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Belair House + Park Dulwich London

Season of The Unexpected

Belair House West Dulwich London Lake © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

A little along Gallery Road, opposite Lovers’ Lane, stands a distinguished villa. Belair, whether two words, hyphenated or a portmanteau is a class signifier from Los Angeles to Wicklow to Dulwich. Pure class. Belair House in the picturesque perfect postcard pretty prestigiously pristine village of Dulwich in southeast London was built in 1785. That’s a fact. Or at least it’s the date proudly painted on the pediment over the entrance door. But all is not how it seems. What is rather more certain is the original name of house was College Place and the client, John Willes. A wealthy corn trader from Whitechapel, he first leased 20 hectares known as Home Farm from Dulwich College some 14 years earlier. The house would be renamed Belair by a later owner, solicitor Charles Rankin, in 1829.

Belair House West Dulwich London Ducks © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Local shopkeeper and historian Brian Green records in his 2002 book Dulwich: A History, “Belair is a fine example of an Adam style Georgian house. For many years it had a model farm in its 48 acres of grounds… In the lodge, still standing at the front entrance, lived the under-gardener who was responsible for looking after the grapevine hothouse, the cactus hothouse and three other large greenhouses. The coachman lived next door in the coach house… After the death of Sir Evan Spencer, the last occupant, in 1937, the contents were auctioned and the house fell into some decay. During World War II it was first used by the Royal Army Service Corps as a depot and later by the Free French forces. The grounds were used by the local platoon of the Home Guard for grenade practice.”

Belair House West Dulwich London © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Over to Ian McInnes, Chair of the Dulwich Society, “No one knows who the original architect was for Belair. Despite many articles suggesting it was the Adam brothers, there is no information in the Dulwich Estate archives to support that. We have quite detailed background on the owners in the 19th century but nothing on the original architect(s) – what you see today is of course an early 1960s ‘impression’ of what a late 18th century house in a park ought to look like.” So it is “Adam style” as Brian Green points out but probably not Robert, James or William Adam. And what an impression!

Belair House West Dulwich London Front Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

In 1961, under the ownership of Southwark Council, Belair was radically stripped back to its original form, more or less. A villa reborn. A vision reimagined. A variation on a theme recomposed. Rationalised single storey bow ended wings were added either side. Behind a blind bow window, the north facing wing is actually hollow and conceals a staircase winding up to a first floor terrace which embraces the mother of all views. In the distance, a serpentine lake nestled in the pleasure grounds radiates in the early summer heat, red mace, yellow flag and purple loosestrife erupting in a blaze of colour.

Belair House West Dulwich London Facade © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belair House West Dulwich London Entrance Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belair House West Dulwich London Entrance © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belair House West Dulwich London Pediment © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belair House West Dulwich London Date © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belair House West Dulwich London Park © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belair House West Dulwich London Staircase Bow © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belair House West Dulwich London Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belair House West Dulwich London Garden Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belair House West Dulwich London Parkland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belair House West Dulwich London Side View © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belair House West Dulwich London Bow Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belair House West Dulwich London Ionic Column © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belair House West Dulwich London Balustrade © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belair House West Dulwich London Side Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belair House West Dulwich London Staircase © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“The architects for this reconstruction,” explains Ian, “were Austin Vernon + Partners, most probably Malcolm Pringle, but the elderly Austin Vernon may have also had a hand in it as he had done quite a bit of good neo Georgian in his career. All of the practice’s records were destroyed in the 1990s.” Returning to the identity of the original architect, Henry Holland is sometimes mentioned. “The Henry Holland connection comes from Thurlow House in West Norwood, also southeast London,” Ian says, “which he did design and was built roughly at the same time. But that’s supposition and there is no proof he was the architect of Belair.”

Belair House West Dulwich London Blind Bow © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The period between 1785 and 1961 saw Belair House swell and deflate like bagpipes. In the 19th century the building was transmogrified under the direction of then owner Charles Hutton, Deputy Lieutenant for London. W­­ings and glasshouses and attics and grandeur were added to accommodate the Huttons and their 11 children and 10 servants. In 1980, the Dulwich Society Journal declared, rightly so, “One has a better idea now of the simple elegance of the original Georgian design than would have been the case a century ago, when it was obscured by Victorian wings and outbuildings.” Belair is now a restaurant and wedding venue. Mark Fairhurst Architects were responsible for sensitively extending and converting the former late 18th century stables building and early 19th century gatelodge into fully residential use.

Belair House West Dulwich London Former Stables © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“The brief,” explains Mark, “was to restore the existing stables building, which had been poorly converted into flats, and create a modern, flexible living space suitable for a young family.” An enticing blend of old and new architecture was the result. “The concept was to create an open, fluid ground floor living area by introducing a linear glass and steel pavilion linking the rooms created within the narrow existing building, and visually linking the accommodation with the surrounding landscape. Random outbuildings were replaced by a new single storey guest wing linked to the listed building via a glazed winter garden in the entrance courtyard.” The gatelodge is used as a studio linked to the house.

Belair House West Dulwich London Gatelodge Sign © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Dulwich Society Journal concludes, “Belair was the first of many imposing mansions to be built in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the only one to have survived in anything like its original form.” Mireille Galinou records in The Dulwich Notebook, “The architectural historian John Harris referred to the ‘exceptional survival of Belair, a house of 1785 in a designed landscape, in his 1990 essay on London’s 18th century gardens.” She continues, “Survival is the right word. Local historian Patrick Darby discovered in the Minutes of the Dulwich Estate’s Governors’ Meetings a ‘serious proposal to demolish Belair, fill in the lake, and cover it with 200 small villas – a proposal only thwarted by the Charity Commissioners!” Further down Gallery Road, as its name would suggest, lies Dulwich Picture Gallery. A fading banner clinging to the railings advertises a British Surrealism exhibition. The gallery is closed due to a pandemic. The name of the exhibition? ‘Season of The Unexpected’. Surreal, indeed.

Belair House West Dulwich London Gatelodge Chimney © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley


Architects Architecture Country Houses Design

Pitzhanger Manor London + Sir John Soane

Let’s Dance

1 Pitzhanger Manor ©

The hypothesis of this essay is that the genre of architecture that has become known as the Soane Style is the product of not just one man’s thinking but two. Both architects had commissions built in Northern Ireland. In a reflection of their work at Pitzhanger Manor, Sir John Soane’s effort is a showpiece still in existence while George Dance’s building has been considerably altered. Soane will be forever remembered for the main block of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution which starred as a police station in TV series The Fall. Although the executed plan was greatly simplified from original grandiose proposals it nevertheless exhibits his trademark blind arches and pilaster strips.

2 Pitzhanger Manor ©

Meanwhile at Mount Stewart in Greyabbey, a National Trust house, the straightforward neoclassicism of Dance’s wing may only just be discerned under the veil of a later remodelling. Owner Lady Mairi Bury, an aunt of Jemima Khan’s mother Lady Annabel Goldsmith née Vane-Tempest-Stewart, lived on in the house until her recent demise. As a teenager Lady Mairi met Hitler (“a nondescript person”) and Himmler (“like a shop walker in Harrods”).

3 Pitzhanger Manor ©

The combination of the architects’ talents climaxes at Pitzhanger Manor. This erection was Soane’s country home in then rural Ealing and is now a council owned museum and art gallery. When the Soane Style peaked to maturity circa 1800 it proved to be a progressive form of architecture free in proportion and liberated in structural adventurousness, unconstrained by complete classical correctness. The 15 year period centred on the turn of the 19th century found Soane’s creative juices overflowing and coincides with the time he enjoyed his full blown friendship with Dance.

4 Pitzhanger Manor ©

Pitzhanger Manor illustrates the overlap between their development of ideas and innovations. The three elements under scrutiny in this essay are the cross vault ceiling as in the library; the pendentive dome as in the breakfast room; and the top lit lantern such as that in the staircase hall. Here goes.

5 Pitzhanger Manor ©

In Soane’s work the cross vault ceiling first appears in the ground floor rear sitting room of his townhouse in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, built in 1792 and also now a museum. Dance uses a similar ceiling type at Cranbury Park in Northamptonshire a decade earlier. Its geometry is complex: a cross vault with the interpenetrations cut back to produce triangular chamfers which widen towards the apex of the ceiling where the ends meet to form four sides of a square.

6 Pitzhanger Manor ©

They likely both saw in this pattern a touch of gothic romance. The flying lines radiating from the corners of the room to the centre represent a reinterpretation of a ribbed vault. Soane developed this idea in his design for the Privy Council Chamber completed in 1824, where the motif is introduced as a canopy detached from the sides of the walls to allow natural light to filter from above.

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The innovative design of Dance’s Guildhall Common Council Chamber of 1777 provides an aesthetic forerunner of what is often considered peculiar to the Soane Style. This square hall, demolished in 1906, boasted a pendentive dome. It consisted of a continuous spherical surface rather than one rising from separate pendentives like more conventional neoclassical domes. In the Guildhall the continuity of surface is not explicitly obvious because Dance introduced decorative spandrils which produced a scalloped effect resembling the inside of an umbrella.

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Fourteen years later, Soane adopted the pendentive dome for his own use in the drawing room of Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, where he repeated the Guildhall’s scalloped effect, and a year later at the Bank of England’s Stock Office. Just when an impression is forming that the pendentive dome was a one way inspirational mode Soane snatched from Dance, it becomes apparent that the two architects assumed unity of views since Dance designed a pendentive dome for Lansdowne House which was contemporaneous with the Bank Stock Office. The design of the junction between the hall and the domed space in Lansdowne House, Berkeley Square, is exactly comparable with Dance’s initial scheme for the Bank Stock Office which also incorporates semicircular windows over segmental arches.

15 Pitzhanger Manor ©

Picturesque top lit lanterns which originated for practical reasons at the Bank Stock Office became an integral component of the Soane Style. Soane was faced with the problem of how to produce effective top lighting and there is evidence that he consulted his confidante because the initial sketches are in Dance’s hand. The first study is inspired by the Basilica of Constantine and the Diocletian Baths, appropriate sources of inspiration for any neoclassical architect. But Dance chose to modify the Roman prototype. Instead of the heavily mullioned windows of the originals he introduced fully glazed half moons which Soane incorporated into his final proposals for the Bank Stock Office.

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Top lit lanterns appear in buildings throughout the remainder of Soane’s career including his Dulwich Picture Gallery. He continued to use and interpret these three motifs, the cross vault ceiling, the pendentive dome and the top lit lantern, after his initial efforts with Dance. Combined with his prolific output, this cemented the association of the style with his name rather than Dance’s.

17 Pitzhanger Manor ©

It is not suggested in this essay that any of Soane’s architecture is interchangeable with Dance’s but rather that the Soane Style was developed through their exchange of design concepts. Soane’s main contribution is a novel handling of proportion coupled with highly idiosyncratic applied decoration while many of the basic constituents of the style may be credited to Dance. In his lifetime Soane never ceased to acknowledge indebtedness to his “revered master” while Dance wrote to his pupil “you would do me a great favour and a great service if you would let me look at your plan… I want to steal from it”.

18 Pitzhanger Manor ©

The ongoing restoration of Pitzhanger Manor not only highlights Soane at his most individualistic but also reveals the more conventional neoclassicism of the south wing which was Dance’s first attempt at a country house, before he aided the younger architect in the development of what was to become known as the Soane Style.

19 Pitzhanger Manor ©