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.’

When Bend Or died in 1953, Henry Channon (who was himself ‘rivetted by lust, furniture, glamour, society and jewels’) described him as ‘a mixture of Henry VIII and Lorenzo II Magnifico’, and believed that his wealth was ‘incalculable’ – a view which, predictably, Her Majesty’s Government did not share. They valued his estate at more than £10 million, and it was rumoured that a special government department was set up to undertake the collection of death duties. Today, in addition to Belgravia and Mayfair, the family trustees own estates in Cheshire and Scotland, and have other holdings scattered around the world, especially in the old white Dominions. Contemporary estimates of their total wealth start in the region of £100 million, and work steadily – if speculatively – upwards from there. By comparison with many of their landed cousins, who slum it in safari parks, the Westminsters have been extraordinarily successful in keeping their estates and augmenting their riches across the generations.

During the late 19th century, large parts of Mayfair were redeveloped, and this phase in the estate’s history coincided with a broader pattern of destruction and rebuilding throughout much of London. Indeed, it was in this immediate context that the Survey of London was born. In 1894, C.R. Ashbee, a young East End architect, with a passionate interest in the Arts and Crafts Movement, was so outraged by the demolition of the Old Palace at Bromley-le-Bow that he set up a Committee for the Survey of London Monuments, which planned to publish lists of all important buildings within 20 miles of Aldgate. Two years later, the recently-formed London County Council began to take an interest in Ashbee’s Committee, and agreed to pay its publishing costs, provided that the area was extended to the whole metropolis. The first instalment, on Bromley-le-Bow, appeared in 1900, price 10s 6d, and during the next fifty years, a further 25 volumes appeared.

As this early history makes plain, the Survey of London began life as one of those ventures in historical preservation and national self-regard which burgeoned in the 1890s and 1900s, and included the National Trust, Country Life, the Burlington Magazine, the Victoria County History, the Dictionary of National Biography and the Historical Monuments Commission. All were concerned with England’s past, and many were born out of the fear that the most cherished and varied of the nation’s traditions – the parish and the county, the rural craftsman and the village smithy, the country house and the cathedral close – were under new and powerful threat from agents of destruction as diverse as the county council and the property-developer, the internal combustion engine and suburban blight.

Publications such as Country Life and the VCH were suffused with a dreamy, wistful, elegiac nostalgia for a vanishing rural England: they were expressions of rustic lament rather than the manifestos of vigorous conservationists. But the Survey of London, although much inspired by this feeling, was also more aggressive, more didactic and more forward-looking in its interests. In seeking to compile a list of all buildings of architectural merit or historical significance within the metropolis, it aimed, as Ashbee explained in his introduction to the first volume, ‘not only at giving a record, but also at suggesting a policy’. By watching and registering ‘what still remains of beautiful or historic work in Greater London’, it was hoped ‘to bring such influence to bear from time to time as shall save it from destruction’. In safeguarding the best of London’s fabric for the future, it sought to stimulate ‘that historic and social conscience which to all great communities is their most sacred possession’.

It was this powerful preservationist instinct which explained both the appearance – and the weaknesses – of the large, expensive and well-produced volumes of the Survey which appeared during the ensuing half-century. For, despite their academic pretensions, they were more the manifestos of committed preservationists than the work of professional scholars. With a few conspicuous exceptions, such as the trilogy on Whitehall, the majority of volumes were myopic in interests, amateurish in research and antiquarian in tone. The archival material on which they depended was at best thin, and the dating and attribution of buildings were often based on very flimsy evidence. Buildings constructed after 1800, which by this time constituted the majority of London’s fabric, were ignored. And parish boundaries were slavishly adhered to even when they resulted in some bizarre and meaningless units of investigation. No attempt was made to relate the buildings thus described to the social, political, economic or cultural milieu of which they were both product and expression, and matters such as change, causality and explanation were not addressed, even indirectly. There was, in short, no real historical engagement with London’s past at all.

By the early 1950s this approach was becoming ever more difficult to justify, especially when compared with such important pioneer works as S.E. Rasmussen’s astonishingly innovative London: The Unique City (1934) and John Summerson’s now-classic Georgian London (1945). So influential have these books become that, in retrospect, their novelty and audacity are hard to appreciate. But at the time of publication, they were milestones in the history of architecture, showing how the details of individual buildings could – and should – be related to broader historical questions concerning the structure of landownership, the nature speculative building and the dynamics of urban life. Compared with these powerful, innovative historical studies, the Survey volumes seemed about as up to date as St Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. Moreover, after half a century’s painstaking endeavour, only 15 of the two hundred-odd parishes of the City and County of London had been investigated, which gave an ominous relevance to the rather breezy prediction of the editor of the first volume, who had freely admitted that the Survey was ‘a work that may perhaps, never be finished’.

Accordingly, in the early 1950s, the LCC drastically reformed the whole series. They appointed a professional historian, F.H.W. Sheppard, as full-time general editor, and provided him with a research staff whose massive, unflagging archival researches have been vital to the Survey’s rejuvenation. Unlike its closest cousin, the VCH, which has remained – despite valiant efforts – imprisoned in the iron web of its own antiquity (and antiquarianism), the Survey has been successfully liberated from its preservationist past, and transmogrified into a work admirably professional in execution, and impressively historical in content. Although topography and architecture remain the paramount concern, each volume published since 1957 has begun with a general commentary on the social and economic aspects of the area dealt with. In addition, all buildings are now documented and described (where possible) down to the present day. And on occasion, even the parish boundaries have been disregarded in favour of more realistic units of study. From the outside, the fifteen-odd volumes which have appeared under Dr Sheppard’s auspices look very similar to those which went before. But in terms of content, they have little more in common with them than a co-residential Oxbridge college of today has with its medieval and monastic predecessor.

The result has been a series of studies which have increasingly exhausted the superlatives of their critics. Volume 36, for instance, investigated the Parish of St Paul, Covent Garden, and not only provided a magisterial history of Inigo Jones’s piazza, but also, in its account of the Bedford Estate, made a major contribution to the study of patrician urban landownership. And three years later, in the next volume, the Survey boldly cast off its central London straitjacket, and bravely entered the suburbs, in a study of Northern Kensington which combined quantitative skill, meticulous scholarship and evocative flair so powerfully as to beat most urban historians at their own game. Quite rightly, one reviewer acclaimed the volume, and the Survey, as ‘the noblest yet most indulgent work of urban iconography ever conducted’.

In addressing itself to the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, therefore, the Survey of London has taken on a subject fully worthy of its own grandeur. With its carefully-designed, tastefully-planned, beautifully-produced and meticulously proof-read volumes, which now throw as much light on broad questions as they do on specific buildings, the Survey is both a Mayfair among monographs and a Grosvenor Square of general surveys. Indeed, in its splendid appearance, its coherent yet flexible planning, and its long-term conception and perspective, it rather resembles those master plans drawn up in the 18th and 19th centuries for the patrician owners of metropolitan acres. All too regrettably, however, the aristocratic analogy may be further extended: one also needs a ducal income of almost Westminster dimensions to be able to afford this particular volume.

Because the Grosvenors’ Mayfair archives are so extensive and important, it was wisely decided to publish an extended general survey of the social, administrative and architectural history of the estate as a separate volume, which appeared in 1977 to celebrate the tercentenary of the Grosvenors’ acquisition of their London acres. This companion volume investigates the estate in exhaustive detail, street by street and house by house, piling on evidence concerning the architects, builders and occupants with almost suffocating intensity. Here is a veritable prosopography of bricks and mortar, which does for Mayfair’s buildings what the History of Parliament does for Westminster’s MPs. Had Sir Lewis Namier been endowed with the interests of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, he might have written just this sort of book.

As a result, it is more something to be dipped into than to be read at a sitting, a work of reference and information rather than of narrative and interpretation. Utilising every possible visual aid – a large and detailed map, 96 pages of plates, and many superb plans and line drawings – the reader is taken on an exhaustive conducted tour of the estate. As we are led along the pavement, the general history of each street is outlined, in terms of its fabric, its occupational usage and its social tone. At each front door – whether it is to a house, a church, a block of flats or Claridge’s – we pause and enter. Room by room, we are taken round; changes and alterations made over the years are described; where there have been previous buildings on the site, we are given their history; and we leave with a list of the principal occupants as a parting gift. From the workmen’s dwellings of Gilbert Street, via the coachmen, grooms, victuallers and farriers of Bourdon Street, to the surviving Georgian splendours of North and South Audley Street, the varied texture of Mayfair life, and the corresponding diversity of its buildings, are beautifully displayed. Predictably and appropriately, the high spots in this grand tour are the detailed history of the houses in Grosvenor Square, the story of the life and death of Old Grosvenor House and its subsequent rebirth, and the account of the 19th-century grandeur, and 20th-century transformation, of Park Lane.

The delicious effect of all this is to make the reader an eavesdropper on architects at work and aristocrats at play. We meet Robert Adam giving 26 Grosvenor Square its magnificent 18th-century interiors; J.T. Wimperis concocting his splendid fin-de-siècle Queen Anne extravaganzas for the rebuilding of Mount Street; Edwin Lutyens having fun and games over the designs for the new Grosvenor House. At 75 South Audley Street, we encounter Lord Bute (was he really ‘a theoretician of absolutism’?), uneasily enjoying his ephemeral triumph as George III’s First Minister. Nearby, in South Street, we come across Catherine Walters, the last Victorian courtesan, on one side, and Lord Melbourne, whose house boasted 16 servants ‘all thieving and drunk’, on the other. Further west, in Park Lane, we notice one house where Disraeli resided before he had climbed to the top of the greasy pole, and another where the widowed Lady Palmerston lived, after her husband had fallen off it. Finally, and perhaps appropriately, a brace of divorced duchesses: Violet, one of Bend Or’s temporary wives, at 71 South Audley Street, and Margaret Argyll at 48 Upper Grosvenor Street, which she kept as a private residence until as recently as 1978.

More generally, this wealth of detail provides ample support for the generalisations developed in the earlier companion volume. In particular, it shows both the scope and the limits to the power of aristocratic landowners to mould the urbanisation process according to their own preferences. The first Duke, for instance, was often successful in his late 19th-century rebuilding programmes, improving the tone of some of the meaner streets, and ridding the estate of its surfeit of 18th-century hostelries. But when, in the 20th century, the great grandees began to abandon their town houses for smaller dwellings and apartments, there was little that the Westminsters could do but to accept this trend and re-plan their estate accordingly. Like many other Londoners, they did not wish to see Park Lane become Park Avenue: but they had little real choice in the matter. All they could do – and did do – was to ensure that, if such redevelopment had to come, then it must be to the highest possible standards. Accordingly, Park Lane and Mayfair rightly remain the two most expensive sites on the Monopoly board, and this magnificent book goes far in helping us understand why.