There are knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Yes, but is it art? No. It’s Fancy Nancy. That is, coco cardamom fried spiced rice with spring onion and yuzu palm bean shoots served with a salad of lychee, coriander, mint and pickled lotus root and a pinda peanut laksa, finished with yuzu crème fraîche, panang pickled chilli sambal with a chilli flash fried egg, peanut cumin and onion seed crumble and tapioca sea salad cracker (£14.95). Best complemented by sizzle chips, truffle Mornay sauce and truffle with pickled quails’ egg mimosa (£7.65). Only in Brighton, would vegetarians be in the majority. And so, on a cold rainy afternoon, Terre à Terre, one of Clapham-on-Sea’s best meat free restaurants, is jammers. Red walls in a dining room stimulate conversation and appetite. So do great company and great food. Afterwards, it’s a dash across East Street, seagulls serenading overhead, for the best vegan coffee and orange brownies in Brighton. VBites, Heather Mills’ cosy café, proves she’s more than just a charity fundraiser, animal rights campaigner, TV personality, model and champion skier… Actually, Fancy Nancy? It is art. The edible kind.
“Architectural fashion is often a reaction to what went immediately before. There’s even a perceptible difference between Pugin the father and Pugin the son’s work. The second generation architect’s designs are more rationalised,” observes artist and architectural publisher Anne Davey Orr. “The use of concrete in the 20th century would issue in a much more open expression of materials and structure.” In between trying not to butcher quotations (it was a late night chat) it’s worth noting the penultimate decades of the last two centuries both stuck to something of a “more is more mantra”, a sort of turn of the century syndrome. Eclecticism gone wild. Competent chaos. Not without honour and slightly mad. Pont Street for the 1880s and 90s; postmodernism for the 1980s and 90s. Out went conformity and goodbye to context; in came variety and hello to contrast. Many a dazed and disorientated architectural historian has spent sleepless nights defining and redefining the late 19th century style or rather style hybrid. North German Revival? Queen Anne? Flemish Renaissance? Hans Town? Or simply Cadogan? Osbert Lancaster, never short of a catchy phrase, opted for Pont Street Dutch. John Betjeman shortened it to Pont Street which if nothing else is certainly geographically specific. He calls it the “new built red as hard as the morning gaslight” in his poem The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel. These days the arresting SW postcodes are as golden as they’re terracotta.
Equally contentious is who invented it? John James Stevenson claimed “Queen Anne” as his baby; the 21st century artists sounding George and Peto produced some of the most overblown examples in Harrington Gardens SW7 but the style was to become synonymous with the domineering work of Norman Shaw. Whoever dreamt up Pont Street, and in reality it was the usual hotchpotch of talent and self publicity, the style spelt the death knell, the writing on the rendered wall, of regular terraces, issuing in an asymmetric age of individualism. “Look at me, look at me, look at me!” screams each and every house as the roofline tipsily whooshes and swooshes along more Dutch gables than Keizersgracht. Against the navy blue canvas of a sun drenched winter’s morning, the red brick and terracotta dressed with whitish stone renders Pont Street a patriotic tricolour. If walls could speak: “We may look Dutch or German or kinda Belgian (although certainly not anaemic Italian) but We Are Proud To Be British!” Its strength of character allows 20th century blips such as the picture window spanning the penthouse of 41 Lennox Gardens to be immersed into the wider picture of Pont Street. The houses (age unconsciously) celebrate their birthdays. “1884” shouts 25 Lennox Gardens in two foot tall letters from its third floor. A few doors up 43 Lennox Gardens tells the world it’s a year younger.
While unsettling for minimalists or purists, a wander in wonder along the wonderful streets of SW1 and SW3, the blessed boulevards of the hallowed Cadogan Estate, throws up a maximalist and impure visual feast, an aesthetic eyeful, for the devil and angels are in the detail. At a glance, here are just some of the hyperactive highlights. Keyhole silhouette broken pediment copper dormers in Sloane Gardens. Double decker dormers in Culford Gardens. Witch’s hat copper turrets where Draycott Place meets Blacklands Terrace. Quoined porthole windows peering out of 54 to 58 Draycott Place. A neo Elizabethan fretwork loggia hugging 3 Cadogan Gardens. Pierless Brighton balconies clinging on to 85 to 87 Cadogan Gardens. A French château mansard atop 89 Cadogan Gardens. Twin Queen Anne fanlights surmounting the doorcase of 105 Cadogan Gardens. Stumpy Ionic pilasters with egg and dart capitals framing the porch of 60 Cadogan Square. A pair of ballsy busty bulbous oriel windows bursting out from 84 Cadogan Square. A crowd of Georgian, gothic, plate glass, lead paned, stained glass, dormer and gabled windows on the side elevation of 63 Cadogan Square. Oh, and a lonely half oriel window for good measure. Pont Street itself bisects Cadogan Place Gardens under the watchful eyes of Jumeirah Carlton Tower. But the great swathe of red is mostly found between Sloane Street and Lennox Gardens. The extremities of Pont Street dive back into stuccoland.
A morning of architectural investigation deserves an afternoon of pure indulgence. Historically, afternoon tea was the outcome of dinner hour slipping to after 7pm in the early 19th century. Hiccupping ladies at first surreptitiously downed tea and gobbled cakes in their boudoirs after midday. Certainly, trailblazing trendsetting taboo busting zeitgeisty gal-about-castle Duchess of Rutland was bolshily dispensing tea in her boudoir by 1842. By Pont Street times, both sexes were merrily letting rip into scones and clotted cream in the drawing room or on the lawn. Where better then to indulge than No.11 Cadogan Gardens, the hotel bought by the synonymous Estate in 2012? It’s a thoroughly sophisticated member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World.
A maze of lacquered cloistered sequestered panelled hallways and passageways leads into the consciously picturesque opalescent drawing room. Linen at the ready, afternoon tea awaits, designed to instil a divine inertia into the remainder of a blurred and stimulating day. Decked and bedecked, trellised and jardinièred, the terrace is tucked between the townhouses and the mews to the rear. A flashback in paradise, evanescent and alive with remote anticipation, it’s a place to dwell on the meaningfulness of life. Another surprising space, full of heavenly glamour, is the Versailles inspired mirrored hall. Oil paintings of aristos line the ascending staircase to the 54 bedrooms. Monochromatic photos of models Christie, Linda and Kate line the descending staircase to the basement. Souls of different ages, the universe in process of consummation. No.11 has a distinct and dynamic personality, warm and sensuous, functioning outward from within.
Over to the father of town planning Manning Robertson for some contrariness: “Definitions of architecture are as unsatisfactory as any other expositions of the aim and meaning of the arts; but if architecture is to be alive at all it must clearly involve the erection of buildings to suit the demands of the period, and the embellishment of those buildings according to the dictates of the materials in use, the treatment being a direct reflection of the outlook of the epoch, based of course upon past work, insofar as it is applicable. We cannot say that the 19th century, which produced principally a dead copying of the past, did not reflect itself truly; it was, on the contrary, amazingly accurate in illustrating that the worship of material prosperity is not consistent with a high level of art. Public attention was absorbed elsewhere; architecture had to look after itself; what more natural than that men living in such a period should turn round and, as a sop to the aesthetic, attempt to reconstruct periods long since dead? The Victorian era was an age of immense scientific achievements, but it was also unique as an age that produced no living and typical architecture, unless one calls an indiscriminate repetition of past styles ‘typical’.”
Back to Marlfield House, 20 years since the first visit. The Gorey bypass may cause a moment of disorientation along the journey, but the country house hotel at the heart of the 30 acre estate is still reassuringly grand, everything just so, now entering decades of decadence, heaven’s in the detail, sugar crystals in silver bowls for coffee de rigeur. Marlfield is now in the very capable hands of the second generation of the Bowe family to run the hotel. Sisters Margaret and Laura and their own families live on the estate. Their parents Mary and Ray bought the house from the widowed Lady Courtown in 1977. À la mode modifications completed over the following decade allowed the building to breathe as a hotel. Through recessions and a boom, Marlfield became a byword for brilliance, a billet doux to hospitality, a magnet for the smart Dublin set.
Forget the usual bog standard 20th century hotel extension horrors. Distinguished artist and architectAlfred Cochrane’s work at Marlfield adventurously augments its presence, both physically and architecturally. Creative clients helped. “We’re all mad about design,” according to Margaret. “Our family all have a good eye.” From the whimsical to the wacky, always tasteful, never tacky, it’s a tour de force of neoclassical language reimagined for the spirit of the age. Petit Trianon on speed, Temple of the Winds on a high, Crystal Palace methodology. Now if Loulou de la Falaise was an annexe… Take the entrance portico. Its Doric centrepiece, confidently stepping forward from rusticated stone bays, explodes into a not so much broken pediment as broken temple, like ruins glued together with glazing.
A vast half moon (fully completed by the half moon pond outside) entrance hall links the main house to the rest of Alfred’s single storey bedroom wing. Top lit long galleries spread like elegant tentacles in all directions connecting the entrance hall to the six state suites: the Print Room, Morland Room, Stopford Room, Georgian Room, French Room and Sheraton Room. The crème de la crème is the Print Room, an octagonal cove ceilinged panelled pièce de résistance. “Mariga Guinness did the print decorations on the walls,” says Margaret. “They took days and days to complete! The inspiration came from Louisa Connolly’s famous Print Room at Castletown. When the doors are pulled across the bed alcove, wedding ceremonies are often performed in this room.” A handily placed harp stands next to the French windows. She confirms the hotel can accommodate up to 145 guests for a wedding.
The other 13 guest bedrooms, all with marble bathrooms, are upstairs in the main house. A conservatory on the garden front, also designed by Alfred Cochrane, balances the state room wing on the entrance front. History, symmetry, geometry, harmony, luxury: all are important at Marlfield. The conservatory is a tripartite triumph in cast iron and glass. A central projection balloons up to a storey height ogee shaped dome. A frame of distinctive lattice metalwork pilasters topped by stylised Ionic capitals holding a frieze is as stylish as anything produced in the days of the Prince Regent. Yet more French doors lead onto a croquet lawn.
Bon appétit! Mushrooms immersed in white wine, thyme and cream on toast accompanied by poached hens’ eggs trickling in black truffle oil are a culinary must in the library. “The eggs are from our neighbours, Samuel and Maurice Allen’s happy hens!” Many of the herbs and vegetables are from the Bowes’ kitchen garden while fish, meat and dairy produce are all sourced locally. Classy food in classical surroundings. The library is a rich blue; the sitting room next door, a pale lemon. Like all the rooms, they are filled with more antiques than Mealy’s on auction day. Plasterwork and white marble fireplaces form the backdrop to colourful festoons and fabric pelmets.
Marlfield House was built in 1852 by the 4th Earl of Courtown as a dower house in association with his principal seat, Courtown House. It’s a classic three storey block of the middle size, four bays wide by two bays deep. The west or side elevation is bowed towards the sunken topiary garden. The other side elevation adjoins a two storey ancillary wing. A two bay breakfront projects from the centre of the south or garden front. Characterful rugged semi coursed rubble stone on cut granite and red brick quoins contrast with overhanging modillioned box eaves (c’est quoi?). A low pitched roof is punctuated by tall chimney stacks. The 5th Earl swapped the ground floor multi pane windows found elsewhere in the building for plate glass sash windows in 1866.
This architectural dowager, a bon viveur full of joie de vivre, not in mourning, never rests on her manicured laurels. More than 160 years after the first stone was laid, a new lease of life is underway for Marlfield. “It will be rustic and informal, edgy even!” says Margaret about the new bistro in the ancillary wing. “French doors will open onto the market garden and there’ll be a fireplace on the terrace. It will be very family friendly. We’re also opening a small interiors shop which will host pop up events every so often.”