You may have never heard of Pitzhanger Manor, but you will now. Following a three-year, £12 million renovation and restoration project, this London gem in Ealing is striking a Regency pose, ready to make your acquaintance. Designed in 1800 by the neo-classical starchitect, John Soane, the manor is re-born like a phoenix rising from its ashes, whilst next door, the sculptor magician Anish Kapoor has taken over the Pitzhanger Gallery with his own shimmering take on a hall of mirrors.
John Soane the Builder
Born in 1753, Soane was the son of a Berkshire bricklayer. Aged 15, he became apprenticed to the leading neo-classical architect George Dance the Younger, and later, would work for Henry Holland. He went on to study Architecture at the Royal Academy of Arts and armed with a scholarship, went on a two-year Grand Tour, the bulk of which was in Italy.
By the time the 51-year-old Soane bought Pitzhanger Manor in 1800, he was Britain’s greatest architect. He had already purchased one of the three buildings in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, destined to become a crackerjack national legacy, the Soane Museum. But in 1800, he was dreaming of owning an Italian-style country estate. Soane paid £4,500 for the manor and its 28-acre grounds (now Walpole Park).
Soane had worked as an apprentice on the original house when he was under the tutelage of his mentor, Dance. He retained the west wing of the Dance house, which now houses the Upper Drawing Room and Eating Room, but he demolished the rest. The result was a flashy showcase of his architectural prowess, a swanky show home where he could tour his London clients and entertain friends. Like Horace Walpole over in Strawberry Hill House, Pitzhanger Manor was to become a residential jewellery box; and like Walpole, if Soane couldn’t buy real Greek and Roman artefacts and ruins, he would get reproductions made instead.
As you head over to Ealing in west London on the Central line, spare a thought for its gout-ridden architect who would sometimes walk eight miles from his home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields to his country bolthole. On occasion, JMW Turner would join him, and they would fish in the Pitzhanger Lake for their supper. The Soane sons, John and George, might also be fishing with their father. Mrs Eliza Soane would come home from Christies, armed with some cute home trinkets, one of which would be William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress (you’ll need to head over to the Soane Museum to see it in all its rakeish flesh).
Pitzhanger should have been the picture of ideal domestic bliss and a legacy for Soane and Sons. Soane Senior had high hopes that John would follow in his architectural footsteps, but the eldest was having none of it. In 1809, Soane grudgingly put Pitzhanger on the market and moved his groaning art and antiquities collection to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, eventually expanding into three adjacent properties. Father and son had a major bust-up – in 1815, he would blame John for Eliza’s premature death. Soane’s final act in 1833 was to leave the house in central London to the nation via an Act of Parliament and to ensure it would never end up in his son’s greedy paws.
If you’ve got it, flaunt it
If there was a Beau Brummel of property design, John Soane would be it. He was the ultimate show-off, and he knew how to put on some good parties. In 1825, he held three lamplit evening parties at Lincoln’s In Fields to introduce the cream of London society to his Seti Sarcophagus, purchased in 1824 from the tomb-raider and explorer, Giovanni Belzoni.
Earlier in Pitzhanger, he was inviting some chichi guests to his “intellectual banquets.” Imagine for a moment arriving at Pitzhanger for dinner with the Soanes. You would arrive at night by landau, the house glittering with its beckoning lights (or if you were Turner, you might have walked over for some pre-dinner fishing). You would drive through the gateposts – Giles Gilbert Scott would later steal the post design for his iconic red phone box.
You might be dining with Soane’s notable friends, all of whom referred to each other by surname and some of whom might have been on the Grand Tour with the host. Guests might have included Soane’s BFF, Turner; Edward Foxhall, interior designer and who worked on Pitzhanger with Soane; John Flaxman, a fellow Royal Academician; Nancy Storace, opera singer from the Grand Tour and fellow opera singer and long-term companion, John Braham (“a beast of an actor but an angel of a singer”); Samuel Thornton, a cousin of the anti-slavery campaigner, William Wilberforce; and Joseph Gandy, an architect who illustrated Soane’s designs. These meals would be hosted by the capable Eliza Soane who was actively involved in all aspects of the menu. Her notebooks show that preferred ingredients included beefsteak and lamp chops, hams, lobsters, tongue, prawns, oranges, lemons, cakes and wines.
Fast forward a couple of centuries, and Soane’s presence had been erased from the manor’s interior. The house had been whitewashed, the crowning vestibule skylight had been boarded up and windows had been blocked. The conservatory had been demolished, and Soane’s Kitchen area had been replaced with a 1930s library by Ealing Council.
This facelift was going to take some serious detective work. Heritage experts Julian Harrap and architects Jestrco and Whiles were brought in to spearhead the Pitzhanger renovation. Hare and Humphreys provided the historic paint analysis which enabled the restoration team to recreate the Soanesque palette. The master of the house was suddenly coming back from the dead, in all his colourful glory, teasing and surprising in every nook and cranny. Soane’s theatrical trademark designs – ornate ceilings, coloured glasswork, Italianate paintwork in ochres and blood reds and grey marble-effect walls – they were all coming home to roost.
Today, Soane’s ludic home sits in contrast to the true story behind the remarkable man: a colourful and highly successful professional life was marred by a difficult and oftentimes dark personal life, ill-health, family strife and manic depression. Imagine, for a moment, what Soane might have created if he had actually been cursed with the happy spell.
So, I beseech you to come on down to Pitzhanger. You could even try it by foot like Soane. It’s an encounter I guarantee you won’t forget. I for one, am delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr Soane.
Pitzhanger Manor and Gallery
Next door to the manor and linked by a colonnade walkway is the Pitzhanger Gallery, a 1930s bolt-on which will play host to three major annual exhibitions. Anish Kapoor is the first artist to perch here, and he’s doing it with a beaming set of concave mirrors and reflective balls, creating the illusion of infinite space, playing and teasing in much the same way as Soane once did. One can imagine our Georgian starchitect would be tickled red, yellow and blue by these shimmering works of art. Anish Kapoor is at the Pitzhanger Gallery until 18 August.
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