Soho Square Area: Portland Estate, No. 20 Soho Square

Pages 69-72

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

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No. 20 Soho Square

This site is now occupied by a large office building erected by Messrs. Crosse and Blackwell in 1924–6. The first house here was erected for Thomas Belasyse, second Viscount, and from 1689 first Earl Fauconberg, who was married to Mary, daughter of Oliver Cromwell. Fauconberg had at first occupied a house on the north side of the square, (fn. 2) but he lived at No. 20 from at least 1683 until his death in 1700. (fn. 3) This house had a frontage of sixty-four feet to the square (fn. 4) and its irregular fenestration suggests that it was originally built as two houses, or was converted into one during the course of its construction.

Lord Fauconberg's widow continued to live at No. 20 until her death in March 1712/13, (fn. 5) when the lease passed to his nephew, Sir Thomas Frankland, (fn. 2) to whom in July 1713 the second Earl (later first Duke) of Portland granted a new lease which extended Frankland's interest from 1734 to 1769. The ground rent was £32 per annum, with an annual garden rent of thirty shillings (i.e., three times the usual garden rent paid for the average-sized houses in the square) and in addition Frankland had to pay a fine of £252. (fn. 4)

Sir Thomas Frankland did not live in the house himself, for the ratebooks record Anthony Duncombe as the next occupant, from 1715 to 1741. Richard Child, first Earl Tylney, was the occupant from 1742 to 1750, (fn. 1) though the Russian minister is known to have been living in Earl Tylney's house in 1748. (fn. 6) Arthur Onslow, Speaker of the House of Commons, who moved here from Leicester Street, occupied the house from 1753 to 1761. (fn. 3) In November 1756 the second Duke of Portland granted Onslow an extension of his leasehold interest from 1769 to 1855. Onslow lived here 'in moderate splendour', holding his parliamentary levées, (fn. 7) and entertained there at least once the novelist Samuel Richardson, who according to Dr. Johnson 'used to give large vails to the Speaker Onslow's servants, that they might treat him with respect'. (fn. 8) In 1761 Onslow gave up the speakership. He moved from Fauconberg House to Great Russell Street in order, so it was said, to be near the British Museum, of which he was a trustee. (fn. 7)

Onslow sold the lease of the house to the fourth Duke of Argyll, who lived here from 1762 to 1770. (fn. 3) He probably died in the house, leaving instructions that it was to be sold for the benefit of his younger son. (fn. 9) The purchaser, in June 1771, (fn. 10) was John Grant, son of a Scottish judge, Patrick Lord Elchies, and himself a Baron of the Scottish Exchequer, which office and title he combined with the ownership of extensive sugar plantations in Grenada. (fn. 11) It was no doubt with the profits of the latter that he was able to absent himself both from the rigours of Scots law and the debilitations of the West Indian climate and to establish himself in a large mansion in Soho Square.

Soon after purchasing the house Grant employed a fellow Scot, Robert Adam, to embellish the façade and to redecorate and replan the interior. A number of Adam's drawings, dated 1771 or 1772, are in Sir John Soane's Museum, (fn. 12) but some of his proposals were never executed. Grant evidently became concerned over the probable expense of his architect's schemes and endeavoured to simplify some of Adam's plans. In March 1772 he wrote to Adam to settle the matter of the position of the front door, then still in the southernmost bay of the house. Writing in the third person Grant told Adam that 'After seeing him he canvassed and varied the Scheme he proposed to him yesterday of changing the entry to his house a hundred different ways, and found them all attended with so many objections and inconveniencies, and productive of so little advantage in proportion to the expence they would occassion, that he has resolved to adhere precisely to Mr Adams's original plan for beautifying the Front, which he thinks himself obliged to communicate to Mr Adams [sic] as soon as possible to prevent his having the trouble of making a design for the new Porch'. (fn. 13)

Despite these economies Grant had to mortgage the house in March 1773, (fn. 14) and in 1773–4 he moved away, first to Greek Street, later to Dean Street and finally to Grenada, where he died in 1777. (fn. 15)

Architectural Description

The north and south prospects of Soho Square, delineated respectively by Sutton Nicholls and an unknown artist (Plate 68), afford trustworthy evidence bearing on the appearance of the late seventeenth-century Fauconberg House, evidence that is confirmed and supplemented by a scale drawing of the front prepared in connexion with the Adam remodelling of the building in the 1770's (fn. 16) (Plate 88a). Although basically similar to the contemporaneous houses in the square, it was larger than most, and slightly superior in scale and height, sharing these attributes with its neighbours, Nos. 21 and the two houses to the south of Sutton Row. Another feature that these houses had in common was a pitched roof hipped at the party walls and rising to a leaded flat, surrounded by a balustrade.

The Adam drawing is probably an exact delineation of the front as it existed in the early 1770's, apparently very little changed since its original building. Three storeys high and seven windows wide, it was simply designed and typical of its time, being executed in brick and dressed with stone. This was used for the long-and-short quoins at each end of the front, for the plain keystones of the flat gauged brick arches to the windows, and for the storey bandcourses. A projecting brick plinth, containing the heads of the basement windows, extended below the ground storey, which was about eleven feet high. The first floor was thirteen feet nine inches between the bandcourses, and the second floor was eleven feet one inch in height to the eaves cornice. The five windows to the north were spaced with fair regularity, having piers of about three feet between them, but the two at the south end were more widely separated by piers over five feet wide. The roof, pitched at about forty-five degrees, rose from a wooden eaves-cornice having enriched bracket modillions. The five evenly spaced dormers were originally finished with triangular pediments, and the plain blocking above the roof must have supported the wooden balustrade surrounding the lead flat. The Adam drawing shows the plain window openings furnished with exposed box-frames having slightly cambered heads, but the sashes are omitted. The entrance doorway at the south end of the front was originally finished with a segmental-pedimented doorcase, but is shown here with a mid eighteenth-century porch of Doric columns, raised on plain pedestals and supporting entablature-blocks below an open triangular pedimenthood, the doorway being arched and furnished with a radial fanlight.

The fashionable dress with which Adam transformed this front was tailored with his usual skill to disguise its age and the irregular spacing of the windows, which obviously precluded the creation of a central feature (Plates 88b, 92). Doubtless the material he used was the Adams' own production, Liardet's stone-paste. He strengthened the ground storey by giving it a rusticated face of twelve courses, with chamfered horizontal and vertical joints. The eight piers of the two-storeyed upper face were dressed with a giant order of pilasters, their plain shafts rising from plain pedestals and having enriched Ionic capitals, instead of the Corinthian originally intended. Iron balconies of segmental plan, placed in front of the lengthened first-floor windows, linked the pilaster pedestals, and a guilloche band marking the second floor extended between their shafts. The crowning entablature was composed of a moulded architrave, a frieze enriched with paterae spaced at equal intervals, and a modillioned cornice. A tall balustrade helped to conceal the dormers and reduce the effective height of the original roof. The entrance at the southern end of the front was intended to have a handsome Doric porch of three bays, the wide middle one surmounted by a triangular pediment, but it is fairly evident that this work was not executed.

The Adam plans of the ground and first floors (fn. 17) (Plate 89) seem to support the suggestion, made above, that Fauconberg House might have been begun as two houses, the northern one considerably wider and slightly deeper than the southern. The completed building had a front range of rooms, separated by a wall containing chimneystacks from a back range consisting of one room on either side of the principal and secondary staircases. As arranged by Adam, the front rooms were the entrance hall (south), the staircase lobby (centre) and the dining-room (north). East of the entrance hall was an oval back parlour; the lobby opened directly to the principal staircase; and from the dining-room, doors led to the service stair and to a dressing-room, with a closet-wing beyond. Except for the oval parlour, all the rooms were square or oblong in plan. On the first floor, however, Adam indulged his predilection for variously shaped rooms. The large front drawing-room to the north had an apse at each end of the three-windowed oblong centre, and the north-east bedroom had an apsed recess for the bed. The small front drawing-room to the south was square, but the ante-room on its east side was oval.

On the extensive ground at the back of the house, Adam proposed building a two-storeyed range of stables and coach-houses, fronting to Sutton Place (now Falconberg Mews) and linked to the north-east rooms of the house by a long library on the ground floor, and a gallery above, these apartments leading to hot and cold bathrooms in the stable range. The arcaded inner walls of these ranges, and a matching wall of niched arches on the south, were designed to enclose an almost square garden, laid out with paths framing a central circle of four segments within four spandrels. These extensive additions were not, however, carried out.

Volume 12 of the Adam drawings in Sir John Soane's Museum contains eight designs, Nos. 104–11, for the ceilings at this house, all of them geometrical compositions in the mature Adam manner, with grotesque and arabesque plaster ornament framing painted medallions. Nos. 104 and 105 are alternative designs, probably for the dining-room, based on a large oval panel fringed with festoons and pendants of drapery. No. 104, which is uncoloured, shows the oval panel containing an inner oval of husks surrounding a Maltese cross, its arms extending from a foliated boss. In No. 105 this cross is replaced by a quatrefoil, its lobes formed by husk-festoons. The colours proposed for this design are light pink and green, with strong notes of blue and white in the painted medallions. No. 106 is a design for the oval parlour, a delicate composition with a concave-sided square medallion set diagonally in a larger square having rounded corners and a wreathed medallion projecting from each side. This ceiling has a pale green ground with white ornament and Etruscan pink medallions. No. 107, an uncoloured design for the staircase ceiling, shows a circular panel surrounding a central rose, the panel frame being linked diagonally by medallions to four quadrant motifs, all contained within a square that is placed between two oblong panels, each decorated with foliage scrolls flanking a tripod urn. No. 108 (Plate 90b) is the design executed for the ceiling of the great apse-ended drawing-room, having the ornament contained in a large oblong panel and two lunettes. The latter have a fan-like arrangement of a small lunette, modelled with a tripod between nymphs, and two concentric bands, the inner plain and the outer resembling a ring of niches containing urns. Guilloche bands divide the large oblong into a geometrical arrangement of smaller panels, three oblongs at each end of a square. This square is divided by the guilloche band to form four spandrels, each ornamented with griffins flanking a tripod urn, diagonally placed, and between the spandrels are four tripod urns of different design, linked by husk-festoons fringing a central medallion. The ground colours, pale green, pink and white, are enlivened with touches of purple, Venetian red and gold. No. 109 (Plate 90a) was executed for the south drawing-room, a large square panel framing segmental mouldings that form a lunette on each side and a quadrant in each corner. The lunettes are linked by small medallion motifs to a circular band of anthemion, enclosing two concentric bands, the outer having a ring of small paterae on a plain ground, and the inner composed of fan ornament, surrounding a painted medallion. The lunettes and quadrants are linked by the reversed curves formed by large festoons of husks, and in the diagonal spaces formed by the conjunction of the curved shapes are concave-sided oblong panels modelled with sphinxes. The ground colours are parchment, pale green and pink, with strong notes of pink and blue. This ceiling, with some added painting in the Jacobean taste, can be seen in a watercolour view of the room by J. P. Emslie, (fn. 18) which also shows one of the two chimneypieces for which Adam drawings survive. (fn. 19) This chimneypiece of wood and compo, with a moulded architrave of marble, appears to be identical with the one designed for 'the dressing room', having short fluted pilasters with female masks below scroll-consoles supporting frieze-blocks ornamented with paterae, and a dentilled cornice-shelf extending above a recessed frieze of circles containing urns and honeysuckle flowers. The Adam design for the eating-room chimneypiece is basically similar, but has a frieze decoration of ewers between wreathed bacchante masks.

Both Angelica Kauffmann and Biagio Rebecca are said to have been employed in painting some of the ceilings. (fn. 20) At some time before 1906 Mr. Blackwell, whose firm then occupied Fauconberg House, removed four painted roundels to his house at Bushey, Hertfordshire. Photographs of these roundels are reproduced on Plate 91.

Later History

After Grant's removal in 1774 the house stood empty for ten years, probably because of the declining importance of Soho Square as a place of fashionable residence. In 1784 Grant's executors sub-let the house to John Wright, victualler, to whom, in 1803, they sold the Duke of Portland's lease for £3,150. (fn. 21) Fauconberg House now became known as 'Wright's Hotel and Coffeehouse' (described in 1803 as 'A genteel house') (fn. 22) but had degenerated by 1809, after John Wright's day, to the 'Crown Coffee House and Tavern'. (fn. 23) In 1810 a firm of musical-instrument makers and music sellers (Goulding, D'Almaine, Potter and Company, later D'Almaine and Company) moved into the house and remained until 1857. (fn. 24)

In 1858 No. 20 Soho Square was taken over as additional accommodation by Messrs. Crosse and Blackwell, who already occupied the adjoining No. 21. This firm had been founded in 1830 by Edmund Crosse and Thomas Blackwell at No. 11 King Street (later part of the site of the Shaftesbury Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue), in premises previously occupied for many years by Messrs. West and Wyatt, oilmen and salters. Crosse and Blackwell, who described themselves in the directories as oilmen or as Italian warehousemen, retained No. 11 King Street until 1860, but in 1838–40 they acquired other premises at No. 21 Soho Square, and in 1858 the adjoining No. 20 as well. (fn. 24) These two houses were gradually adapted and enlarged to meet the requirements of the rapidly expanding business. A jam and pickle factory occupied the back premises, with frontages to Sutton Row on the south and Falconberg Mews on the east, while the two houses fronting the square were used as offices and bottling rooms, one of the principal rooms at No. 20 being the export labelling department. At some time during the mid-Victorian period one of the partners' rooms was elaborately redecorated with a carved chimneypiece of monumental proportions and a ceiling lavishly ornamented with heraldic motifs, including the arms of Edward the Confessor, King John, Edward I, Mortimer, Howard, Beaufort and Richmond. (fn. 25)

In 1924 No. 20 Soho Square was demolished to make way for a new office block erected for Messrs. Crosse and Blackwell by the architects Messrs. Ernest M. Joseph (fig. 5). The new building was probably completed and occupied early in 1926. (fn. 26) It has eight storeys, the top one in a mansard roof. The Portland stone front is on a larger scale than any other in the square. An Ionic colonnade extends across the ground and first storeys and the sixth storey is treated as a frieze with a large cornice above.


  • 1. John Timbs, writing in 1855, stated that this house was rebuilt for Earl Tylney by Colin Campbell. As Campbell died in 1729, some thirteen years before Earl Tylney's residence in Soho Square began, this statement is wrong. Campbell did, however, design Wanstead House, Essex, for Tylney, and this may account for the confusion.
  • 2. P.C.C., 87 Dyer.
  • 3. R.B.
  • 4. Nottingham University, Portland MSS., Soho lease book.
  • 5. R.B.; G.E.C.
  • 6. Nottingham University, Portland MSS., Soho Square bundle.
  • 7. C. E. Vulliamy, The Onslow Family, 1953, p. 127.
  • 8. Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill, revised by L. F. Powell, vol. V, 1950, p. 396.
  • 9. P.C.C., 387 Jenner.
  • 10. M.L.R. 1771/3/426.
  • 11. Letters of Patrick Grant, Lord Elchies, ed. H. D. Macmillan, 1927, p. 27; D.N.B.
  • 12. Soane Museum, Adam drawings, vol. 12, nos. 104–11; vol. 17, nos. 179–80; vol. 22, nos. 293–4; vol. 42, nos. 48–53; vol. 53, nos. 16–17.
  • 13. G.L.R.O., Q/Wil/186.
  • 14. M.L.R. 1773/2/196.
  • 15. P.C.C., 17 Hay; R.B.
  • 16. Soane Museum, Adam drawings, vol. 42, no. 49.
  • 17. Ibid., Adam drawings, vol. 42, nos. 52–3.
  • 18. In the collection of the G.L.C.
  • 19. Soane Museum, Adam drawings, vol. 22, nos. 293–4.
  • 20. Timbs, loc. cit.; Notes and Queries, First Series, vol. II, 1850, p. 227.
  • 21. M.L.R. 1804/4/535; R.B.
  • 22. The Picture of London for 1803, p. 356.
  • 23. Bryant Lillywhite, London Coffee Houses, 1963, p. 186.
  • 24. R.B.; P.O.D.
  • 25. The Square Magazine: The Magazine of the House of Crosse and Blackwell, Feb. 1920 (copy in G.L.C. Historic Buildings Section).
  • 26. The Architect, 23 Oct. 1925, p. 287.
  • 27. John Timbs, Curiosities of London, 1855, p. 685.