Spencer House in Mayfair is one of the finest examples of eighteenth-century architecture in London. The Georgian mansion, which has one of the most drop-dead interiors in the capital, once provided a backdrop for many a glittering soirée. It’s now one of London’s most exclusive venues – the Queen invited all her prime ministers for dinner here a few years back. We ordinary mortals may not all be able to afford a private event here, but as luck would have it, the house is now open on Sundays for guided, gilded tours.
Spencer House was built for John and Georgiana Spencer (great-great-great-great-great aunt to Diana, Princess of Wales). Charles Spencer, brother to Diana, is now its exalted owner. But it’s thanks to Jacob Rothschild, 4th Baron Rothschild, that the house looks like the Georgian time machine it now is. Following decades during which the house saw every square inch of its innards ripped out, the Rothschild team spent ten years carrying out a no details spared restoration of the building, bringing it back to its former glorious self. Spencer House is now considered London’s finest surviving 18-century townhouse.
History of Spencer House
The private palace was built in 1756, a year after a 21-year-old John Spencer married his sweetheart, the 18-year-old Margaret Georgiana Poyntz. The power couple would have five children, the most famous of whom was Lady Georgiana Spencer (of Devonshire).
John Spencer had inherited a fortune and an impressive art collection from his great-grandmother, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. He needed just the right house to show off both his wealth and his art. As a young man, Spencer also went on two Grand Tours, taking his new bride on the second one. They came back armed with arty and architectural goodies with which to furnish the house.
Spencer hired the architect John Vardy who had worked under William Kent – of Kensington Palace and Chiswick House fame. Vardy designed the exterior of the house as well as the ground floor. A second, more flamboyant architect, James “Athenian” Stuart was hired to complete the first floor. Stuart was a fan of all things Greek, so what you now see in Spencer House is one of London’s earliest neo-classical interiors. He was also rather partial to a tipple or two, and so the project took rather longer than anticipated.
A succession of Spencers inhabited the house, together with a stint by the Duke of Marlborough and his wife, the former Miss Consuelo Vanderbilt. Fast forward to 1926, at which point the seventh Earl of Spencer moved out.
The house was then leased to various companies including the Ladies Army and Navy Club and Christie’s Auctioneers. During The Blitz, the Spencers removed all their furniture and anything that could be salvaged. This included everything from fireplaces to door surrounds and skirting boards. The carcass of the house was left behind, but the guts were all taken up to Althorp. And in case you’re wondering, you can see large chunks of the original Spencer House at Althorp today.
Rothschild took over the lease of Spencer House in 1985 after which a painstaking ten-year restoration project was initiated. Historians, architects, engineers and designers formed part of a committee which not only aimed to recreate the interiors designed by Vardy and Stuart, but also retain the additions and modifications made by Holland. Master craftsmen were hired in order to breathe history back into the house. The new interiors now boast a mix of old and new. The newly restored house is a real love letter to John and Georgiana Spencer.
The art collection is also no less impressive than it once was, with several museum pieces on loan from such greats as the Royal Collection Trust, Tate and the Royal Academy. There is even a Canaletto.
The ritziest address in London
Georgiana was the hostess with the mostest and would entertain le tout London. Banquets, lunches, dinners, plays and masks were held on a regular basis throughout the Season. The actor and playwright David Garrick was one of Georgiana’s good friends and was a regular at Spencer House.
Check out the “S” for Spencer door handles throughout the house. These are replicas from the original Spencer House door furniture, now installed at Althorp.
The staircase is part Vardy, part Stuart – going from muted to flashy as you ascend to the first floor.
The Second Earl Spencer commissioned Henry Holland no less to design the library for his extensive book collection. This room leads on to the garden, also designed by Holland, which overlooks Green Park. Once upon a time, the ton would have walked past Spencer House and its gardens, one of the largest in St James’s.
The crowning glory of the staircase is this magnificent lantern, which once hung from the Bucentaur, the state barge of the Doges of Venice.
The Great Room was used as an art gallery as well a handy space for balls and receptions. If you’ve visited the Chapel at Greenwich, also designed by Stuart, you will recognise similarities in the ceiling design.
The Palm Room is the jewel of the house. The palm motif is based on John Webb’s design for the King’s Bedchamber at Greenwich Palace.
The magnificent ceiling of the Painted Room, designed by Stuart. This room is an ode to marriage and a celebration of the Triumph of Love.
Visiting Spencer House
The house is open for tours throughout the year except for August. It would be such fun to capture a Georgian apparition or two, but no photos are allowed on your tour. You’ll just have to enjoy the wonderful sound of creaking floorboards and some of the blingiest interiors in London instead.
I was a guest of Spencer House. As always, opinions are my own.