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Portrait of a park: Green Park — an architectural and social history of London


Green Park is both anonymous and personal. Anonymous because of the relatively few residents in this part of Mayfair and St James’s, and the transient populations of office and hotel workers and tourists. Personal because of its intimacy, its understated and informal elegance (no flower beds, just trees and a few spring blooms) and its hidden dells. There is also no better place in London for a picnic, thanks to the proximity of Fortnum & Mason, Le Deli Robuchon and the restaurant Hide, and an abundant supply of deckchairs (which can also be used to read a book from the nearby Heywood Hill and Hatchards bookshops). 

The ‘Temple of Peace’, built in the park in 1749 as the launchpad for a massive firework display (for which Handel wrote ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’) – the structure caught fire shortly after the pyrotechnics began
The ‘Temple of Peace’, built in the park in 1749 as the launchpad for a massive firework display (for which Handel wrote ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’) — the structure caught fire shortly after the pyrotechnics began © De Agostini via Getty Images

Green Park has its core of regulars. There is Denise, who, at 11am every day, in her trademark pink hat causes a veritable migration of pigeons to attend her feeding station on the lawn next to the 18th-century Devonshire Gates, and the elegant figure of Robin Birley, who, in between pampering the beau monde at members’ club 5 Hertford Street, comes here for a stroll with his dogs. Young officers from St James’s Palace stride with purpose along the avenues. For a few unhappy days in May, Prime Minister Boris Johnson took to walking here in the morning until residents were driven to complain about his habit of bringing his Range Rovers into the park. 

Queen’s Walk was built for George II’s consort, Queen Caroline of Ansbach, who made the park fashionable in the 1720-30s, with palatial buildings such as Spencer House (above) added later in the 18th Century
Queen’s Walk was built for George II’s consort, Queen Caroline of Ansbach, who made the park fashionable in the 1720-30s © Heritage Images/Getty Images

A park is defined as much by its landscaping as by its surroundings, and one of the pleasures of being in Green Park is to enjoy the views of the buildings on Piccadilly and St James’s which overlook it — these buildings provide both an architectural and a social history of London from the 18th century to the present day. 

Once a burial ground for the lepers of St James’s Hospital, the land now known as Green Park was civilised by Charles II in the 17th century when he created a deer park and built ice houses to cool his summer drinks. Then, the park lay on the edge of London; St James’s was being developed and what is now Mayfair was a collection of farms with a few grand houses in between. But it was Queen Caroline of Ansbach who in the 1720-30s made the park fashionable, installing the Queen’s Walk (which still runs along its eastern side) and commissioning English architect William Kent to build a library for her cosmopolitan collection of books. 

Looking west on Piccadilly in 1896, with Green Park to the left
Looking west on Piccadilly in 1896, with Green Park to the left © Bridgeman Images

As Mayfair was developed into London’s most prized address, the western end of Piccadilly, with its park views, became the place to build one’s townhouse. The park was used for balloon flights (and crashes) and elaborate firework displays (Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks was first played there). And while the past 75 years have seen large areas being destroyed to accommodate a roundabout and a war memorial, Green Park remains the most engaging and intimate park in London.

Until the 1950s, sheep grazed on London’s Royal Parks — a tradition reintroduced in recent years by Green Park for a week in August
Until the 1950s, sheep grazed on London’s Royal Parks — a tradition reintroduced in recent years by Green Park for a week in August © Getty Images

When the first lockdown of 2020 was imposed, I realised, like most of us, that I would have to change my habits quickly in order to manage the sudden restrictions on my movements. For years I had used Piccadilly as a base for almost weekly travels to far-flung parts of the world. On the first day of lockdown, I resolved that I would spend what would normally be my commuting time walking in Green Park and that I would research and write about one of its buildings every day and post my findings on Instagram. After 65 days I realised I had enough material for a book. Here are some of my favourite buildings. 

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Lancaster House

Lancaster House – where Chopin once played for Queen Victoria – now hosts Foreign & Commonwealth Office summits and events
Lancaster House — where Chopin once played for Queen Victoria — now hosts Foreign & Commonwealth Office summits and events © Alamy

“I have come from my House to your Palace,” exclaimed Queen Victoria as the Duchess of Sutherland welcomed her to what was then Stafford House. This truly is the grandest mansion in St James’s, if not in London. Seeing its Bath-stone façade glowing in the early-morning sunshine became one of the great pleasures of my daily outing during the first lockdown.

York House (as it was first called) was designed by Benjamin Dean Wyatt and Philip Wyatt for George IV’s brother, the Duke of York. Construction started in 1825 but was still unfinished when the Duke died in 1827.

The house was bought by the government for use by The Royal Society, but then sold shortly thereafter to the “Leviathan of Wealth”, the 2nd Marquess of Stafford (later Duke of Sutherland). (The £72,000 purchase price was used by the government to create Victoria Park in Hackney.) Stafford engaged Robert Smirke to add the top floor. The name of the building was changed from York House to Stafford House. The interiors were finished by the Wyatts and added to by Smirke and later (1839-41) Charles Barry, the architect of nearby Bridgewater House, and are in an elegant Louis XIV style.

The Sutherland household became famous for its liberal gatherings and in 1848 Frédéric Chopin played in the presence of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The house stayed in the Sutherland family until 1912 when it was bought by soap baron Sir William Lever, who renamed it Lancaster House (after his native county) and presented it to the nation for use by the London Museum. Since the end of the second world war, it has been used by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for conferences and official events — as such it played an important role in the decolonisation process: the agreements for the independence of Malaya (1957; now Malaysia) and Rhodesia (1980; now Zimbabwe) were concluded here. In 1962, the Franco-British agreement for the development of Concorde was signed here and, in 2015, it was also the venue of a luncheon I attended on the occasion of the Chinese state visit.

The building has, since 1922, housed the 39,000 bottles of the Government Wine Cellar.

Devonshire House

Where London meets 1920s Manhattan: Devonshire House was designed by the architect of the New York Public Library
Where London meets 1920s Manhattan: Devonshire House was designed by the architect of the New York Public Library © Alamy

If The Ritz opposite is an elegant slice of Paris and Versailles, then Devonshire House (1924-26) is a delicious scoop of New York. It could, with the addition of a tower or two, be an apartment building on Central Park West and was in fact designed by an American architect, Thomas Hastings of Carrère and Hastings, the architect of Henry Clay Frick’s mansion on Fifth Avenue (now the Frick Collection) and also of the New York Public Library.

It replaced the Duke of Devonshire’s palace designed by William Kent and later James Wyatt and Decimus Burton (the gates to which are further down Piccadilly and the wine cellars of which became the ticket office for Green Park Underground Station). The plan of the old Devonshire House was, essentially, that of a country house transposed to London: a practical, pillared, everyday ground floor and a sweeping double staircase taking visitors upstairs to a more formal floor for entertainment, including one of the first-known formal dining rooms. 

Built as apartments and now converted into offices, it displays beautiful “sparing but gay Cinquecento ornament” (Nikolaus Pevsner) and lovely bronze detailing around the shops and the Tube station.

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This must be Marks and Spencer’s most elegant setting (even if the retailer hasn’t really risen to the Cinquecento challenge — imagine a refrigerated cassone for the display of ready-made curries).

80 Piccadilly — Clarges Mayfair

Clarges Mayfair, built 2014-17 – the Piccadilly site has a ‘long history of extraordinary wealth’
Clarges Mayfair, built 2014-17 — the Piccadilly site has a ‘long history of extraordinary wealth’ © Alamy

Everything was “hugely overdone: wealth-wealth-wealth was screamed aloud wherever one turned”, wrote Beatrice Webb about a dinner at Bath House in 1906. This plot has a long history of extraordinary wealth, with a brief 50-year interlude of incongruous practicality.

Built by the Pulteney family in 1740 as the Pulteney Hotel and replaced in 1821 for banker Alexander Baring, 1st Baron Ashburton, inhabited by railway baron Baron de Hirsch in the late 19th century and South African diamond magnate Sir Julius Wernher in the early 20th century and then by his widow Lady Ludlow (who in the 1930s had Serge Chermayeff redecorate a drawing room in the modernist style) — the house here “might appropriately be rechristened ‘the Millionaire’s Home’”, wrote Arthur Dasent in the 1920s.

The Regency Bath House was demolished in 1958 to build Reed House (by Lewis Solomon, Kaye & Partners), which housed first Martins Bank and then the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, as well as, reputedly, MI5. Working purposes such as these are an aberration for this most extravagant of plots.

But, in 2014-17, a new development, Clarges Mayfair (by Squire & Partners) — the newest building on Piccadilly — managed to restore the intrinsic sense of money associated with this block with the erection of 34 flats with a 25-metre pool, a fully staffed spa, a new drive and porte cochère at the rear (just like Bath House once had), achieving Mayfair’s highest ever price per square foot. The penthouse flat has the scale of a decent country house with a grand staircase across three floors.

So we are well and truly back to the grandeur of the 19th century. The building is in safe and unimaginative international contemporary style but it works well (and has attracted some much-needed local amenities such as a gleaming Porsche showroom on the ground floor and the wonderful Le Comptoir and Deli Robuchon). 

The development also includes new premises for the Kennel Club, offering “dog owners and those working with dogs an unparalleled source of education, experience and advice on puppy buying, dog health, dog training and dog breeding”. What more could one ask for?

Hard Rock Café

The Elgin marbles were once displayed where the original Hard Rock Café now stands
The Elgin marbles were once displayed where Hard Rock Café now stands © Andrew Jones

In times of lockdown, one was constantly reminded of all the things in life one had not experienced: Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China, Vladivostok… and as I wrote about this building, I was hit by the realisation that I had never dined at the Hard Rock Café. And this Hard Rock Café is not any old Hard Rock Café — it is the original one, founded in 1971, the Jerusalem of the hamburger and a place filled with as many relics as the Vatican. And, since 2007, when it was acquired by the Seminole tribe of Florida, it has become the de facto Native American embassy in Mayfair — perfect symmetry given that much of Florida once belonged to the Duke of Westminster.

And the building! If there was ever a piece of Edwardian postmodernism, then this has to be it — that soaring exuberance, that orgy of decoration, those stripes, and also that zany discipline! Pevsner describes it as a “remarkable freak”. Edward VII loathed how it had ruined his view across the gardens at Buckingham Palace.

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The current building was designed by Collcutt & Hamp in 1905, originally with a car showroom downstairs and (as is still the case) apartments upstairs. (Collcutt & Hamp also designed the New Adelphi off the Strand, which Pevsner described as “savagely ungraceful”, and the riverfront of The Savoy.) It replaced the 18th-century Gloucester House, which had been rented by Lord Elgin in 1806. In the garden, Lord Elgin had a shed built to display the Parthenon Marbles, just arrived in Britain. The precursor of the modern “blockbuster” show, this display proved to be hugely popular. So much so that in June 1808, a famous prizefighter posed naked in front of the marbles, enabling a select audience to compare the carving of the antiquities to his finely honed body. However, Byron (who lived a couple of doors along) was fiercely critical of the whole enterprise, referring to the display as “a general mart, for all the mutilated blocks of art”.

The house was occupied by Prince William, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, from 1816-34 and then by Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, until his death in 1904.

I resolved, when the lockdown finished, to visit the café and to dine on “One Night in Bangkok” followed by a “Local Legendary” while thinking of Lord Elgin’s original hard rocks.

The Pantheon 

‘A perfect oculus through which to admire a piece of sky’: the canopy of the 13 trees that make up The Pantheon
‘A perfect oculus through which to admire a piece of sky’: the canopy of the 13 trees that make up The Pantheon © Andrew Jones

Welcome to Green Park’s most enigmatic place — part wood, part monument, part structure: The Pantheon, as we shall call it, a perfect circle of trees with a diameter (43 metres) exactly that of the Pantheon in Rome (I am neither technical nor athletic enough to have measured its height but it feels right too), creating a grand yet intimate and secluded domed space with the assembled canopies of the trees leaving a perfect oculus through which to admire a piece of sky.

The Pantheon is beautifully positioned in front of the three loveliest (and classical or classical in spirit) buildings on Green Park: Spencer House and, either side, Charles Barry’s Bridgewater House and Denys Lasdun’s 26 St James’s Place. The façade of Spencer House with its oversized pediment almost recreates the portico of the Roman Pantheon.

No one knows much about this place other than the bare essentials: there was once a bandstand here (erected in 1906 and demolished in the 1970s or 1980s), and the trees were planted in 1913 and can be seen on the Ordnance Survey map of 1916 and in several 1920s aerial views.

One aspect is fundamentally different to the Roman Pantheon, however. There are 13 trees — which I do not think corresponds to anything in the Pantheon (where the magic number is 28, a “perfect number”). For many this place has an ancient spiritual meaning and bristles with ley lines.

And that is the charm of Green Park — for some it is Verona, while for others it is Sedona. A place that is big and generous and full of whatever meaning the wanderer wishes to impose on it.

Adapted from The Buildings of Green Park by Andrew Jones (ACC Art Books, £25)

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