Architecture Art People

Ranger’s House + Park Blackheath London


Blackheath Houses © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Pirouettes and marionettes and silhouettes. A silent metronome ticks to the galliards and sarabands of our lives. And so we arrive at a large villa or small mansion. Ranger’s House in, at, on, and opposite Blackheath. It was built around 1700 by Captain Francis Hosier, Vice Admiral of the Blue. Our destination, our desirous subject of the day, is a red brick two storey over raised basement block with later brown brick single storey over raised basement bow fronted wings. The southern wing is bowed at both extremities lending symmetry to the front elevation; the northern wing is missing a bow robbing the garden elevation of symmetry. 

The striking marrying of a house and a collection occurred at the beginning of the 21st century. Ranger’s House was missing artwork and furnishings. The Wernher Collection was homeless. English Heritage acted as matchmaker. The collection of Sir Julius Wernher once graced the interiors of Luton Hoo (his Bedfordshire country house) and Bath House (his London townhouse). The former is now a glitzy hotel; the latter, long demolished. Sir Julius (1850 to 1912) and his business partner Sir Alfred Beit (1853 to 1906) made their fortunes from gold and diamond mining in South Africa. The Beit Collection is housed in Sir Alfred’s former country house, Russborough in County Wicklow, and the National Gallery of Ireland.

Sir Julius’ will was the largest ever recorded at the time by the Inland Revenue. Sir Alfred was reckoned to be the richest man in the world of his time. The tycoons’ busts flank the entrance to the Geology Department of the Imperial College of Science and Technology in Kensington, founded in 1907 with a donation from Werner Beit + Co. There is another Irish connection. The late 5th Duchess of Abercorn, “Sasha” Alexandra Phillips, was the great granddaughter of Sir Julius Werner. Her sister Natalia is the Dowager Duchess of Westminster. Luton Hoo was sold in 1997 following the death of their brother Nicholas. Their mother Georgina Lady Kennard (née Wernher) was a close friend of the Queen.

Our tour of Ranger’s House with John O’Connell, who designed the interiors of the Wallace Collection, begins. “A portico can be expressed or suppressed, nothing else. The ultimate expression is a porte cochère. Here, it is suppressed as a temple front. We love the expressed aprons and rubbed brickwork!” Moving indoors, “The timber staircase would probably have been painted to resemble stone. Three balusters per thread is very noble. The panelled stairs below denote a basement of consequence.”

There are 700 items spread over two floors. “It is one of the best English Heritage collections with some knockout pieces,” John explains. “The Pink Drawing Room has most emphatic Inigo Jones Whitehall Palace style ceiling plasterwork. The interconnecting door to the Entrance Hall is missing its enrichments on top. The Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait, disposed to one side of a wall composition, should be moved and placed centrally. There would have been pier mirrors and tables between the three windows.”

The Grade I Conservation Practice Architect points to a desk: “This is a Jean-François Oeben wow piece! Mr Oeben was a great craftsman. He would have made the woodwork but the guild system wouldn’t have allowed him to make the metalwork. That would have been executed by another craftsman.” Pointing to an earlier more modest piece of furniture: “This work table illustrates the development of specific pieces of furniture for rooms, the search for comfort.”

“The Adriaen van Ostade is a typically allegorical 17th century Dutch painting. The gentleman playing cards suggests profligacy. The lady gazing out the window is showing disloyalty. And the 1617 Gabriël Metsu is wonderful, an absolute beauty, a very important painting. The broom is symbolic of spiritual cleansing. The lapdog represents loyalty.” Our tour continues through the reception rooms. “Such ravishing marble matching mantlepieces and hearthstones. That’s what you get at a certain moment,” admires John. Completing the tour upstairs: “The corridors remind us of Castle Howard.”

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Maison + Bistrot du Cygne Brussels

Off Our Trolley

On the gastronauts’ bridge of broad horizons, Brussels looms large, radiating racy and irresistible attraction. It ranks third – after Paris and London – in the Michelin Cities Guide. We’ve loved bistronomique at Scheltema and adored haute cuisine at Comme Chez Soi, so now we’re lusting after haute bistronomique in the thoroughly upholstered intensely mirrored supremely polished Maison du Cygne on Grand Place.

This 17th century former guildhall is gilded to the nines with golden capitals, corbels and a monogram of the architect Pierre Fariseau’s initials. A gold footed and beaked swan emerges from the fanlight over the entrance door. Stone guilt free angels guard the mansard cum bonnet cum domed roof.

The restaurant is a room of dreams: of shape, form, textures and tensions. Ebullience, rather than restraint, is its theme. This is not one restaurant: it is multiple dining rooms, moods, scenes and dramas. The result of multilayered endeavours. Maison du Cygne is a lesson in what Jacqueline Duncan, the Founder and Principal of Europe’s first interior design school, calls “the very grammar of the profession”. That is, the history of design, furniture and fittings.

And what of the Belgo French cuisine? Benjamin van Malleghem, the Majordome, recommends an off-menu seasonal Flemish starter: white asparagus with buttery scrambled egg. We get it. Continuing the high protein diet, we select a low cooked egg accompanied by chervil and sea shrimps main course. Crème brûlée with Madagascar vanilla is a flawless construct filled with passion – and calories. The food is as ripe and original as the revamped interiors.

Opening with O+C Club favourite St Véran Maison Joseph Drouhin 2017, upon Benjamin’s suggestion we move on to Domaine du Colombette 2016. “It’s by a small yet distinguished winemaker. This Chardonnay is rich and full bodied,” we’re advised. And as gold as the architectural trimmings on Maison du Cygne’s façade. “In the 1980s, Maison du Cygne had three Michelin stars. We have recently relaunched under new ownership. We want it to have a relaxing atmosphere – something a bit different,” says Benjamin, pointing to the leopard skin patterned chairs and contemporary French paintings.

Another O+C Club favourite is the puddings trolley, a sweet chariot of temptation. A faded photograph over the bar shows the restaurant in the 1980s. The trolley – still in use – takes pride of place against a recognisable powerfully carpeted forcefully panelled overwhelmingly lampshaded backdrop. Maison du Cygne: it’s an encore, not a swansong.


St Mary Magdalene Church + St Anne’s Chapel Brussels

Work Hard Pray Hard

An incarnational habit.

One of the city’s oldest churches in Brussels is a medieval stone’s throw from Grand Place. Established by the Brothers of Mercy in the 13th century, St Mary Magdalene is something of a miraculous survival. Two aisles were added in the 15th century and then 200 years later, the whole church was rebuilt. It was abandoned in the early 20th century and almost demolished during urban redevelopment. Fortunately, its historic and architectural value was finally recognised in the 1950s when the building was restored. The Chapel of St Anne, formerly on nearby Rue de la Montagne, was rebuilt and attached to the church. The 1615 baroque stone façade of St Anne’s contrasts with the gothic brick elevations of St Mary’s. Yet the building displays a remarkable unity, a testament to mid 20th century good heritage practice.

In excelsis Deo.

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Hôtel + Café Métropole Brussels

Eclectic Dreams

It’s the café with a hotel attached. In 1890 the Weilemans-Ceuppens brewing brothers opened Café Métropole chiefly to sell their own branded beer. Such was their success they bought the bank next door and transformed it into a hotel. The five star Hôtel Métropole opened five years later. French architect Alban Chambon created Brussels’ grandest hotel. It’s all refreshingly non boutique: big, brash, bombastic. Art Nouveau meets Art Deco outside. Louis the Hooey on steroids inside. More stained glass than a cathedral. The long reception desk is a leftover from its banking days. A period open lift adds to the mood. Bell boy! All the greats have been here, done it, done it here: Sarah Bernhardt | Albert Einstein | Lavender’s Blue. It’s the last remaining 19th century hotel in Brussels.


Brussels + The Doors

Green Roots

Detail sprouts in all directions.


Quai au Bois à Brûler + St John the Baptist Church + Béguinage Brussels

New Qualities of Light

Beyond the city walls. The chiaroscuro of photography. Work hard pray hard.

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Palmerston Square + Marie-Louise Square + Ambiorix Square Brussels + Gustave Strauven

Art for Art Nouveau’s Sake | Cultural Capital 

Just as Josep Puig i Cadafalch is overshadowed by Gaudí, so Victor Horta steals the limelight from Gustave Strauven. Monsieur Strauven was a protégé of Monsieur Horta. His pièce de résistance is a sliver of a building on Ambiorix Square, Brussels’ finest address. He designed and built this house, as slim as a Parisian Métro station beacon, for the painter George Saint-Cyr between 1901 and 1903. It’s a slender symphony of sinuous wrought iron lines dancing across a stone façade, a single bay four metre wide work of art, a magnificent manifesto to all things Art Nouveau. Above a lower ground floor truncated Sunset Boulevardesque staircase, projecting and inset balconies weave and wander up the building, feathery columns as thin as bedposts propping up a first floor viewing gallery; then more twists and turns until finally reaching a crescendo – ta da! – a top floor circular loggia. In front of the house, the greenery of Ambiorix Square slopes down to the greenery and water of Palmerston Square which in turn falls towards the water of Marie-Louise Square. In the distance lies the city of diplomats.

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Rue de Laeken Brussels + Prince Charles

A Study of a Street

A summary of the eastern street frontage of Rue de Laeken, which runs between Rue du Pont Neuf to the north and Rue du Cirque to the south follows. The Foundation for Architecture in Brussels organised a Europe wide competition in 1989 for the reconstruction of this part of Rue de Laeken which had been demolished in the 1960s. Over 200 entries were received. The overriding criteria used by the international jury were that the projects should recreate a street suitable for the heart of Brussels and for the people who would live there. The winning team, then all aged under 40, came from Belgium, England, France, Italy and Spain.

The competition was a quest to combine architecture and urbanism: how to reconstruct a section of a street that would respect the scale and structure of the traditional city and the aesthetics of a historic street dominated by neoclassical language while meeting the economic, functional and technical requirements of contemporary shops, workshops, offices and houses. The buildings work symbiotically together; concessions to modern requirements such as lifts and underground car parking are hidden from view. Prince Charles approves: “The completion of this project to reconstruct the Rue de Laeken is a sign of hope that we may at last be entering a new and more humane age of European urbanism.” So from left to right, north to south, in a particular order, there are lots to see:

  • Lot 1 by Gabriele Tagliaventi + Associates. A three bay by three bay corner pedimented tower rising five storeys with arch headed ground floor windows. Attached is a two bay four storey with dormer building; blind windows on either side of the doorway.
  • Lot 2 by Atelier 55 + Marc Heene + Michel Leloup. Four bay three storey building with dormers; a shopfront takes up half the ground floor façade. Attached is a narrow four storey with dormer building; first floor rectangular oriel almost spans its full width.
  • Lot 3 by Sylvie Assassin + Barthélemy Dumons + Philippe Gisclard + Nathalie Prat. Symmetrical seven bay street centrepiece; four storey with attic; shopfronts either side of gated archway.
  • Lot 4 by Jean-Philippe Garric + Valérie Négro. Seven bay four storey with blind central bay on upper floors; shopfronts either side of arched doorway; first floor treated as mezzanine.
  • Lot 5 by Javier Cenicacelaya + Inigo Salona. Four bay three storey with dormers; arch headed ground floor doorways and windows.
  • Lot 6 by Liam O’Connor + John Robins. Three bay three storey pedimented townhouse. Attached is a four bay four storey heavy corniced symmetrical building; doorcase on either side of shopfront.
  • Lot 7 by Joseph Altuna + Marie-Laure Petit. Six bay four storey corner building accentuated by arch headed first and third floor windows; first floor metal balconies; chamfered corner.

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Mary Martin London + MML + The Green Dress

The Balm of Gilead

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Queen’s Road + Clifton Crescent Peckham London

So Hot It’s Cool

Queen's Road Peckham © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Hyperbole alert! There’s that unmistakeable frisson in the mild breeze on a hot day upon exiting the refurbed Queen’s Road Peckham Railway Station. It’s the delicious combo of the arty and the artisanal: skateboarders working their moves outside Blackbird Bakery. The 19th century birth and the 21st century rebirth of Peckham are both really down to the railway. Its invention turned a village into a suburb; its extension transformed a down-and-out address into a ready-to-party postcode.

Asylum Road House Peckham © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Even before Time Out ranked Peckham as the 11th hippest place on the planet (Embajadores in Madrid won prize position although our personal favourites are No. 27 Phibsboro Dublin, No. 41 Palermo Soho Buenos Aires, No. 43 Kadıköy Istanbul and No. 46 Langstrasse Zürich), Bellenden Road (Peckham south) was a gastrohub. Now it’s time for Queen’s Road (Peckham east) to shine.

Clifton Crescent Peckham © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Clifton Crescent Peckham London © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Clifton Crescent Brimmington Park Peckham © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The corner of Queen’s Road and Asylum Road forms the fulcrum of all that is current. At its very epicentre is Kudu, a local restaurant with a South African flavour, run by Amy Corbin and Patrick Williams. Amy’s father is Chris Corbin, one half of celebrated restaurateurs Corbin + King (The Delaunay, The Wolseley, Brasserie Zédel and so on). What does bliss look like? Shakshuka, eggs, parmesan crisps and burnt kale brunch served in a pan on Kudu’s plant filled sun drenched terrace.

Asylum Road Lilac Tree Peckham © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Kudu had barely opened when it received a Bib Gourmand accolade. Other south London restaurants to bask in this Michelin recognition include Trinity Upstairs in Clapham and José on Bermondsey Street. The former is our local on the Common. The latter reminds us of Atlántico in Arroyo, Buenos Aires, with stools lining a tiled bar. Elevated bistro fare.

Kudu Restaurant Peckham © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Asylum Road is lined with insanely attractive houses and lilac trees. It links Queen’s Road to Peckham’s finest terrace, the Bristol sounding Clifton Crescent. These Grade II listed mid 19th century houses are transitional in style. Georgian leftover? The steps to the piano nobile entrance doors of course. Regency reminder? That’ll be the lead canopies. Victorian era? The red brick for sure. This shallow curve of architectural delight overlooks leafy Brimmington Park. It’s time to add SE15 to the Monopoly board!

Kudu Restaurant Garden Peckham © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Country Houses

Barnes Gap + Vinegar Hill Tyrone

Far West of the Bann

Barnes Gap Sperrin Mountains © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

They’re Northern Ireland’s answer to Wuthering Heights. The Sperrins are the Province’s largest mountain range. Barnes Gap is one of many scenic highlights: a waterless fjord. Spring lambs dot the intensely green fields of Vinegar Hill above.

Vinegar Hill Tyrone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s a remote location and a population drop of 10 percent over the last 100 years in County Tyrone has only added to the sense of isolation.

Vinegar Hill Sperrin Mountains © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Sperrins get their name from the Irish Gaelic phrase “Na Speiríní” which means “spurs of rock”. It may sound like a person’s name but “Barnes” actually means “gap” in Irish. Barnes Gap: a linguistic representation of the Province’s dual heritage.

Barnes Gap Tyrone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Mary Martin Fashion Designer + The Green Dress

Destiny Hall

Every occasion is an haute couture one. Especially when you know Scotland’s International Awards Best Fashion Designer Mary Martin.