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Lee Manor House + Garden Lewisham London

Banking on Success­­­­

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.

In the late 20th century a glass lift was inserted in the middle of the staircase hall. “I used to be disturbed when I saw alterations like this super lift, but now am more understanding,” remarks John. “But one is always encouraged to place the lift on the exterior of an historic building. The best example I know, apart from Montalto in County Down, is Palazzo Spinola di Pellicceria in Genoa. An astounding museum, and a must. Indeed Genoa is a city of palaces and many are accessible. This city is the Liverpool of Italy: rough in parts!” Another successful example is the Office of Public Works’ elegant full height glass and steel shaft abutting the rear of the Irish Architectural Archive on Merrion Square, Dublin.

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.”

Marcus Binney provides this summary in Sir Robert Taylor From Rococo to Neoclassicism, 1984, “Taylor’s major contribution to English architecture is his ingenious and original development of the Palladian villa. The first generation of Palladian villas in BritainChiswick, Mereworth and Stourhead are three leading examples – had all been based purposely very closely on Palladio’s designs. They were square or rectangular in plan with pedimented porticoes, and a one-three-one arrangement of windows on the principal elevations. Taylor broke with this format. First of all his villas (like his townhouses) were astylar: classical in proportion but without an order; that is, without columns or pilasters and with a simple cornice instead of a full entablature.” Lee Manor House does have Taylorian features such as the semi elliptical full height bay on the garden front but is missing others such as his trademark Venetian window. In that sense, Richard Jupp is even more conservative than Sir Robert Taylor.

Lee Manor House conforms to the House of Raphael formula: a basement carrying a piano nobile with a lower floor of bedrooms under the parapet. “This is very interesting as it sits within the gentleman’s villa format. Pray how did you find it?” enquires John. “Lee Manor House is a very fine villa. On the ground floor, I would expect the large apse or exedra to the saloon contains or contained a fireplace. It reminds me of the first floor back room of Taylor’s 4 Grafton Street in Mayfair. This large apse is of added interest, as it would be taken up by Robert Adam in the arresting hall at Osterley Park, Isleworth, and again by our hero James Wyatt for his first and most daring scheme at Abbey Leix, County Laois, and again at Portman House on Mayfair’s Portman Square. The latter is now a smart club.”

John continues, “Another villa that comes to mind is Asgill House, in Richmond, circa 1770, which is both fine and intact. This villa was restored with the advice of Donald Insall and can be seen from the railway line. One can even go back to Marble Hill House in Twickenham, and on to James Gibbs at the exquisite Petersham Lodge – a knockout villa – which is now the clubhouse for Richmond Park Golf Course. Petersham Lodge is really worth a visit too; even the ‘landscape’ and bevelled edged mirrors over the fireplace are still in position!”

“Finally, there is the equally arresting Parkstead House designed for the 2nd Earl of Bessborough by Sir William Chambers with its very heroic portico. Lord Bessborough was an Anglo Irish peer. This can be visited. Indeed there is a good publication by English Heritage on this very subject. The original wings have vanished but the garden front and saloon are intact. There is mention of the remains of a garden temple in the grounds.” Joan Alcock writes in Sir William Chambers and the Building of Parkstead House Roehampton, 1980, “The design of Parkstead is based on the Palladian villa.” John O’Connell postscripts, “Richard Jupp was chief architect to the East India Company. His successor was Henry Holland. Lee Manor House fits into a form that one can see emerge in the 1770s.”

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