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The Survey of London


Recording the history of London's built environment since 1894


Park Crescent: John Nash, Charles Mayor and one of the severest bankruptcies in London building history

By the Survey of London, on 25 May 2018

The Park Crescent of today is a post-war replica. A combination of poor original building methods, wartime damage and heavy-handed reconstruction policies has left little or no old fabric from the ‘semi-circus’ conceived by John Nash and built with much difficulty between about 1812 and 1822. Even that was only half of the full circus Nash had planned. Yet despite those early failures, despite also its present lack of authenticity, Park Crescent remains one of London’s most memorable episodes of urban planning.

Park Crescent. Eastern crescent. (© Historic England, Chris Redgrave)

Three colonnaded circuses featured in Nash’s immortal scheme to link Whitehall and Westminster with Marylebone Park by way of what became Regent Street, as first published in 1811. All occupied critical junctures or points of transition, where traffic-ridden east-west routes broke the new line of procession, for Nash believed that the circus form invested such crossings with dignity and lessened the psychological sense of a barrier – something he strove to overcome so as to make the Crown’s developments around Regent’s Park feel accessible and eligible to Londoners of high standing. Confusingly, all three rond-points went at first by the informal name of Regent or Regent’s Circus. Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Circus, carved laboriously out of existing building fabric by compulsory purchase under the New Street Act of 1813, had to be quite small and in the event lacked the colonnades Nash had hoped for. Both have long gone, and though Oxford Circus survives as a concept, it is higher and slightly wider than Nash’s original creation.

The third circus was to be different altogether. Over 500ft in diameter, it came at the point where the city eased into a gracious modern suburb, beyond the final obstacle of the New (now Marylebone) Road. But the shape and texture of that suburb shifted greatly over the years of its creation, with implications for the third circus. So much can be gathered from the fate of a fourth circus, the largest of all, devised by Nash as a central focus for Regent’s Park. Marked the Great Circus on the plan of 1811, when bands of continuous housing were anticipated within the park as well as on its periphery, it was then reserved for concentric terraces. Ultimately, it acquired a bare smattering of villas and became the Inner Circle, a low-key feature in the park landscape. With the opening-out of that landscape in the 1820s and the failure to develop the northern sector of the third circus, Park Crescent turned into a prelude to the park rather than the transitional interlude Nash intended.

Park Crescent and Portland Place area from the west in 2011. (© Historic England, Damian Grady)

If the circus was the most striking of the crop in town-planning terms, it was also among the first elements of the Office of Woods and Forests’ plan for Regent Street and Regent’s Park to be implemented. Its site, Crown farmland, was in hand, so that it could be started even before the New Street Act authorised the complete scheme in 1813. Not surprisingly, Nash invested energy and urgency in getting it along. By the end of 1811 the hunt was on for a single builder brave and resourceful enough to take on both the whole of the circus, where Nash envisaged large first-rate houses, and the extension of Harley Street, for which he proposed brick-faced houses on narrower frontages. By March 1812 he had hooked his fish. ‘Mr Mayor is willing to adopt the elevation I had proposed to him, which is to encircle the whole with a collonnade of coupled columns surrounded [sic] by a ballustrade’. [1] Charles Mayor had started out as a jobbing carpenter and undertaker. In 1800 he successfully took over the north side of Brunswick Square from James Burton and built other houses near by. More to the point, he and Nash had been collaborating over a house in Foley Gardens south of Portland Place.

By May 1812 Nash and Mayor had worked out a detailed plan and schedule. Together they increased the diameter of the circus to 724ft, giving some houses frontages of up to 100ft but in consequence making them shallower and cramping the mews spaces behind. The timetable stipulated the first roofings-in and issuing of leases at the southern end to be by August 1814 and the final ones in the northern sector by August 1816. Nash projected Mayor’s overall outlay at about £300,000 and urged the Crown authorities to buy the improved ground rents so as to guarantee his liquidity. Mayor got the final go-ahead in July. Soon afterwards Nash was arranging to show his whole plan to the Prince Regent, telling Alexander Milne of the Woods and Forests: ‘It will be very impolitic not to pursue this course if we wish HRH to take up the measure con amore’. [2]

92–98 Portland Place. Original plan of houses as leased to Charles Mayor in 1813. From plans in the National Archives, CRES2/752. (Survey of London, Helen Jones)

Mayor got going fast enough to ask for his first leases between December 1812 and August 1813. These concerned the southernmost houses on both sides of Regent’s Circus and also some smaller brick-fronted ones that were to connect Portland Place with the circus (Nos 77–81 on the west and 92–96 on the east). Though these leases were duly issued, little finishing work can have taken place within the carcasses. For financial reasons Mayor evidently hoped to secure as many leases as he could as fast as might be. To that end he appears to have embarked upon the cellars of almost the whole of the southern semi-circus and even to have done some excavation on the northern side of the New Road.

Then things started to unravel. With the Napoleonic Wars reaching their climax, it was a bad time for builders. Few people were in the market for houses, yet building materials were going up in price. Mayor seems to have done nothing elaborately tricky: with Nash egging him on, he just miscalculated and was drawn into one of the severest bankruptcies in London building history. His slow-down during 1813 must have been well-noted. ‘Every stimulus should be applied to Mr Mayor to complete his Circus,’ urged Nash in a report to the Commissioners on changes planned for the park that December, ‘which will carry that character of respectable building into the heart of the Park and tempt the higher classes of society to come there’. [3]

Park Crescent. Western crescent. (© Historic England, Chris Redgrave)

The first half of 1814 saw little progress apart from an intended pub built by James Smith of Norton Street on back land between Harley Street and the circus. In the autumn Mayor appealed to the Woods and Forests for a loan, admitting: ‘I am absolutely at a Stand Still’. Nash, asked for advice, reported just before Christmas with his usual optimism that with eleven houses covered in, another six up to the chamber floor, excavation in some state of forwardness for the whole of the circus and a million and a half bricks on site, the developer ought to have enough security to win through – ‘if the half circus can be completed in the course of the next year (I mean externally)… his speculation will have a favourable issue’. [4] With the Crown declining to lend, vary terms or purchase ground rents, the creditors deemed otherwise. Mayor was carted off to the Fleet Prison early in 1815 and the grindstones of bankruptcy began to turn.

Like other bankrupts, Mayor was allowed out on day release, and made efforts to realize his assets. He managed to let the Foley Gardens house, but a severe injury, incurred while inspecting one of the Regent’s Circus houses in February 1816, cannot have helped. One bankruptcy commission superseded another. So persistent was the post-war slump that Mayor’s assignees were wary of trying to finish the speculation themselves and disappointed when they tried to sell off assets. Meanwhile the carcasses in sundry states of scruffiness and dereliction scared off buyers.

Park Crescent and the New Road, looking west towards Marylebone parish church. From Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, 1822. (Wikimedia Commons, from ianvisits.co.uk)

John Shaw, the architect and surveyor to the Eyre Estate, claimed that it was thanks to ‘a very extraordinary man, Mr. Farquhar’, who put money in as a speculation, that building resumed at what was to become Park Crescent. This was the former East India Company’s gunpowder contractor, John Farquhar. He died in 1826 leaving property in the vicinity of Park Crescent, but no further evidence of his involvement has come to light. [5] In 1817 the Great Portland Street builder William Richardson, apprised that Mayor’s assignees were not going to complete the development themselves, sought terms for both the Harley Street continuation and for finishing the western half of the crescent, where foundations were partly laid. A bigger, City-based contractor, Henry Peto, then bought the three carcasses on the east side of Portland Place (Nos 92–96), completing them ‘in the first style of elegance’, and went on to take most of the eastern quadrant, excepting its tip, assigned to Samuel Baxter and the corner house No. 15. Peto bought the ground rent from this last from a mortgagee, but the house itself was evidently completed by Mayor’s assignees, who decided to sell it in 1820.

In the early stages Peto was hampered by the collapse of a party wall between two of the Portland Place houses during a storm in March 1818. There had been a bad fire in one of these in 1814, on which Nash blamed the fall. Peto was adamant that the houses had been built with bricks ‘mostly of the very worst description and totally unfit for use’, and laxly supervised – accusations that have haunted the Nash developments and Park Crescent in particular ever since – and commissioned an independent report to prove it. ‘I must beg to be allowed to treat the insinuations of my inattention and that of my clerks with contempt’, riposted Nash, adding that Peto ought to have noted the state of the houses when he bought them. [6]

On both sides of the crescent, finishing off Mayor’s carcasses generally preceded the building of the other houses. The western crescent went up mainly in 1819–20; at the same time Richardson undertook the east side of Upper Harley Street, essentially following the original Nash-Mayor plan. Judging from a sketch of Park Crescent in 1820, Peto had as yet made little or no progress with his side. Beyond Mayor’s houses at Nos 13–15, the eastern quadrant was just excavated ground and derelict-looking pavement vaults, while No. 13 was in a ruinous state, with bare roof timbers and fallen brickwork. Perhaps the last of the houses to be started were Baxter’s at Nos 1–6, the first two of which were still in carcass in July 1821. The whole can have been barely finished when Ackermann published his prospect of The Crescent, Portland Place in 1822.

Park Crescent. Eastern Crescent. (© Historic England, Chris Redgrave)

The name ‘Park Crescent’ is first encountered in the year 1821. By then it was abundantly clear that the half-circus north of the New Road would never go ahead. Ideas about the form of the park had radically changed, with a greater openness of landscape prevailing. Around 1820 Nash therefore scrapped the northern crescent altogether in favour of Park Square, square-sided with an open north end. The crescent furnished the park, the New Road and indeed London as a whole with a fresh and uplifting piece of unified urban scenery. Its semicircular profile, albeit only half of what had been planned, offered a decisive depth of sweep that an elliptical crescent would have lacked. On closer inspection the composition, as often with Nash, was sleek but shallow. Minimal projections and pediments at the ends do something to relieve the simple economy of the plastered elevations (originally in Roman cement, Bath-stone coloured, with the jointing perhaps sharper than it is today). But the main compositional trick is in the enfilade of the continuous ground-storey colonnade with coupled Ionic columns, a device integral to Nash’s overall New Street plan and surviving only here. The original agreement with Mayor lays some weight on the balustrades topping the parapets and colonnades, which were to be of stone, and on the iron fencing, which both fronted the deep continuous basements and ran laterally to shield the entrance bridges. As for the houses themselves, they were not the monster 100ft mansions Nash had first dreamt of, just good first-raters with fronts typically of 32ft, backs several feet wider, and ample stone staircases.


[1] The National Archives (TNA), CRES2/748.

[2] Ibid.

[3] TNA, CRES2/742.

[4] TNA, CRES2/752; B3/3365.

[5] Report from the Select Committee on Crown Leases, p. 50.

[6] TNA, CRES2/763.

South-East Marylebone Old and New

By the Survey of London, on 24 February 2017

In 2017 the Survey of London will publish two volumes (Nos 51 and 52) covering a large swathe of the parish of St Marylebone, an area comprising much of the West End north of Oxford Street, otherwise bounded by Marylebone High Street and the Marylebone Road, west and north, and Cleveland Street and Tottenham Court Road to the east. Like many of London’s place-names, Marylebone means different things to different people. To some it connotes the Marylebone Road and its penumbra, scarred by grinding traffic, to others the area adjacent to the two Marylebone Stations, main-line and underground, while those with a sense of civic history may call to mind a once-proud parish stretching from Oxford Street through St John’s Wood to the edge of Kilburn. By far the most famous association is with Lords, and the Marylebone Cricket Club founded in 1787. But the enduring image of Marylebone as a district is of the grid of alternating streets and mews, leavened by the occasional square, that picks up the West End’s uncertain structure beyond Oxford Street and shakes it into order and urbanity.

The aura of south-east Marylebone is various. Time-honoured medical connections have bequeathed cosmopolitanism and gravity to the central grid. Here patients for private clinics or guests at serviced apartments and hotels alight at the kerbside, chauffeurs linger on the qui vive for parking attendants, and pedestrians scurry rather than saunter, pressed forward by the rhythm of the streets. A mundane mews behind may be disrupted by a vision of nurses on tea-breaks clad in overall green, or a lorry backing in with oxygen canisters. Marylebone High Street and its boutiques draw their constituency of well-heeled shoppers and loafers. Yet Paddington Street Gardens and Marylebone Churchyard close by convey an air of ease, with old people reflective on benches or gaggles of schoolchildren on the grass. Lunchtime sprawlers in Cavendish Square are different – a mélange of shop assistants, office workers and tourists taking their breaks. On the fringes of Fitzrovia, the livelier portions of Great Titchfield Street and its surroundings exude conviviality, mixing pubs, small shops and cafés even now not all gentrified, patronized by the copious media businesses that have spread outwards from the BBC and taken over the premises of the dwindling garment trade.

Parts of south-east Marylebone have resisted change during the last century. The following photographs taken by Bedford Lemere & Co. at the turn of the nineteenth century are shown alongside recent photographs by Chris Redgrave.

Debenham and Freebody department store during construction, 27–37 Wigmore Street, in 1907 (Historic England Archive)

Former Debenham and Freebody department store, Wigmore Street, Marylebone, Greater London. View from north west.

Former Debenham and Freebody department store, 27–37 Wigmore Street, in 2013 (Historic England, Chris Redgrave)

The south side of Wigmore Street offers a sudden change in scale and monumentality with the silvery bulk of No. 33, built as headquarters for the drapery business of Debenham & Freebody in 1906–7. A public offer was made in 1907 to help pay for a grand reconstruction of the Wigmore Street premises, ‘rambling and incoherent’ after 90 years of piecemeal development. The London Scots architects William Wallace and James Glen Sivewright Gibson were chosen to design the new building. The frontage was conceived as symmetrical across the whole of the block, but because of the bank there is an extra bay at the west end, devoted originally to a discrete fur shop. A giant arcade runs across the ground and first floor, with plate-glass windows to what were originally single large shops either side of the entrance, their semi-circular tops lighting the first-floor showrooms. Three segmental pediments top three bays set slightly forward with paired giant-order Corinthian columns of grey-green Truro marble forming a vestigial screen to the third and fourth floors. Decoration is mostly channelled ‘stone’ work to the first floor, applied garlands, and two seated female figures within the central pediment, all executed in Doulton’s Carrara Ware. Crowning all is a columned lantern-turret on an octagonal plinth.

46 and 48 Portland Place in 1903 (Historic England Archive)

Howard de Walden Project. General view with 46 & 48 Portland Place, Marylebone, Greater London. View from north west.

46 and 48 Portland Place in 2013 (Historic England, Chris Redgrave)

Nos 34–60 is the best run of surviving Adam-period houses in Portland Place, still with its eye-catching stuccoed and pedimented central pair at Nos 46 and 48, with their ingenious mirrored angled entrance doors. It is here that one gets the strongest sense of the Adam brothers’ original palace-front design concept. Various alterations have changed the appearance of the middle pair at Nos 46 and 48, marring though not completely obliterating the powerful original composition. Its crowning balustrade has gone but for once, when the upper floor was extended around 1870, rather than building up the front wall as elsewhere in the street, the builders left the central pediment in situ, with an enlarged mansard roof and dormers rising behind. Like its partner opposite (No. 37, now demolished), this façade was faced entirely in stucco and decorated with a frieze, pilasters, roundels and characteristic Adam panels of griffins and urns of the same material. Unusually the rusticated ground floor has the windows flanking the entrance set within relieving arches. Particularly elegant is the shared entrance within a shallow apse under a segmental arch, with the two doorways set at an angle.

28 Portland Place in 1903 (Historic England Archive)

28 Portland Place in 2013. (Historic England, Chris Redgrave)

28 Portland Place in 2015 (Historic England, Chris Redgrave)

No. 28 Portland Place retains its Adam pediment and Ionic pilasters (though both were raised in the nineteenth century to accommodate an extra storey), as well as a later Doric entrance porch. Despite many changes it still exudes an aura of old-world elegance. Though it was sold by the Goslings to the Institute of Hygiene in 1928 and has been in institutional or corporate use ever since, No. 28 is still a first-rate example of a London society townhouse adapted and added to over time by one family. The interiors have survived well, of which the most notable is an exceptionally fine ballroom, comprising a suite of linked first-floor drawing rooms fitted out in an elaborate late-Victorian Adam Revival style, with an abundance of painted and gilded plaster decorations and a figurative front-room chimneypiece in the manner of Wyatt.

11 Harley Street in 1903 (Historic England Archive)

Howard de Walden Project. Harley Street, Marylebone, Greater London. View from.

11 Harley Street in 2013 (Historic England, Chris Redgrave)

9 and 11 Harley Street are tall red-brick rebuildings, of 1891 and 1886 respectively, in similar styles, with plentiful stone dressings and pediments. No. 9 was designed by F. M. Elgood as a speculation for W. H. Warner (of Lofts and Warner, estate agents). Elgood was also involved in the design of No. 11, one of his earliest works in the area, whilst still in partnership with Alexander Payne (to whom he was articled) as Payne & Elgood. Their client was the physician and surgeon William Morrant Baker. The building was extended to the rear in 1906 for another doctor, the dermatologist J. M. H. McLeod. Stone figures on the gable were removed in 1937.


Bedford & Co. offices at 24 Wigmore Street in 1894, No. 22 to the right (Historic England Archive)

18–20 Wigmore Street in 2014. (Historic England, Chris Redgrave)

18–24 Wigmore Street in 2014 (Historic England, Chris Redgrave)

Nos 18–22 Wigmore Street were built by Holloway Brothers in 1892–3 to the designs of Leonard Hunt, as showrooms and offices for the piano manufacturer John Brinsmead & Sons. The business, founded in 1837, moved to No. 18 (then 4) in 1863 and subsequently expanded into 20 and 22. The works moved from Charlotte Street to Kentish Town in 1870, and by 1893 produced around 3,000 pianos a year. Hunt’s building, expensively finished with mahogany panelling and leaded glass, was ‘one of the sights of fashionable London’. The ground floor was given over to display space, divided by a hallway with pavement lights illuminating basement showrooms, the upper floor comprising offices and chambers. In 1895 a recital room was added at the back of the basement, seating 130. Lit from two sides with leaded windows, it had mirrored columns and fully-tiled walls. Bedford & Company, surveyors, had offices next door at No. 24. Brinsmeads went out of business in 1922, but was re-established at 17 Cavendish Square in 1924. Lloyds Bank acquired the Wigmore Street building, creating a strong room within the former recital room, and subletting the western shop, which retains a 1928 neo-Georgian bronze shopfront fitted for the opticians Curry & Paxton. The upper floors were converted to flats in 1933.

34 Weymouth Street in 1910 (Historic England Archive)

34 Weymouth Street in 2014. (Historic England, Chris Redgrave)

34 Weymouth Street in 2014 (Historic England, Chris Redgrave)

On the other side of Upper Wimpole Street, of 1908 in a strong, shaped-gable style, is 34 Weymouth Street, by F. M. Elgood for the developer W. H. Warner. Here the gables have oculus windows with attractively sculpted stone surrounds and festoons beneath, the work of A. J. Thorpe, who was also responsible for the carved stone consoles to the door surround.

30–31 Wimpole Street in 1917 (Historic England Archive)

30 wimpole street and New Cavendish Street corner 8 bit

30–31 Wimpole Street (left) and 30a and 30b New Cavendish Street (right) in 2014 (Historic England, Chris Redgrave)

Though treated as one architectural piece, this large and imposing Portland stone corner block of 1910–12, extending round the corner into New Cavendish Street, appears to have been a joint redevelopment and was built as four separate ‘houses’, each originally comprising doctors’ consulting rooms on the lower floors and residential accommodation above. The two properties facing Wimpole Street (originally numbered 30 & 31) were designed by F. M. Elgood, working for the developer Samuel Lithgow. But the two houses fronting New Cavendish Street (30a & 30b) were by Banister Fletcher & Sons, acting for Dr James Lennox Irwin Moore, who had consulting rooms at 30a – and it was these two ‘doctors’ houses’ that attracted attention in the architectural press. The style is a muscular free Jacobethan, with mullioned and transomed windows, and a stone balcony resting on decoratively carved console brackets, all topped off by pedimented gables with deep modillion eaves  – offering a strong contrast to Wimpole House opposite, with its dressing of florid salmon-pink terracotta. The composition is stylistically dissimilar to most of the Edwardian buildings on the Howard de Walden estate (and is none the worse for that) but there are a few oddities about the design. For instance, above the deep modillion cornice on the New Cavendish Street elevation, instead of gables as elsewhere, broad dormers flank a flat-roofed pavilion with a concave façade in what appears to be Bath stone but is probably coloured render. In terms of their construction, the buildings made use of expanded-steel reinforced concrete, with interiors awash with oak panelling and polished oak to the floors and staircases.

In advance of the publication of Volumes 51 and 52 of the Survey of London, on South-East Marylebone, in 2017, the draft chapters have been made freely available online.

RIBA headquarters, Nos 66–68 Portland Place

By the Survey of London, on 29 July 2016

Howard de Walden Project. Royal Institute of British Architects, 66 Portland Place, Marylebone, Greater London. View from south west.

RIBA Headquarters, view from the south-west (© Historic England, Chris Redgrave).

Ian Nairn once noted the irony that the RIBA’s headquarters should be located in Portland Place: the one street in London he felt had been ‘most stupidly and selfishly and blindly ruined by twentieth-century R.I.B.A. members’. But George Grey Wornum’s building, with its sophisticated union of clean lines and classical proportions, is not one of those brutal transgressors.

At the entrance, a pair of giant cast-bronze entrance doors, decorated with a series of charming relief sculptures, tell the story of London’s river and its buildings, modelled by James Woodford, to drawings prepared by J. D. M. Harvey.

Howard de Walden Project. Royal Institute of British Architects, 66 Portland Place, Marylebone, Greater London. Detail of bronze entrance door.

Howard de Walden Project. Royal Institute of British Architects, 66 Portland Place, Marylebone, Greater London. Detail of bronze entrance door.

Howard de Walden Project. Royal Institute of British Architects, 66 Portland Place, Marylebone, Greater London. Detail of bronze entrance door.

Howard de Walden Project. Royal Institute of British Architects, 66 Portland Place, Marylebone, Greater London. Detail of bronze entrance door.

Inside, the entrance hall has a honey-coloured sheen from its yellow terrazzo floor slabs and polished limestone walls, incised with the names of RIBA Presidents and Gold Medallists. But it is the staircase that is Wornum’s tour de force. It is a dramatic space, dominated and held together by four giant fluted columns of green Ashburton marble, star-shaped in plan and without bases or capitals, that rise nearly 30ft to the coffered glass ceiling.

Montage 2

On the first floor is the principal reception room: the Henry Florence Memorial Hall.  Decoration is everywhere, with a patterned floor and splayed limestone piers carved with scenes of architecture through the ages (designed by Edward Bainbridge Copnall), and several fine wall carvings (also by Copnall), including one showing Wornum and Maurice Webb deep in conversation under the watchful eye of Ragnar Östberg. On the ceiling are sculptures by Woodford depicting the various building trades. Also in this room is a pine screen carved with twenty reliefs (by Denis Dunlop) representing culture and industry in India, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Howard de Walden Project. Royal Institute of British Architects, 66 Portland Place, Marylebone, Greater London. Florence Hall, first floor, view from east

Henry Florence Memorial Hall, designed by Wornum with his visit to Stockholm obviously very fresh in his mind (© Historic England, Chris Redgrave).

Howard de Walden Project. Royal Institute of British Architects, 66 Portland Place, Marylebone, Greater London. Detail of plasterer in Florence hall ceiling, first floor.

Henry Florence Memorial Hall,  ceiling panel by Woodford (© Historic England, Chris Redgrave).

Montage 1

Henry Florence Memorial Hall, splayed limestone piers carved with scenes of architecture through the ages (© Historic England, Chris Redgrave).

The British Architectural Library on the third floor was designed by Wornum in consultation with the RIBA’s then librarian Bobby Carter, with Moderne curved ends to its bookcases, and originally with a colour scheme by his wife Miriam (recently restored) of steel bookshelves enamelled in blue and yellow, and a brown cork floor.

British Architectural Library (© Historic England, Chris Redgrave).

British Architectural Library (© Historic England, Chris Redgrave).

With grateful thanks to Eloise Sinclair who put this blog piece together based on the text in the draft chapter from the South-East Marylebone volumes, which can be found here.

30 Portland Place: London’s Guggenheim Museum that never was

By the Survey of London, on 26 February 2016

In the summer of 1939 plans were almost complete for the wealthy American heiress and socialite Peggy Guggenheim to open an Institute of Modern Art in London, in a house at 30 Portland Place specially rented for the purpose from Sir Kenneth Clark, who had been living there for some years with his family and his own remarkable collection of paintings and furnishings. The art historian and critic Herbert Read was already lined up as museum director on a five-year contract and Ms Guggenheim had left for Paris to acquire more artworks, with a list of desiderata drawn up by Read. But then war broke out…

30 Portland Place, view from the north-west (© Historic England, Chris Redgrave).

30 Portland Place, view from the north-west (© Historic England, Chris Redgrave). If you are having trouble viewing images, please click here.

No. 30 was one of a block of fashionable terraced houses, built in the 1770s–90s as part of the Adam brothers’ development at Portland Place. With the neighbouring properties to its south at Nos 26 and 28 it forms an elegant trio of period houses, all with good Adam interiors. In plan the house was straightforward, though typical of the care Robert Adam took in varying room shapes, with partitioning used to introduce curves at the far end of the rear ground-floor breakfast parlour and at both ends of the second drawing room, echoed by other shallow curves in the rear closet wing – features that are still traceable in the house today. Several Adam office designs for chimneypieces, friezes and ceilings for No. 30 survive in the collection at Sir John Soane’s Museum, but only the drawing-room ceilings remain in situ. [1] Much of the eighteenth-century décor was lost during a comprehensive refit in 1901 for the Liberal politician and merchant banker William Charles Heaton-Armstrong, who lived there with his family from 1898 until around 1911, when the failure of his bank forced him to move. His successor in 1911, Lady Margaret Jenkins, spent heavily reversing much of this, reintroducing ‘correct’ Georgian panelling and mantelpieces and stone hall flooring which she thought more in keeping with the date of the house. [2]

In 1934 No. 30 was taken by Sir Kenneth Clark, then newly appointed as Director of the National Galley and Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, and his wife Jane. Clark remembered the house as being ‘far too big’, and the piano nobile of Adam rooms as ‘completely unnecessary’, but he and his wife made use of the space to display artworks and to entertain on a grand scale. Photographs now in the RIBA show the house during their residence, with curtains, rugs and other fittings that the Clarks commissioned from contemporary artists and friends like Marion Dorn, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell; the painter Graham Bell lived for a while in an upstairs room. [3]

Kenneth Clark by Howard Coster, 1934 (© National Portrait Gallery, London)

Kenneth Clark by Howard Coster, 1934 (© National Portrait Gallery, London).

30PP Kenneth Clark's house RIBA72130

The dining room at 30 Portland Place in 1938, during Kenneth Clark’s residence, with curtains designed by Duncan Grant, and George Seurat’s Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp (now in the National Gallery) above the chimneypiece. (Photograph by Alfred Cracknell, © RIBA)

30PP Kenneth Clark's house RIBA72131

The sitting room at 30 Portland Place in 1938, with a rug designed by Marion Dorn, and what appears to be one of Paul Cézanne’s studies of Château Noir above the chimneypiece. (Photograph by Alfred Cracknell, © RIBA)

But by the summer of 1939, with war looming, the Clarks were keen to move their children out of London, and Sir Kenneth informed the Howard de Walden Estate that a ‘Mrs Goggenheim’ [sic] had expressed an interest in taking his house on a five-year lease to establish an Institute of Modern Art. By this date Peggy Guggenheim had closed her short-lived commercial gallery in Cork Street, Guggenheim Jeune, and was turning her attention to establishing a museum of modern art in Europe, preferably in London. [4]

The choice of Herbert Read as museum director was a canny one. As editor of the leading art magazine Burlington Review, he was at the time probably Britain’s best-known advocate of modern art. But it took the offer of a five-year contract from Ms Guggenheim to persuade him to relinquish his editorship. With such a large house intended for what, initially, would be a small museum, the plan was for Read and his family to reside on one upper floor, Guggenheim on another, though apparently they quarrelled about who should have which floor. There seems to have been genuine affection in their relationship: she regarded Read as a bit of a father figure, later reminiscing: ‘he treated me the way Disraeli treated Queen Victoria’. For his part, Read often signed letters to Ms Guggenheim as ‘Papa’. [5]

Herbert Read by Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1934 (© National Portrait Gallery, London).

Herbert Read by Howard Coster, 1934 (© National Portrait Gallery, London).

With everything decided, towards the end of July 1939 Peggy Guggenheim began to make plans for a trip to Paris to buy suitable works for the new museum. Read gave her a list of possible loans and acquisitions, and had already told the press that the opening show would trace the development of modern art since 1910, beginning with Matisse. The collector and gallery owner Roland Penrose, later a co-founder of the ICA, offered to lend some of his Picassos for the first show. The exact content of Read’s list is not known, but Matisse was one of the names that Peggy Guggenheim crossed off as being not ‘modern’ enough for her tastes; others to suffer the same fate included Cézanne and Rousseau.

But the outbreak of war early in September put paid to the project, even though the lease to the Portland Place house had been agreed (but not signed). Sir Kenneth Clark later suggested letting it rent-free as a centre for artists to meet and exhibit their work, but it was requisitioned in 1940 and damaged by bombing in 1941, since when it has seen a variety of commercial uses. Herbert Read was dismissed, never having held office. Once the dust had settled, Read rather ungenerously wrote to the artist Ben Nicholson about the Guggenheim affair: ‘Never in business matters rely on a single patron particularly if that patron is a woman and an American’ – this despite the fact that he had already been paid and allowed to keep an advance of £2,500, half his five-year salary.

The aborted Portland Place museum did, however, have one lasting legacy. Peggy Guggenheim held on to Read’s ‘shopping list’, which she later revised with the aid of artist friends such as Marcel Duchamp and Theo van Doesburg’s widow, Nellie; and the works that she then acquired – including masterpieces by Georges Braque, Salvador Dalí, Piet Mondrian and Man Ray, were to form the basis for her now world-famous private collection of abstract and Surrealist art.


[1] Sir John Soane’s Museum, Adam drawings, vol. 13/122–3; vol. 24/139–44; vol. 53/64

[2] Much of this and the succeeding paragraphs is based on correspondence files belonging to the Howard de Walden Estate Archive

[3] Kenneth Clark, Another Part of the Wood. A Self Portrait, 1985 edn, pp. 238–9, 251, 276

[4] Howard de Walden Estate Archive, property files for 30 Portland Place

[5] This and the succeeding paragraphs are largely based on Mary V. Dearborn, Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim, pp. 158–63: Peggy Guggenheim: A Celebration, exhibition catalogue, 1998/1999, pp. 47–9: http://www.guggenheim-venice.it/inglese/museum/peggy.html