house was occupied by his brother Bussy (later fourth Baron Mansell) until 1729. (fn. 10)

The succeeding tenant of No. 32 in 1730–1 was the Duke of Ripperda, a Dutch adventurer who, after rising to become chief minister to the King of Spain, fled to England in disgrace in 1728. At first he is said to have lived unostentatiously in London but feeling more secure moved to 'a fine house in Soho-Square which he furnish'd very handsomely'. In 1731 he left the country and finally settled in Morocco. There he became a Mohammedan, rose to a command in the Moorish army and died at Tetuan in 1737. (fn. 11)

A later occupant was John Cleland, possibly the author of Fanny Hill, who lived at No. 32 in 1771–2. (fn. 6)

After standing empty for two years, the house was rebuilt for Sir George Colebrooke, a city banker, between 1773 and 1775. The architect is unknown but may have been Sir Robert Taylor, who worked for Colebrooke at Arnos Grove in Middlesex at some time before 1777. (fn. 12)

During these years, Sir George Colebrooke's bank in Threadneedle Street was in difficulties. (fn. 13) The erection of this new house in Soho Square and the decoration of its fine interior no doubt increased his financial embarrassments and in 1776 or 1777 he sold No. 32 to (Sir) Joseph Banks. (fn. 6)

Architectural Description

No. 32 Soho Square was a large L-shaped house with a deceptively narrow frontage of eighteen feet to the west side of the square, the building extending thirty-three feet southwards against the side of No. 31 on the south side (fig. 29). (fn. 1) An east-west wall divided the building into a northern and a southern range, respectively fifty-six and thirty-one feet in depth. The plan was arranged on simple lines, and the absence of variously shaped rooms makes it seem unlikely that the Adams were concerned with the building, as has been suggested by several writers. The front door opened directly to a large oblong hall in the front part of the northern range. Doors in the west wall of this hall gave access to the principal and service staircases and the two rooms beyond, one a dining-room with three windows looking south into a garden court, the other an ante-room or study with two windows in its west wall. There were two rooms in the south range, the narrow and ill-lit east one probably serving as a porter's room, the west one having a screened recess on its east side and two windows looking west into the court. The principal staircase was top-lit through a domed skylight, and the stairs ascended against the east, north and west walls to arrive at an L-shaped landing on the first floor, with doors opening south to the large drawing-room, east to the smaller drawing-room overlooking the square, north to the service staircase, and west to a bedchamber and dressing-room.

The front was an arresting composition with an ingenious arrangement of three-light windows. In the stucco-faced ground storey was a wide opening with plain piers supporting a semi-elliptical arch, formed with flush and slightly projecting voussoirs alternately. Within the arch was a three-bay screen of columns and antae, having plain shafts and Tower-of-the-Winds capitals, supporting a guilloche-banded transom. The wide middle bay contained the six-panelled door of two leaves, in each side bay was a small sash window, and in the tympanum was a radial fanlight of three concentric rings. The upper face was constructed as a wide and lofty arch of plain brickwork, with an enriched impost of stone or stucco. Inside this arch was an elaborate screen of woodwork, framing two windows of three lights, wide between narrow. The lower window had lights of equal height divided by columns and antae of an Ionic order, the plain and attenuated shafts rising from tall pedestals, originally flanking panelled aprons, and the capitals having leaf ornamentation above the necking. The entablature of this window consisted of a plain frieze and a delicately detailed modillioned cornice. The Venetian window above had more normally proportioned columns of a Composite order, also placed on tall pedestals projecting between apron panels enriched with palm branches and wreathed paterae. The entablature over the side-lights had a frieze enrichment of fluting between paterae, and was continued to form the impost of the brick enclosing arch. The middle light of the window was arched, its moulded archivolt being concentric with the enclosing arch. The late Arthur Bolton conjectured that this front was originally finished with a cornice just above the brick arch, but at some time the wall had been heightened to allow for an attic storey half-window, which was supplemented later by another half-window cut into the fan-shaped tympanum of brick above the Venetian window.

From the evidence of measured drawings and photographs of the interior, (fn. 14) it would seem that Bolton was mistaken in attributing the work to the Adams. On the contrary, the decorative work strongly supports the attribution to Sir Robert Taylor, suggested above in the historical account of the building. The hall was quite simply decorated, the plastered walls having large panels within laurel-banded frames, arranged above the plain dado. The doorcases were composed of moulded architraves surmounted by fluted friezes and mutuled cornices; the elliptically arched screen containing the front door was dressed with a plain Doric order; and the fireplace centred in the south wall had a chimneypiece with Ionic plainshafted columns supporting a plain entablature. A mutuled cornice surrounded the plain ceiling. In the south back room the chief feature was the screen to the recess, the columns and antae having fluted shafts and fanciful Corinthian capitals. A narrow frieze, enriched with urns between paterae, and a simple cornice surrounded the plain ceiling. The cornice decoration was repeated in the frieze of the wood and compo chimneypiece, where it was broken by a central tablet having a wreathed vase between festoons, below an enriched cornice-shelf. In his article in Country Life, Arthur Bolton mentions the glass domed light above the well of the principal staircase, the latter being constructed of stone, and he notes a wood chimneypiece in the groundfloor back room, having a fluted frieze with a central medallion and swag. In the same article, the front drawing-room (Plate 97a) is described as having a ceiling 'cleverly set out with a radiating centre-piece in low relief plaster-work'. (fn. 15) Photographs (fn. 16) show that the walls had a plain dado with an enriched chair-rail, the upper face being finished with a delicate cornice above a narrow frieze composed of paterae set in a guilloche of interlacing ribbons. The ceiling had a radial arrangement of husk and flower pendants, linked by husk-festoons and set in a large circular frame within a square, this being flanked north and south by three narrow oblong panels of arabesque ornament. The east wall contained the large three-light window overlooking the square, the shutter casings being faced with attenuated pilasters having fluted shafts and enriched Ionic capitals. The chimney-breast centred in the south wall was flanked by shallow recesses containing arch-headed cupboards, each having a plain door in the dado, below a mirrored door and a cobweb fanlight, the latter framed by a moulded archivolt rising from an enriched impost resting on fluted Ionic pilasters. The white marble chimneypiece (Plate 129b), now in the Royal Society's apartments at Burlington House, has narrow pilasters with fluted shafts and acanthus-leaf capitals, supporting a frieze decorated with fluting between patera-stops and a central tablet carved with a festooned tazza. The corniceshelf is enriched with egg-and-dart ornament below the corona.

The finest and best recorded room was the great south drawing-room (Plate 97b). This lofty apartment had two tall arch-headed windows in its west wall, and central in the south wall was a splendid chimneypiece of inlaid marble, a classical composition with fluted Ionic columns supporting an entablature, its architrave fluted and its frieze decorated with inlaid marble fluting, flanked by stops with oval paterae and broken centrally by a framed tablet of green and white Wedgwood jasper ware (Plate 129a). (fn. 2) The walls were plain but for an enriched dado-rail and a plaster entablature, composed of a frieze of pedestal-urns between anthemion ornaments, and an enriched cornice. The ceiling was a shallow saucer dome of oval plan, resting on pendentives rising from the entablature and forming a segmental tympanum on each wall (Plate 131c). These elements were enriched with low-relief plasterwork, each tympanum containing a wreathed circular panel flanked by putti, their bodies emerging from spreading tails of acanthus scroll-work. Vine-wreathed bosses were placed in the sunk panels of the pendentives, which were framed, like the oval saucer dome, with guilloche bands. Crescent-shapes, decorated with interlacing laurel branches, effected a transition from the oval frame to a circular panel containing two concentric rings of fan ornament with enriched borders.

Later History

No. 32 was bought from Sir George Colebrooke by (Sir) Joseph Banks in 1776 or 1777. Although still only a young man, Banks had already won a great reputation as a naturalist and traveller through his voyage to the South Sea Islands and the Antipodes with Captain Cook in 1768–71. On his return he lived for some years in New Burlington Street and moved to Soho Square in August 1777, where the house became the centre of his ceaseless scientific activities. It was here that he held his philosophical breakfasts or 'literary Saturnalia' which were frequented by the intellectual society of London. (fn. 17) These gatherings were not always so distinguished, for in March 1791 Horace Walpole related that at one of these occasions a Parisian watchmaker had 'produced the smallest automaton that I suppose was ever created [a singing bird springing out of a snuff box] … That economist, the Prince of Wales, could not resist it, and has bought one'. (fn. 18) When (Sir) Charles Bell, later resident at No. 34, breakfasted there in 1804 he found that his host 'has a set of most absurd animals about him —living animals—German and French toadeaters'. (fn. 19)

Every year Banks and his wife and sister 'departed [from Soho Square] . . . with the punctuality of migrating birds' for his Lincolnshire estates or to the family's suburban house at Heston in Middlesex. (fn. 20) His great library and natural history collections remained permanently housed in the back premises of No. 32 Soho Square overlooking Dean Street, and it was probably the ample accommodation provided for these that made Banks retain the house long after the fashionable world had deserted Soho Square for newer houses in Mayfair and beyond. He evidently disdained both fashion and modern comforts, for the contemporary diarist and traveller, John Byng, after condemning Revesby, Banks's Lincolnshire seat, as mean, uncomfortable and dismal, added 'but when a man sets himself up for a wild eccentric character and (having a great estate with the comforts of England at command) can voyage to Otaheite [Tahiti] and can reside in a corner house in Soho-Square, of course his country seat will be a filthy and neglected spot'. (fn. 21)

The domestic peace which Banks enjoyed in Soho Square was rudely shattered in March 1815 when an attack was made on his house by rioters demonstrating against the Corn Bill then before Parliament designed to protect the landed interest against the importation of cheap foreign corn. (fn. 22) Banks described to a correspondent how 'the windows and doors of my house and the hall-table and chairs was all they destroyed. They dared not enter the house as those inside must have been caught, when the soldiers came, and hanged them as burglars. The papers they threw about were old letters of no possible value, but of these the greater part have been picked up and returned to me. Nothing could behave better and few persons so nobly as Lady B and my Sister. They sat by me without any expression of extravagant fear till the door was burst open. I then requested them to retire which they did but not out of the house'. (fn. 23)

There is no indication that Sir Joseph Banks carried out any extensive redecoration of No. 32 after buying it from Sir George Colebrooke. Some surviving accounts for his household in Soho Square for the years 1785 to 1790, now in the Sutro Library, San Francisco, contain a number of references to money paid to various building tradesmen for repairs to the house. Their bills for the year 1785 were larger than usual and may be for work on Banks's library buildings at the back of No. 32. The tradesmen employed on this and other work during these years include George Grundy, bricklayer, George Soward and Sons, masons, Thomas Allen and William Bond, plumbers, Richard Can, glazier, Francis Danby and Alexander Redford, carpenters, Edward Webb, blacksmith, W. and J. Rothwell, plasterers, and William Lewen, painter. (fn. 24)

Sir Joseph Banks died at his house at Heston in June 1820, (fn. 25) leaving to his 'indefatigable and intelligent Librarian Robert Brown Esquire . . . the use and enjoyment during his life of my Library Herberium, Manuscripts, Drawings, Copper plates, Engravings and everything else that is contained in my Collections usually kept in the back buildings of my house in Kings otherwise Soho Square and fronting on Dean Street … upon this express Condition that he continues to use my Library as his Chief Place of Study in the same manner as he now does and that he assists the Superintendent of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew as he also now does and continues to reside in London and does not undertake any new charge that may occupy his time'. On Brown's death these collections were to pass to the British Museum. There was, however, another provision in the will allowing Brown to surrender the collection to the Museum in his lifetime (as he later did). Brown was also left the reversion of the lease and contents of the house in Soho Square after Lady Banks's death, and Sir Joseph added that 'it is my will that so long as my said wife shall continue to inhabit the said house she shall supply the said Robert Brown with firing, candles, cleansing, attendance of Servants and such other easements as the Library now receives from the other part of the house'. (fn. 26)

Lady Banks died shortly after her husband, and the lease of No. 32 Soho Square passed to Brown, who had been the librarian and curator there since 1810. He retained the back portion of the house, which fronted on to Dean Street and contained the library, museum and his own living quarters, until his death in 1858, but in 1827 he presented Banks's books and specimens to the British Museum. (fn. 27) In 1822 he leased the main portion of the house fronting on to Soho Square to the Linnean Society at a rent of £140 per annum. (fn. 28)

The first meeting of the Linnean Society at No. 32 Soho Square took place on 24 May 1821 and £130 was spent on alterations and new furniture. This sum included £69 paid to John Pryer, carpenter, £58 to Messrs. Pryer and Mackenzie, upholsterers, and £2 to Messrs. I. and G. Trollope, paper-hangers. On Pryer's bill there is an item of £26 9s. 8d. for 'Taking down closets, taking old seats to pieces, glueing up do. to make shelves'. (fn. 29)

In 1851 Robert Brown's lease of the building expired. The Linnean Society, which still occupied the front portion of the house, took a headlease directly from the freeholder for a further twenty-one years and sub-let the back buildings to Brown. These rooms now comprised a dwelling house, private museum, outbuildings and yard, numbered No. 17 Dean Street. (fn. 30)

After the Government had purchased Burlington House in October 1854 the Linnean Society was offered accommodation there and the house in Soho Square was vacated in 1857. (fn. 31) The Dental Hospital of London was here from 1860 to 1873, when it removed to Nos. 40–41 Leicester Square. It was succeeded by the newly founded hospital subsequently known as the National Hospital for Diseases of the Heart and Paralysis, which occupied No. 32 from 1874 until 1913, when it moved to a new building in Westmorland Street, St. Marylebone. (fn. 32)

From 1915 to 1937 the house was occupied by Thornton-Smith Limited, antique furniture dealers and interior decorators, but it was demolished in the latter year to make way for Twentieth Century House. The Royal Society acquired one chimneypiece for its association with Banks, who had been President of the Society, and installed it in the Society's rooms at Burlington House. (fn. 33) The Royal Institution of Great Britain, whose first meeting had been held under Banks's chairmanship at No. 32 Soho Square in 1799, acquired the chimneypiece from the south drawing-room and installed it in the Institution's premises in Albemarle Street. (fn. 34)


  • 1. The line of division between the two houses as shown on the Ordnance Survey map of 1869–74 (Plate ) is probably wrong, and was corrected on the edition of 1895.
  • 2. This chimneypiece is now in the rooms of the Royal Institution of Great Britain in Albemarle Street.
  • 3. T.P. 11688; P.O.D.
  • 4. P.R.O., KB27/2040/1186; G.L.R.O., Harben deeds C 181.
  • 5. G.L.R.O., Harben deeds C181.
  • 6. R.B.
  • 7. Ibid., KB27/2040/1186.
  • 8. P.R.O., C10/514/98.
  • 9. Guildhall Library, MS. 3047/2 and 3.
  • 10. R.B.; G.E.C.
  • 11. Memoirs of the Duke of Ripperda, 1740, pp. 243–4, 253; Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed.
  • 12. R.B.; Colvin.
  • 13. F. G. Hilton Price, A Handbook of London Bankers, 1890–1, pp. 41–2.
  • 14. See Country Life, 27 Sept. 1913, Supplement, pp. 7*–13*; M. Jourdain, English Decoration and Furniture of the later XVIIIth Century, 1922, pp. 33, 112; M. Jourdain, English Interiors in Smaller Houses from the Restoration to the Regency, 1660–1830, 1923, p. 65.
  • 15. Country Life, 27 Sept. 1913, Supplement, pp. 7*–13*.
  • 16. In the possession of the G.L.C.; see also Jourdain, English Interiors in Smaller Houses, etc., p. 65.
  • 17. H.C. Cameron, Sir Joseph Banks, 1952, pp. 254, 259; Survey of London, vol. XXXII, 1963, p. 568; R.B.
  • 18. The Letters of Horace Walpole, ed. Mrs. Paget Toynbee, vol. XIV, 1905, p. 386.
  • 19. The Letters of Sir Charles Bell, 1870, p. 21.
  • 20. Cameron, op. cit., pp. 263–4.
  • 21. The Torrington Diaries, ed. C. B. Andrews, vol. II, 1935, p. 376.
  • 22. The Gentleman's Magazine, 1815, part I, p. 272.
  • 23. Cameron, op. cit., p. 269.
  • 24. Sutro Library, San Francisco, Banks MSS., HE 1–5.
  • 25. D.N.B.
  • 26. P.C.C., 510 Kent.
  • 27. R.B.; D.N.B.
  • 28. Archives of the Linnean Society.
  • 29. Ibid.; A. T. Gage, A History of the Linnean Society of London, 1938, p. 27.
  • 30. Law Reports, Queen's Bench, 1854, vol. III, pp. 793–807.
  • 31. Gage, op. cit., pp. 50–1.
  • 32. Annual Report of the National Hospital for Diseases of the Heart and Paralysis, 1910, pp. 18–19; 1913, p. II; R.B.; P.O.D.
  • 33. The Sunday Times, 14 Feb. 1937.
  • 34. The Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, vol. XXX, part II, no. 141.