Broadcaster and journalist Brenda Emmanus OBE was the BBC’s Arts, Culture and Entertainment Correspondent for 18 years. Right now, she’s busy working on a range of projects including an ITV documentary to mark the late Princess Diana’s birthday. Brenda is a friend and client of Mary Martin. “I can’t remember exactly when I met Mary. I knew her on the scene, the celebrity community of people in my life network. Mary just appears in your life! Once she’s in she makes an impression. She’s a generous friend, an open person.”
They share a major interest in common: a passion for fashion. “As a child I cut out dolls from magazines and dressed them up. I’ve very eclectic taste. My work in the newsroom is quite formal but my role allows me to be much freer to wear more what I like. I’m mainly a lover of dresses although I do love trousers – the androgynous look – too. I love dramatic dresses that really embrace fashion. I’m up for drama on stage but go casual at the weekend. I’m stimulated by the visual, beauty and art.”
“I love the childlike quality to Mary’s apparel,” reveals Brenda. “She doesn’t use design patterns; she just creates from the heart. Mary’s impulsive – she likes to try things like a child with paints. She’s passionate and curious about everything: Pop Art, the Renaissance, music. She works as an experimental artist. Like most geniuses she’s not afraid to try and fail. She takes you out of your comfort zone. Mary allows me to pull out my inner diva, to go wholly out: she’s all bells and whistles! She’s fearless with high drama and that’s what makes her fun, mad fun!”
Brenda explains, “I host a lot of awards and red carpets. Two days before one of my events I needed something… and a ballgown appeared from nowhere! That’s what’s amazing about Mary, creating an outfit from scratch within a day or two. Thanks to her I looked great on stage presenting the Screen Nation Awards. Mary makes you try stuff you probably wouldn’t think of trying. She’s like a motor. But she values my opinion – we have an exchange of ideas.”
“Mary is not a wallflower,” smiles the broadcaster and journalist. “She’s a whirlwind; you know when she’s present. I learned that Mary studied really late overcoming a challenging childhood through dreams and ambition. She’s found herself. She has a clear vision of what she is as a designer. Mary has a rightful place in the world of fashion. What she’s achieved in such a short time, going international! She sees joy in everything. A crazy but extraordinary woman! She’s very resilient. Self triumph over adversity.”
Like Mary, Brenda acknowledges her own spirituality. “Experience higher being,” she recommends. “I have learnt to trust my inner voice, my intuition. Media is so impressed by the outer world but the inner one is so important. Life is a journey. Be true to your own spirituality. Surrender to the path the universe has mapped out for you. I meditate a lot for calm and peace. Be still – there’s so much to learn. Reset who you are. Value art, love, people, creativity. We’re not on this planet for a very long time.”
“Fashion is the barometer of the age to accentuate the personality.” So claims high profile lawyer and President of Octopus TV Andrew Eborn. “Mary is a tornado of talent. She’s a larger than life character – she makes her presence felt! She might be loud but there’s a genuine creative side to her. She’s a fascinating individual. I love Mary Martin London clothes. They have a free style belonging to that mad crazy world of hers. I work with a lot of major stars in the music industry.” Household names. “I also host the Andrew Eborn Show on Stella Television which features people like Charles Spencer and Suzy Quatro. But the Mary Martin segment is a complete moment of escape!”
Award winning Film Director Stephan Pierre Mitchell believes “fashion reflects our time” but “I make it my own”. He continues, “I don’t think there are rules. I don’t like to conform. I rip up my own jeans. I play around with fashion hence why I get along with Mary. I met her at London Fashion Week. I immediately liked her vibe. She’s got layers. She’s not boring. She’s up my street. Mary’s clothes are spontaneous, fun, bold, colourful… tells me a lot about her. I really admire her work; she’s very special. MML is BLF. Big! Loud! Fierce! I see so many energies flying up and down.” Stephan advises, “Be truthful with yourself. When we create from a true source, we heal. Don’t think of the end result, come from a truthful place.”
Mary’s former fashion textiles Senior Lecturer Emma Carey has turned her artistic hand to interior design: “My real passion is for the print.” Emma recalls, “Mary’s life story was amazing. I found her fascinating and all the things she had been through. I was intrigued and wanted to understand more. I soon learned Mary embraces learning and new things. She’s a powerhouse with no real self pity. She’s very creative, very excitable, brimming with energy. She says whatever she thinks, always the truth. She makes amazing prints! Mary’s clothes are like Mary, full of life, expressive, not wallflower clothes. They’re loud, out there. Her personality does come through in her clothes.”
The whole crew really has landed, an underground artists’ salon. Model and Director of Dam Model Management Hassan Reese strikes a pose outside, arms folded to reveal just a glimpse of Mary’s inaugural hand printed T shirt range. He shares, “Mary is unique! She represents tradition versus newness. She has an innate sense of Africa. Mary has African roots in her catwalk. Seriously, I feel nothing but love for her. Thank you Mary! I love that you have taken me on board. I feel so privileged and happy.” Late afternoon, model Katie Ice arrives wrapped head to toe in Louis Vuitton before revealing a Mary Martin London dress. Soignée has a new. “I first met Mary at a charity fashion event,” she remembers. “I immediately realised her clothes are so sophisticated – those fluffy dresses! – so unusual, so new, so different, then everyone copied them.” We’re rushing off to The Hoo next. “I’ll be free to pop in for some Champagne,” confirms Katie. “Life runs fast let’s celebrate it! It’ll be wonderful to see you and friends, it’s been a while.”
In the car later, much later, Mary lets slip, “You are my number one. I’m making bomber jackets every winter now because of you. I’ll use a different pattern each winter but I’ll still make bomber jackets. I agree what you say about them being so flattering to the male form. It’s all happening!” The rising of the arising over the horizon. London passes by in a fluorescent blur. All the voices of the day and in our heads and on the reel will soon fit together as a meaningful mosaic, an electrified Catherine wheel of sorts.
On a cold wintry Saturday afternoon a former linen warehouse in Old Street London is all ablaze. Not literally on fire – the sparks flying are the creativity type. Afrobeats are vibrating across the attic floor below the exposed beams and bolts and screws. Something’s afoot. “Rolling, rolling!” orders the Film Director. A strong familiar voice echoes across the vast haunted space, “I love the camera! I can’t say I don’t! It screams at me! We need the drama for the camera! I love fashion! I love art! I love creativity!” Welcome. Maryland is back in town. The American philosopher Marilynne Robinson believes, “No one can anticipate your gifts because they are unique to you.” There will be lots of anticipation but no ambiguity in Mary’s unique first person narrative.
When the distinguished Director Adil Oliver Sharif was introduced to Mary Martin London through a mutual friend, the Lebanese Sierra Leonean model Yasmin Jamaal, he knew he’d struck camera gold. Adil has been filming interesting people over the last year or two. Mary’s his 66th interviewee, taking ‘interesting’ to a whole new level. She’s so interesting that Adil is now collaborating on a feature length film with Mary – and her friends, who include some of the biggest names in arts, culture and entertainment. This former warehouse is his studio and its flaxen heritage could hardly be more apropos as the backdrop to London’s leading black fashion designer sharing her story.
Everyone and everything are in flux as cameras, lights, seating, backdrops are arranged. And rearranged. And rearranged a little more. Adil is the ultimate perfectionist as is his team: assistant Racquel Escobar Rios and Director of Photography Nick Galbusera. “I love going deep,” confides Adil. “I love the complexities of the human skin and what reflects and swims deep within.” Mid afternoon and the set is ready for action. “Are we rolling? After establishing and managing my daughter’s career, I thought what can I do for myself?” muses Mary. “Hey! I’ll put my hand to sewing!”
Celetia Martin’s successful song writing and singing career has included numerous hit singles plus collaborations with the likes of Jennifer Hudson, Janet Jackson and Usher. She spent two years touring America with Groove Armada as the band’s lead vocalist. Celetia now manages rising stars herself. Not content with launching her daughter’s career in the arts, there was no way Mary was going to rest on her Grammys. So it’s not surprising she labelled the start of her career in fashion “a learning curve”.
“A lot of my mistakes were the making of my best dreams,” Mary recalls. “One of my first artistic realisations was the Fairy Tale Collection. It was all these fluffy free dreamers. I was backstage looking down as the dresses came out on the catwalk. All I could think of was am I crazy? But then everybody started clapping like in a Hollywood movie. From thereon it just started. A few years later I would get a degree in fashion and textiles with flying colours!”
“The drive behind the creativity of a show motivates me. And I love creating something from nothing. I never even like to know what I make. I like to surprise myself!” she relates. “My strength comes from God. I’m a great believer in God. I love God. He’s what drives me. That’s why I create. I’m unique. God made us all in His image yet everyone is unique. This gives me a sense of freedom and the ability to do things differently from other people. I’m a very very spiritual person. I do believe in the afterlife. I love being spiritual. I’m in this field walking, walking, walking… so pleasant being spiritual. Spirituality means a lot to me. God is my all in all.” Marilynne Robinson expresses, “I know what I want to do. I know what is mine to do. I know what is not mine to do.” So does Mary.
Her path to freedom and success hasn’t exactly been unsmooth. There would be a silver lining for Mary but in the beginning there was no silver spoon. She keeps going: “I’m from a family of 13 children. I was the seventh child – nobody took any notice of me. That’s why I’m an attention seeker now! A diva! I was born by the River Taff in Wales. It was beautiful. But I faced racism at school so I ran away. I ended up in a children’s home. Actually I was in about 10 to 15 children’s homes. I didn’t learn to read or write. Eventually I went to London to live with my aunty. Are we still rolling?”
Ever her glass more than half full, running over, Mary overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles. “Not being educated meant I had to force myself to do things in life. Not being able to read or write that well even now means my mind is more adjustable to shapes and how to put things together.” It’s the turn of the shrewd. As for the racism, “Don’t hate. Use your energy to find your creative self. Learn the essence of time – use your time well.” Mary volunteers at the youth mentoring Urban Synergy charity, encouraging children to follow her into the fashion industry. “We know nothing about the nature of time,” contends Marilynne Robinson. “Time in some sense exists simultaneously with itself. It’s not sequential in the way we experience it.”
“Fashion is an expression of myself,” Mary argues. “I’ve got a thing about fashion. I love texture – combine scuba with to see the way an outfit can move. Voila! Creative mind flow! That’s what I call it. I’m like a child in a candy shop when I’m in the middle of a fabric store. I could sleep with fabric. Real love. I’m attracted to creative people who are a bit different. I don’t do normal. I don’t do boring. Fame doesn’t mean anything to me. High regard for talent? I get that. I don’t want the fame. I just want God to have all the glory.” Marilynne Robinson suggests, “If there’s a place in heaven for the arts, that will be the hallelujah!”
“The major influence in my life has been myself,” Mary summates. “I challenge myself every day to be better, to change designs, to be the better me. I’m a free spirit! I live my life freely. Every day I wake up I’m happy to be alive. I’m a black woman, a strong black woman. There, I’ve let you into Maryland.” The afternoon closes and beyond the red brick gabled walls of the former linen warehouse, over a sea of grey tiled roofs, the mellowing sun sets over the city. On an attic floor in Old Street London, a Jamesian “cloud of music and affection and success” floats away: it’s a wrap.
Hello darlings. Hello Darling. Like a 21st century Dennis Severs’ House (the madcap period drama that lurks in Spitalfields), Hello Darling the brasserie and botanical bar and Darling House the mad party pad upstairs does eccentricity on tap. It’s out on a whim. The creative minds behind this immersive concept are Harriet Darling and Elise Edge. Presumably “Hello Edge” didn’t have quite the same ring to it. The interiors are a riot of paint effects and visual puns. A piece of art on the wall slides to the side. Is it a painting or window? It’s both. Below a handwritten “Lost Property” sign lies a discarded copy of Sarah Knight’s bestseller Get Your Sh!t Together sticking out from a Christmas bag. A note inside reads: “To Lulu, to help you stop losing your things wherever you go!” Is it an installation or the trail of a somewhat clueless guest? Not sure.
Gertrude Stein, champion of Cubist literature, on “Glazed glitter” in her 1914 Tender Buttons, “Nickel, what is nickel, it is originally rid of a cover. The change in that is that red weakens an hour. The change has come. There is no search. But there is, there is that hope and that interpretation and sometimes, surely any is unwelcome, sometime there is breath and there will be a sinecure and charming very charming is that clean and cleansing. Certainly glittering is handsome and convincing. There is no gratitude in mercy and in medicine. There can be breakages in Japanese. That is no programme. That is no colour chosen. It was chosen yesterday, that showed spitting and perhaps washing and polishing. It certainly showed no obligation and perhaps if borrowing is not natural there is some use in giving.” Goodbye Hello Darling. Goodbye darlings.
Lavender’s Blue. Some colours are legendary. And others become synonymous with places. The Blue Bar is always The Berkeley Hotel. The hangout of the bold and brilliant and beautiful down from Apsley House. Every era has one. A London fine dining defining interior designer. Currently, it’s Martin Brudnizki. At the end of last century, no restaurant or wine bar was complete unless David Collins had transformed it. The late Dublin born artist used a striking Lutyens Blue hue, a dusky cornflower, to create the most memorable interior in Knightsbridge just as the new millennium dawned. In a touching posthumous tribute, The Berkeley called up David Collins’ protégé to dream up a dining room named after his master. Robert Angell employed some of David Collins’ favourite motifs, from a white onyx bar to a Soaneian use of mirrors. Some designers are legendary. And others become synonymous with places. Lavender’s Blue. Breakfast in bed, even The Berkeley variety, means casually leafing through magazines, preferable the vintage variety. Although inclusion of today’s Times is a nice touch. Here’s the September 1999 edition of Wallpaper* magazine:
“There’s no denying that the acrimonious and much publicised art appreciation tiff between Damien Hirst and new Quo Vadis owner, Marco Pierre White, was bound to draw in curious diners and art lovers alike. But David Collins’ pleasing refit and the culinary skills of ex Ivy maître d’ Fernando Peire are two good reasons to return. Leather banquettes break up the room, a marked improvement on its previous cold refectory incarnation. Though not hugely original, the food is exquisite, just as we have come to expect from a MPW establishment; lobster, poulet noir and a variety of risottos are all on offer to a discerning clientele. The controversial conceptual art by Marco Pierre White is more than a little reminiscent of that of Damien Hirst, though much cheekier, especially our favourite, the aptly named ‘Divorce’ – a copy of Hirst’s dot painting, but with four perpendicular slashes – ouch. The Private room at the back boasts Thirties New York green leather walls created by the ubiquitous Bill Amberg. The skeletons have been ripped out of the upstairs bar, and the refit’s final stage will include a bar for the restaurant as well as a members’ bar called ‘Marx’ in homage to the great Karl who lived on this site. Admittance will depend on whether or not Fernando likes you – so start sending flowers and chocolates now.”
As always, what does Gertrude Stein have to say about breakfast in her 1914 Tender Buttons? Rather a lot as it turns out. Here are a few of her rich pickings, “A sudden slice changes the whole plate, it does so suddenly.” And, “An imitation, more imitation, imitation succeed imitations.” And, and, and, “Anything that is decent, anything that is present, a calm and a cook and more singularly a shelter, all these show the need of clamour. What is the custom, the custom is in the centre.” A candy striped strawed bottle of ‘Berkeley Boost’ – freshly squeezed carrot, orange, turmeric, apple and ginger – followed by a homemade croissant and almond pastry; fruit salad; Scottish smoked salmon, cream cheese, rocket with Annabel’s style linen tied lemon bagel; Greek yoghurt, granola, Acacia honey and strawberries; and a celebratory chocolate cake topped with raspberries. The portions are so indulgent this ain’t breakfast in bed – this is breakfast, brunch, afternoon tea and supper between the duvets. All to be taken laying down. All on Aunt Margery’s best linen and tea set. Some breakfasts are legendary. Lavender’s Blue.
“You need to go to Coya. It’s the best Peruvian restaurant. The food, the feel, the waiters – all are amazing!” recommends leading businessperson Astrid Bray. “It’s a fav of mine!” And so we make haste while the sun shines. The restaurant has possibly the most discreet frontage ever. A solemn stone columned portico on Piccadilly conveys nothing of the colourful madness that lies beyond, or rather below. Like our favourite Chinese restaurant Hakkasan, the best dining room and bar are in the basement which we just love. Never has subterranean living looked so glam. We’re enthralled!
Amazonica and Lucky Cat may be the new Mayfair restaurants you will shortly be hearing about, and never stop hearing about, and Nobu may or may not be about to close, but here at 118 Piccadilly life gathers pace in the fast lane under the street. The international jet set just can’t get enough of this high end eclectic Latin American cuisine sporting an oriental twist. On a very random Thursday night the place is packed to its rustic rafters. It’s like sitting in Emirates First Class. The vibe is very cool, very relaxed, very us.
Coya’s menu was “born from the spirit of adventure” explains Indo British Culinary Director Sanjay Dwivedi. He spent all of 2012 touring South America and found what he was looking for amidst Incan heritage. “When I went to Peru I was like a kid in a sweet shop, I was so impressed! They have so many different foods – fruits, vegetables, ceviches – I was hooked.” He teamed up with businessman Arjun Waney, the Asian tour de force behind several top London restaurants as well as The Arts Club, and the adventure took wings. Coya now showcases the best of Latin American food, art, music (note the freestanding fireplace in the bar doubling as DJ decks) and culture.
That was two years ago. And now from our own foreign correspondent. Our dedicated man in the trenches, or at least he who luncheth in Coya Dubai right now. Hard work, but someone’s gotta do it. So what’s his learned verdict? “It’s part of the Four Seasons Dubai complex. The interior of Coya in Dubai is very similar to London with lemon and lime velvet chairs. The menu is more extensive that its London counterpart with a lot of fish and ceviche choices. There are great views over the city. The staff are mainly European. Excellent restaurant.” Our overseas diplomat cuts it short: happy hour has begun back in his hotel.
Sometimes you really gotta go with it and order a pre dinner alfresco cocktail that matches the cushioned upholstery. Sea Breeze please or at least something ephemerally turquoise. Beetroot, carrot, ginger and orange detox elixirs soon cancel the boldness. For a hot minute. Annabel’s wearing Biba vintage, working it babes. Her fellow guest is as always rocking Mary Martin London head to toe. Annabel gets busy stirring up Insta Stories in between yellowtail tartar, smoked tofu and caviar followed by pink shrimp tempura. Maya Jama sends her love. Sexy Fish is after all the television presenter’s fav restaurant. Good friend Grime DJ Teddy Music of Silencer fame chimes in next. Everyone’s soon discussing menu tips. Mango and passionfruit, coconut and lemongrass or pineapple and mandarin sorbet? Decisions, decisions. “All three. Or is that six?” How does Gertrude Stein view dinner in her 1914 classic Tender Buttons? “Not a little fit, not a less fit sun sat in shed more mentally.”
Basement bound, a downward descent reverberating under a Frank Gehry crocodile past Damien Hirst mermaids before walking by those marbled bathrooms – salut Versailles – till the night relaxes into an embrace of unbelievably attractive seafood. Late call but Mary Martin London’s on the blower. “Fantastic! I cannot wait for our next interview. Let’s talk. I’m here and ready and want to talk about my amazing new dresses and fashion.” The limo pulls up on Berkeley Square and Annabel P dramatically departs dripping in diamonds and fantasy.
Mary exclaims, “I would like to say thank you to the Global Style Icon Awards for awarding me the best designer – costumer designer! – for 2020 and 2021. I’d also like to say thank you to the Foreign Office for letting me do my virtual show in the building which was an amazing shoot in a beautiful place. And, yeah, thank you thank you that’s all I can say – I’m happy!” Mary explains more about that epic Foreign and Commonwealth Office shoot, “History had inspired me. I realised that Ignatius Sancho was an inhouse slave but was later set free and he was the first black millionaire in Britain. And he and his wife used to sell tobacco and everything from their shop which stood on the site of the Foreign Office on King Charles Street.”
She rolls, “I was the first black woman to do a shoot in there. What I did was reverse fashion and I put the black models on the stairs like they were the kings and queens. I wanted to show good images of black people in regal clothes – like black excellence – I’m a fantasiser! You should always be proud of yourself and who you are really.” Never resting on her many many laurels, the designer shares, “I love digital art! I started doing the art and people started to love my art just like they love my clothes so I thought why not? I’m doing some beautiful images and I’m also putting them on clothes as well as screen prints to hang on your walls.” That’s when she’s not conjuring up fluffy puffball dresses, a style Mary invented. It’s overture overload! A pressed foil wrap dress – another Mary Martin London trademark design – clings to a tailor’s dummy in the studio at the top of her townhouse, her very own Isolde’s Tower. And next season’s must have accessory is in the making: the outsized unisex bag. But her suitcases are packed: “I love Ghana! I’m going over there as soon as I can to do some fashion!”
Right now she’s busy sewing up a storm: a private commission to design and make individual scarves for an Irish mother and her two daughters. The scarves feature Mary’s signature Slaves in the Woods pattern in each client’s favourite colourway. Welcome to the undisputed territory of Maryland. Earlier, the designer was partying with R+B singer Mark Morrison. Next, Kofi arrives and before long Mary is duetting down the corridor with the legendary rock singer: “Black is the colour of my skin | Black is the life that I live | And I’m so proud to be the colour that God made me | And I just gotta sing black is my colour | Yeah couldn’t be no other oh no | Black is my colour / Yeah yeah | Couldn’t be no other | No no no.” Kofi laughs, “Everybody loves Mary!” American dance and house singer Kathy Brown of “Happy People” and “Give It Up” fame rings: “It’s going to be a good year!”
Mary has been jazzing up her atelier of late. She scrawled “And behind the smile, beneath the makeup, I’m just a girl who wishes for the future” across a Katherine Hepburn mirror in her salon. And “Life is better when you’re laughing” over a Marilyn Monroe mirror in her studio. A humongous two metre tall carnation precariously balances over her materials cupboards. Like everything about Mary Martin London, it’s larger than life, carried on huge waves of Wagnerian music crashing on the ocean floor. Not everyone has “Talking to God” as their WhatsApp tagline. Not everyone is Mary Martin London. An afternoon in her company: well, it’s like living life in inverted commas.
We’re tasked with capturing the spirit of the place, its current glory, its essence no less. The present is not a foreign country; they do things better here and now. Although Paris France is our next stop. As Gertrude Stein amusingly muses in Paris France, “You do not mention the relation of French men to French men of French men to French women of French women to French women to French children of French men to French children of French children to French children.” It’s worth mentioning the Frenchman who would become exiled sovereign as his plump features fill a bust and a statue and a painting at Hartwell. The Frenchman who looks down on the dining table of Apsley House on Piccadilly, London, in a portrait by François Pascal Simon, Baron Gérard. “But all art is erotic,” prescribes Adolf Loos in his 1908 lecture Ornament and Crime. Erm, not so sure, but we really do agree with his statement “Luxury is a very necessary thing.” And “An English club armchair is an absolutely perfect thing.” His words “Fulfilment awaits us” have a prophetic ring to them. Unerotic art, luxury and English club armchairs await us.
It’s also worth mentioning a certain French woman. A French woman who was Queen of France for 20 minutes. Marie-Thérèse Charlotte Duchess of Angoulême was the eldest daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The Dauphine joined her uncle to hold court at Hartwell. Her much maligned and misrepresented mother tried to set her daughter on the straight and narrow. On New Year’s Day 1784 the Queen, forgetting cake and remembering the poor, told Marie-Thérèse Charlotte, “The winter is very hard. There is a crowd of unhappy people who have no bread to eat, no clothes to wear, no wood to make a fire. I have given them all my money. I have none left to buy you presents, so there will be none this year.”
First impressions of Hartwell are grand, very grand. And very Jacobean. A feast of late 17th century transomed and mullioned oriels greets us as we swoop down the driveway round the turning circle with its life size statue of Frederick Prince of Wales on horseback and screech the breaks outside the entrance archway. But peeping past the very manicured bush (straight out of a David Inshaw painting) round to the garden front, there’s a perpendicular juxtaposition that would give County Down’s Castle Ward a run for its money. It’s Arcadian Palladian! The wealthy Hampden family built the original house before selling it to the even wealthier Lee family a couple of centuries later. In 1938 the house and 730 hectare estate was bought by conservationist Ernest Cook, grandson of the Victorian pioneer of package holidays Thomas Cook. Not that there’s anything package about bespoke Hartwell House. Ernest Cook saved the ensemble from certain ruin. Historic Hotels owner Richard Broyd would later acquire the leasehold which would in turn would be assigned to the National Trust in 2008 while allowing the house to still be run as a hotel. Lasting impressions of Hartwell are grand, very grand.
The dining room with its pendentive domes and matching Greek key cornice and carpet is more Soaneian than Pitzhanger Manor. The walls are painted lemon sorbet colour and the ceiling lemon ice cream. Contrary to appearances the dining room is 1980s not 1780s. It’s the creation of the architect Eric Throssell who converted Hartwell House from a finishing school to a hotel. A very clever creation at that. The architect amalgamated a closet, secretary’s room, south portico hallway and study to form a coherent space. The closet was reshaped to form an apse balancing that of the former study. French doors are wide open to the terrace. Dinner is served. The menu is elegantly labelled “Hartwell Bill of Fare”. Sourdough and fried tomato bread are followed by a starter of pan seared scallops, apple ketchup, compressed apple and oat crisp. The main course is pan fried turbot, leek spaghetti, sun blush tomatoes, British new potatoes and mussel cream sauce. Pudding is raspberry and elderflower tart, elderflower and mint sorbet. Taste good dining in a good taste dining room. Jacqueline Duncan, Founder of Inchbald School of Design, always reminds us, “I’m interested in taste.” A gentle breeze rustles through the dining room. Such peace and tranquillity. Yet under the fading light outside, tragedy is marked on the lawn. A tiny gravestone reads: “In loving memory of Charmian Patricia baby daughter of Captain and Mrs Conyers Lang died March 30 1924.” Beyond this gravestone, a walled cemetery abuts the estate.
Close to the cemetery a rusted blue sign on the perimeter brick wall reads, “Hartwell, The Church of the Assumption of The Blessed Virgin Mary. The present church (replacing a medieval structure) and modelled on the Chapter House at York Minister, was erected by Henry Keene between 1754 and 1756 for Sir William Lee of Hartwell House. It was an early example of Gothic Revival consisting of an octagon with symmetrical towers at the east and west ends. The interior was remarkable for the beauty of its fan tracery vaulting and the lozenged black and white marble pavement. Photographs taken before the church fell into ruin are in the National Monuments Record collection. Shortly after the 1939 to 1945 war the lead was stolen from the roof. This quickly led to the collapse of the vaulting and, after years of disuse, the remains of the building were declared redundant in 1973 and came into the care of the Redundant Churches Fund in July 1975. The elegance of the building’s design was not matched by the soundness of the construction and in order to preserve what was left, the Fund has carried out extensive works over many years under the direction of Mr Roiser of Cheltenham. May 1982.”
The interior of Hartwell House swaggers and sways between styles and centuries, from the baroque great hall and Henry Keene’s rococo morning room to the Georgian drawing room and library and Jacobean staircase hall. The newels and posts of the staircase are formed of historic carved figures. We return to the dining room a few hours later just as dawn is breaking. There may be no E in Hart but there’s eggs-to-see for breakfast. Sunny side up thank you on the sphinx guarded terrace. Poached eggs and crushed avocado on sourdough toast. It’s oh so quiet. Such peace and tranquillity. A sign in the staff courtyard next to the hotel reads “Beware People”. Thankfully the house and estate are so large there are few bodies about except for the discreet staff.
In 1728 James Gibbs published his bestseller A Book of Architecture Containing Designs of Buildings and Ornaments. “What heaps of stone, and even marble,” he complains, “are daily seen in monuments, chimneys, and other ornamental pieces of architecture, without the least symmetry or order?” The architect and author sets out to remedy this dire situation. “In order to prevent the abuses and absurdities hinted at, I have taken the utmost that these designs should be done in the best taste I could form upon the instructions of the greatest masters in Italy, as well as my own observations upon the ancient buildings there, during many years application onto these studies; for a cursory view of those august remains can no more qualify the spectator, or admirer, than the air of the country can inspire him with the knowledge of architecture.”
The Ionic Temple, an eyecatcher viewed from the dining room, is one of several James Gibbs designed parkland features. The rubblestone and ashlar stable block and attached coach house, rebranded Hartwell Court, incorporates parts of a Gibbsian menagerie. Hartwell Court now houses a swimming pool and 16 guest bedrooms in addition to the 32 bedrooms in the main house. It overlooks a private garden guarded by statues of Juno and Zeus. A statue of Hercules remains half hidden in the woodland beyond the church. The Rusticated Arch tunnels under the public road into another walled area known as Hothouse Piece which includes the kitchen garden, orchard and tennis court. A brick plinth marks the location of the Victorian glasshouses.
Restored beyond their former glory under Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe’s landscape renewal scheme in 1979, the mid to late 18th century gardens, offer up a smorgasbord of visual and historic and horticultural and architectural pleasures, some hidden, some unhidden. The prominently placed statue of Frederick Prince of Wales was rescued from obscurity in a shrubbery. In an early case of reclamation, the two narrow informal lakes lie on either side of the middle span of James Paine’s old Kew Bridge in London of 1782, dismantled in 1898 and auctioned in lots.
In The Age of Bronze, 1822, Lord Byron writes, “Why wouldst thou leave Hartwell’s green abode?” Why, indeed, for it’s both peaceful and fun. Hartwell House is the type of place where anything can happen. And it does. The bellboy hands us a poem printed on hotel headed paper titled The Long Driveway to Hartwell. Bonkers has a new. We nod at the line “seize every moment” and chortle at “chaise longue fizz is swell” and when it comes to “it’s a short life on our Lord’s planet” we pray “thank goodness a decent chunk of it was spent at Hartwell House”.
Vitruvius’ desirable virtues of “firmness, commodity and delight” spring to mind. “There are so many moments of true quality within and outside this villa,” believes heritage architect John O’Connell. “An inspection of the exterior would suggest that there were once small wings. This is such a clever and compact plan. The vaulted lobby on the first floor is so accomplished and structurally brave. The first floor central room with its closets has a bed alcove.” Lee Manor House and its remaining three hectares of grounds form one of the thrills of southeast London. The house has been repurposed as a crèche, a library and a doctors’ surgery with reception rooms for hire. The garden is open to the public.
Architectural historian Dr Roderick O’Donnell summarises, “Stylistically the Manor House is quite conservative – Taylorian rather than Chambersian.” Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner’s entry in their Buildings of England South London, 1983, reads: “The Manor House (Lee Public Library), probably built for Thomas Lucas in 1771 to 1772, by Richard Jupp, is an elegant five by three bay structure of brick on a rusticated stone basement, and with a stone entablature. Projecting taller three bay centre. Four column one storey porch, now glazed; a full height bow in the centre of the garden side. Inside, the original staircase was removed circa 1932, but the large staircase hall still has a screen of columns to the left, and on the landing above a smaller screen carrying groin vaults. Medallions with putti. Pretty plasterwork in other rooms, especially a ceiling of Adamish design in the ground floor room with the bow window.”
At the end of the 18th century the house and estate were sold to Francis Baring, director of the East India Company and founder of Baring’s Bank. The better known architect Sir Robert Taylor designed villas for several of the East India Company directors. “Lee Manor House is extremely well handled,” John remarks, “and exhibits a lovely, almost James Gandon, flow. Moving around, it has at least three lovely elevations. The brickwork is very accomplished but the basement rustication has been crudely handled of late. The original high execution elsewhere displays the architect’s ability to bring a design forward to fruition.”