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Architecture
Great Houses of London  
James Stourton (Frances Lincoln, £40, *£35)

This magnificent book, with illustrations of breathtaking beauty specially taken by Fritz von der Schulenburg, is the fullest account ever written of its absorbing subject. It will come as a revelation, even to those who think they are familiar with London, for many of the mansions featured are very little known. It is also surprising to learn that ‘more of the great houses of London are back in private occupation today than at any time since World War II’. The book is thus not only about architecture, but about people, whose social, artistic and political ambitions, and manner of living, are vividly brought to life. 

Several of the houses by William Kent and Robert Adam are familiar, but not Dover House, Whitehall, now the Scot-land Office, which is a 1750s house that was rebuilt by Henry Holland for Frederick, Duke of York, in 1787. Holland’s exquisite neo-Classical interiors, where Byron seduced Lady Caroline Lamb, include a domed rotunda ringed with columns and a room painted by Biagio Rebecca in ‘le style Etrusque’, in fact, Raphaelesque. Tower House, Melbury Road, an exotic masterpiece built by William Burges for himself in 1876-78 and now the home of former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, is a Gothic fantasy where each room has a different theme-Time, Love, Literature, the Earth, the Sea-and every inch is rich with Burges’s carved and painted symbolic decoration.

The superb quality of many magnificent but unfamiliar late-Victorian and Edwardian buildings will excite much attention. Although a single building of this date often contains a rich medley of styles, the Arts-and-Crafts tradition of superb craftsmanship and materials provides aesthetic unity as, for example, at 3, Grafton Street, Stratford House, 54, Mount Street, and 46, Grosvenor Street. 3, Grafton Street, by Robert Taylor of 1768, retains some of his elegant interiors, but Arthur James covered the staircase hall ‘with a rich Edwardian sauce of marble and panelling’ designed by Fairfax Wade, whose ‘most theatrical effect was blasting through Tay-lor’s staircase landing to create an unforgettable trompe l’oeil’.

Stratford House in Stratford Place, built in the 1770s in the Adam style, was enlarged in 1908­-09 for the Earl of Derby with extravagant interiors by Romaine Walker. Following a breakfast party given by Lord Derby in this centre of power in December 1916, half the cabinet resigned. No 54, Mount Street, one of the most splendid mansions in Mayfair, was built in 1896-99 by Fairfax Wade for a connoisseur, Lord Windsor, later 1st Earl of Plymouth. Its exuberant ‘Wrenaissance’ façades shelter interiors rich with marbles and carved plasterwork in the Arts-and-Crafts manner.

Sir Edgar Speyer, German banker, philanthropist, and musical patron, built 46, Grosvenor Street, in 1910-11 from designs by Detmar Blow and Fernand Billerey. It has an American Beaux-Arts Classical façade, a staircase improbably inspired by the Scala dei Giganti at the Doge’s Palace in Venice, and a giant, oval music room with carved and gilt Rococo ornament. Speyer became the victim of anti-German prejudice during the First World War, and his naturalisation as a British subject was revoked in 1921.

No 9, Carlton House Terrace, was built by Nash in 1827-29, but contains National Socialist interiors of 1936-37, carried out for Ribbentrop by Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer. A striking photograph shows Wehrmacht soldiers carrying the coffin of Ribbentrop’s predecessor as German Ambassador past the house in 1936, with Embassy staff giving the Nazi salute.

We are familiar with the depressing list of great houses demolished in the 20th century, from Devonshire House to Londonderry House, but this book can surely cheer us up during the recession with its visions of surviving splendour.

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