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Few buildings can be said to have marked a new departure in taste and design. But Spencer House marked several, and as such occupies a position of particular importance in the development of architecture and the decorative arts.
The house was built in 1756-66 for John, 1st Earl Spencer, an ancestor of the late Princess of Wales. Barely 21 years old at the time the project began, the Earl was determined that the house should push the boundaries of contemporary taste. The recent discovery of the ancient remains at Herculaneum and Pompeii had caused a wave of excitement across Europe and a new enthusiasm for the arts of Classical Antiquity. Spencer shared in this excitement and enthusiasm, and saw the opportunity at Spencer House to give expression to these feelings.
In this he was supported and guided by a family friend, Colonel George Gray, who though by profession a soldier, was a leading authority on Classical design and a founding member of the Society of Dilettanti, which played such a vital role in increasing awareness and interest in Antiquity at this time, and which Spencer himself would later join after completing the Grand Tour in the 1760s.
In choosing an architect Spencer and Gray turned at first to John Vardy, a disciple of William Kent, under whose direction the exterior and ground-floor apartments were completed in 1756-8. Not surprisingly Vardy's designs show a clear debt to the work of Palladio as adapted by Inigo Jones, John Webb, and Vardy's own master, Kent. But what is new is the conspicuous use of purely Classical ornament reproduced with almost archaeological precision. In the Dining Room, which provided the original backdrop to the chairs in lot 1030, the ceiling is modelled on that designed by Jones for the Banqueting House at Whitehall, but the frieze is copied exactly from that of the Temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome, while in the Palm Room, where the seat furniture in lot 1020 originally stood, the screen of palm tree columns is adapted from that designed by Webb for the King's Bedchamber at Greenwich, but the frieze is taken directly from that of the Roman Temple of Antoninus and Faustina.
This was the first step in the revolution in taste achieved at Spencer House. Here, more clearly than in any other building of the period, we see the transition from the Neo-Palladian to the Neo-Classical style. But Spencer and Gray had more ambitious plans. They saw the possibility of a more radical break with the Palladian tradition and the development of a style based as far as possible on that of the ancients alone, one moreover which took its inspiration not only from Rome but also from Greece.
So it was that in 1758 they dispensed with the services of Vardy, and in his place appointed James 'Athenian' Stuart, architect, painter, and archaeologist, who had recently returned from an expedition to produce the first accurate measured drawings of the principal architectural remains of ancient Greece, soon to be published as The Antiquities of Athens, both the expedition and the book being funded by the Society of Dilettanti, of which Stuart, like Spencer and Gray, was a member.
Stuart's principal task at Spencer House was to devise a new scheme of decoration for the first-floor interiors. Although these rooms were not finally ready to be unveiled until 1766, it was immediately recognised that they broke new ground, and in retrospect they can be seen to have been among the earliest thorough-going statements of the Neo-Classical aesthetic and a pioneering step on the path to the Greek Revival. Here, more or less for the first time in England, we see fully-integrated Neo-Classical interiors, combining furniture as well as decoration faithfully reproduced from the Antique. Here again, for the first time also, we see the use of elements specifically derived from ancient Greek sources. Although the Reniassance tradition is not forgotten, there is little to remind us of the work of the Neo-Palladians, and instead the emphasis is overwhelmingly on the Antique, with elements that span virtually the whole of the Classical period. In the Great Room, for which the armchairs and side chairs in lots 1016-1018 were originally designed, the coffering in the ceiling is derived from the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome, while the frieze of the chimney piece is copied from that of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens. In the Painted Room, where the candelabra in lot 1003 were originally displayed, the door-case has an architrave adapted from the Incantada at Salonika, while the frieze of the chimney piece reproduces the famous Roman fresco known as The Aldobrandini Wedding.
But Spencer House was remarkable not only for its architecture and furniture but also for the works of art it contained. Indeed there were few houses in London, or anywhere else in England at this time, that could rival Spencer House in this respect. The paintings were especially impressive and alongside works of cabinet size included monumental compositions by the most admired artists of the Italian and Flemish schools, chief among them a group by Guercino and Salvator Rosa, purposely acquired for the positions they occupied in the Great Room and displayed in frames specially designed by James Stuart to match the carved decoration of the door and window-cases in this interior.
Remarkable, too, was the multi-layered use of symbolism. Built as a setting for grand receptions, the house was decorated throughout with emblems of feasting and plenty, from the statues of Bacchus, Ceres, and Flora on the pediment over the park front, to the reliefs and painted panels in the Painted Room depicting dancing figures and carousing cherubs. As the residence of the Spencers, the house was likewise adorned throughout with griffins, the family crest, whether in the painted decoration of the original hall chairs or the frieze of the Palm Room or the carvings in the ceiling and pier-glasses in the Great Room. But Spencer House was also conceived as a celebration of romantic love, built in the years immediately following the 1st Earl's marriage to the beautiful and accomplished Georgiana Poyntz, one of the great love-matches of the day. So it is again that throughout the house there are constant references to the strong and enduring attachment they shared, none more touching than in the cresting of the pier-glasses in the Great Room, where griffins emblematic of the Spencers draw chariots driven by winged cherubs symbolic of love.
Writing of the house soon after it was completed, Arthur Young declared that Lord Spencer had created an ensemble of the fine and decorative arts unrivalled either at home or abroad. 'I do not apprehend', he wrote, 'there is a house in Europe of its size, better worth the view of the curious in architecture, and the fitting and furnishing great houses, than Lord Spencer's in St. James's Place. I known not in England a more beautiful piece of architecture in richness, elegance, and taste, superior to any house I have seen'.
The construction of Spencer House is a reminder of the centrality of London to the lives of the Spencers and of the English aristocracy in general in the 18th century. Another reminder is the work which the 1st Earl Spencer undertook at Wimbledon Park, a magnificent house on the outskirts of the capital which he inherited from his great-grandmother, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and which served as an occasional retreat from the demands of London life. Originally built for Duchess Sarah in the early 1730s, and an example of the Neo-Palladian style, Wimbledon underwent a transformation very similar in style to the works at Spencer House. Here again Lord Spencer chose Stuart as his architect; indeed it is possible that Stuart's involvement at Wimbledon began earlier and was the springboard for his arrival at Spencer House. Sadly, the house at Wimbledon was largely destroyed by fire in 1785, but we are fortunate in that several of Stuart's original designs for the project survive, and these confirm that the interiors were close in spirit to those at Spencer House, with the same careful integration of furniture and decoration, and the same architectural approach to the placing and framing of paintings. The parallels between Spencer House and Wimbledon raise the intriguing possibility that some of the seat furniture offered in the present sale, although long associated with Spencer House alone, may originally have been common to both houses or even in some cases intended exclusively for Wimbledon [lots 1005-10].
In the years following the 1st Earl Spencer's death, neither Spencer House nor Wimbledon stood still. The 2nd Earl Spencer, who succeeded his father in 1783, carried out extensive alterations at Spencer House to the designs of Henry Holland, transforming the layout and decoration of the ground-floor interiors. The works, conducted over an eight-year period, from 1788 to 1796, coincided with those at neighbouring Carlton House, residence of the Prince of Wales, where Holland again was employed as architect; and like Carlton House itself, Spencer House became a showcase of the French-inspired Classicism then so fashionable among the English élite, incorporating outstanding pieces of contemporary French furniture, such as lot 1050, created by the master ébéniste Claude-Charles Saunier, a protégé of Marie-Antoinette, and supplied by the celebrated Parisian marchand-mercier Dominique Daguerre.
Spencer House likewise became a showcase for the 2nd Earl's renowned collection of early printed books, considered in its day to be the largest and most important in Europe. As one contemporary observed, the Palm Room, adapted by Holland as a library, contained 'the most select and valuable portion of his Lordship's library, including all the curious specimens of early printed books prior to the 16th century'. Visiting the house in 1833, the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon was lost in admiration. Here, he exclaimed, were 'rare Boccaccios, unaccountable Dantes, impossible to be found Virgils, and not to be understood first editions of Homer'.
Not only was Spencer House central to the 2nd Earl's activities as a patron and collector; it was central also to his political activities, providing a power base in the capital where, as a senior government minister and one-time Home Secretary, he hosted meetings and entertainments of national and even international importance.
Wimbledon, too, continued to play a vital role, and following the fire in 1785 was completely rebuilt, again with Holland as architect, the original Classical house being replaced by a handsome Italianate villa.
Although in the time of the 3rd Earl Spencer Wimbledon Park was sold, Spencer House remained at the heart of the Spencers' lives and underwent a series of transformations during the occupation of the 4th, 5th, and 7th Earls.
It was the 7th Earl who in the mid 1920s gave up Spencer House, although he retained the freehold and so ensured that the building survived the wave of demolitions which engulfed so many other aristocratic London houses sold by their owners at this time. Thanks to his actions, and those of his descendants, it has been possible in recent years for Spencer House to be restored. With the cooperation of the Spencers, and under the direction of Lord Rothschild, the house has been reinstated at the centre of London life and, like the extraordinary treasures to be offered in this sale, powerfully commemorates the achievements of those who built and maintained this pioneering masterpiece of the fine and decorative arts.
Author of Spencer House (London, 1993)