Owning Mayfair

David Cannadine

  • Survey of London. Vol. 40: The Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 2. The Buildings edited by F.H.W. Sheppard
    Athlone, 428 pp, £55.00, August 1980, ISBN 0 485 48240 1

When, in The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Bracknell imagined the terrible spectre of social revolution, she spoke feelingly of ‘acts of violence in Grosvenor Square’. In this, as in her later strictures against ‘the Brighton line’, she demonstrated a sound understanding of the social geography of late 19th-century London. For while Berkeley Square might boast its nightingale, and Belgrave Square was saluted in Iolanthe, neither quite rivalled the cachet of Grosvenor Square, the most glamorous address in London, the social centre and status summit of Mayfair, where the rich, the wellborn and the powerful lived lives of exclusive, glamorous opulence and privileged, aristocratic grandeur. Some indication of Mayfair’s stately, splendid and sumptuous past may be gleaned from the acknowledgements page in this appropriately stately, splendid and sumptuous volume, where names like Abercorn, Derby, Mountbatten, Scarbrough and Wemyss surge before the reader’s eye, in a cascade of coronets.

Since Lady Bracknell’s time, there have, indeed, been ‘acts of violence’ in Grosvenor Square – both social and architectural. The landed élite has largely ceased to be the governing élite; many much-reduced magnates have quit London altogether for the embittered seclusion of the shires; and others have adopted a lower residential profile among the chic apartments and smaller houses of Chelsea and Knightsbridge. ‘Aristocracy,’ Nancy Mitford noted over twenty years ago, ‘no longer keeps up any state in London,’ and their once-great Mayfair houses, with their splendid décor, lavish furnishings, spectacular works of art, and retinues of servants, have also vanished, or been given over to less blue-blooded uses. Today, they are one with the dodo and the dreadnought, surviving only in the elephantine memories of elderly dowagers, and in the escapist, nostalgic fantasies re-created in high-class soap operas like Upstairs, Downstairs. In Grosvenor Square today, the Uncle Sam who lords it over the west side is not some latterday Courtauld relative, but a very different creature altogether. Lady Bracknell might be mollified to learn that Mayfair retains its high status and exclusive reputation: but the riches and power to which it now plays host are institutional and governmental rather than patrician or titled.

The Mayfair Estate came into the Grosvenor family through an advantageous marriage in 1677 between Sir Thomas Grosvenor and the heiress Mary Davies, who also brought with her other London lands which later became Pimlico and Belgravia. Enjoying enormous natural advantages of location, from which indifferent early management could not detract, Mayfair was developed from the 1720s, and by the end of the 18th century was established as the home of the beau monde, a position which it retained as long as the beau monde lasted. It was the ground rents thus created, subsequently augmented by revenue from Belgravia and Pimlico, which transmogrified the Grosvenors from insignificant Cheshire squires into renowned and ducal millionaires. By the mid-19th century, they were described as ‘the wealthiest uncrowned family on earth’, and fifty years later their income was being measured in hundreds of thousands of pounds – figures which almost defy calculation in contemporary real equivalents.

Combining stupendous wealth with an upright character, the first Duke of Westminster was ‘the beau-idéal of a Victorian gentleman’ – a high-minded, Evangelical philanthropist, owner of one of the finest private art collections in the world, and an outstandingly versatile sportsman. On his death in 1899, it was noted that ‘he could pass from the race course to a missionary meeting without incurring the censure of the strictest.’ But this could not be said of Bend Or, his grandson and successor as second Duke, who was as much a public figure as his immediate forbear – but in rather a different way. In 1919, he was obliged to resign from the Lord Lieutenancy of Cheshire because of the circumstances of his first divorce – and there were three more wives to come. ‘Whose yacht is that?’ Amanda asks Elyot in Private Lives, as they stand on their hotel balcony looking out over the moonlit Mediterranean. ‘The Duke of Westminster’s, I expect,’ he replies. ‘It always is.’

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