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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 People

Syon House London + The Young Irish Georgians

Adam Fortune

Syon House Front Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Where better to be on a sunny Sunday morning than Syon House in leafy southwest London? Rolling bucolic parkland, pretty birds tweeting in the ancient oaks, wild flowers springing in the meadows, and planes thundering overhead to Heathrow. Aside from the flight path latticing the blue sky with white streaks, all is calm. Dr Adriano Aymonino, former Head of Research at the intriguingly named Commission for Looted Art in Europe, is our leader. Us, being in this case, the Young Irish Georgians. Private apartments are included on the tour.

Syon House Porte Cochère © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

We will discover that so much about the interior decoration is lost on the casual 21st century visitor. The nuances, the symbolism, the references that would have been read by Georgian guests. It’s like reading ShakespeareAdriano is no mere guide. He’s our translator, helping us decipher the intricate language of 18th century design. It helps that his doctorate was on the 1st Duke of Northumberland who transformed Syon House in the 1760s. Adriano’s book is due out soon. “My heart lies at Syon,” he confesses.

Syon House Floor © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“The 1st Duke was the greatest patron of the 18th century when you add all his houses together. Syon House is the most famous neoclassical house in the world,” argues Adriano, “and the Long Gallery is easily Robert Adam’s most spectacular interior. It is the most complex Georgian room in England.” Standing outside, the house is remarkably simple, stark almost, save for the toy battlements. All that will change when the front doors are flung open and Adam’s circuit of staterooms is revealed.

Syon House Capital © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Adam was a very clever businessman. He wanted to conquer the mid 18th century British market, dispelling the old Palladian architects by selling a new language. Adam claimed to be faithful to classical antiquity. That was not quite true as his could style could be eclectic but that’s how he marketed it. His language works, though, from St Petersburg to the USA. It’s a quotation architecture of ornament, statues, relief and sarcophagi.” Adriano identifies two layers of quotation: the Roman originals from the Grand Tour and later published engravings. “A paper architecture!”

Syon House Statue © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The plasterwork frieze in the Piranesiesque Great Hall incorporates a vase, the symbol of friendship and welcome. It’s part of the language of iconographical consistency, we learn. Together with the layering of quotation, Adam creates a jigsaw puzzle of classical references rid of Renaissance influences. It’s a game of recognition, providing meaning to the more sophisticated guest. A triumphal procession has begun. The Great Hall is the introduction to the public circuit. A ‘Roman villa’ built round a courtyard.

Syon House Wall Hanging © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The paintings at Syon House aren’t part of Adam’s concept. They come from the family’s central London townhouse of Northumberland House. It was demolished towards the end of the 19th century.

Adriano Aymonino Syon House © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“Each room is intended to be a single hall, the opposite of Palladianism and its consistency of rooms such as at Chiswick House or Holkham Hall,” expounds Dr Aymonino. “Rather than a simple whole, each unit is different from the other. There is no better example in Britain of this than the transition from the Great Hall to the Ante Room next door. This is the Adam principle of contrast, movement, variety in a house. So you have this kind of wow effect! The sequence of classical orders is the only unifier, the element which gives logic to the circuit.” The Young Irish Georgians are primed to spot Doric in the Great Hall | Ionic in the Ante Room | Corinthian in the Dining Room | Composite in the Red Drawing Room and so on and so forth.

Syon House Private Apartment © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Poor old Sir William Chambers. His Palladianism soon became as passé as postmodernism is today, bless. We are ushered into the Ante Room. “It’s very exuberant, the Versace of Syon!” Absolutely. “Adam is a great genius decorator. Syon’s architecture is a collection of Roman typologies. The Dining Room is based on a basilica. But the Drawing Room is the least classical. With its red brocade silk walls there is not much space for quotations. Just the coffered ceiling.” Comfort over style. Sir William Chambers criticised the roundels in the ceiling for looking like floating dinner plates. Architects bitching? Shock, horror! The forerunner to 21st century Design Review Panels.

Syon House Courtyard © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Syon is the result of the Grand Tour industry. The statues would have been as recognisable as Warhol is today,” Adriano continues unabated. “He was first and foremost a decorator concerned with ideal beauty, harmony, proportion and decorum. I will never be tired of explaining the importance of printed sources. Far from Rome? Just open a book of prints!” With bated breath we enter the Long Gallery, the most important room in the house in our leader’s opinion.

Syon House Corridor © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The 1st Duke commissioned Adam to revamp this Jacobean long gallery. “Anyone else would have physically divided up the space. It is very difficult to master. There is the risk the eye gets bored of repetition.” Instead, Adam treats it as a columbarium with niches and massive piers providing rhythm. A visual trick on the ceiling is that the pattern of circles set in octagons continues incomplete to either side. “This counteracts the narrow width and low ambient. It’s like a carpet on the ceiling!” Once again, there are plenty of 18th century publications on Roman columbaria. Painted roundels over the bookcases show the ancestral glories of the family from Charles the Great to the 1st Duke and Duchess – who else? It was carried on in the 19th century by future family members. “This is a different layer of complexity,” observes Adriano. “It’s a very clever use of English family history with references to Roman antiquity.”

Syon House Bust © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Late afternoon, after lunch, we will wander through the private apartments, unaccompanied, unroped, unAdamed but – oops! – not unalarmed.

Sèvres Urn Syon House © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Over scampi and chips in The London Apprentice pub – appropriately rebuilt in the 18th century, while admiring the view across the Thames towards Kew, Adriano relates he’s half Roman, half Venetian. “Venice has become such a difficult place to visit. So crowded. It’s not a real city anymore – ordinary shops now just sell masques to tourists. February is the best time to go, even if it is foggy then.” Goodness. Ever been chased by a cloaked red dwarf? “No, but you could still fall in the canal.”

Syon House Bedroom © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Architects Architecture People

The Roxburghe Hotel + Charlotte Square Edinburgh

Ministerial Positions

Charlotte Square Edinburgh © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Turns out Scotland’s First Minister isn’t just better at debates than the UK’s Prime Minister. She’s got a more palatial pad. They might both be terraced houses but Number 10 doesn’t hold a Georgian candle to Number 6. Downing Street in London is a mean little hotchpotch of a side street. Charlotte Square in Edinburgh is an expansive leafy neoclassical masterpiece of town planning. Bute House, Nicola Sturgeon’s official address, is a lot finer than the Old Etonian’s accommodation. Albeit a little chillier for barbeques.

Charlotte Square Edinburgh Steps © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

New Town Edinburgh © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Charlotte Square Edinburgh Railings © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Charlotte Square is the apex, the apogee, the climax, the pinnacle, the zenith of the horizontality – those palace frontages! – of Edinburgh’s New Town. Its 18th century town planner was 22 year old James Craig. No less an architect than Robert Adam designed the buildings lining the square. Details hint at the social hierarchy and habits of times past. Rough stone for the servants’ basement; smooth stone for the masters’ piano nobile. Trumpet shaped openings in the cast iron railings would have been used to snuff out the flamed torches carried by ‘link boys’ to illuminate residents’ way home at night. Glimpses can be captured at street level of the Firth of Forth – nature is never far away in Scotland. Even the built form often resembles rocky outcrops.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's Gardens Charlotte Square © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

For those who don’t rule the northern part of this island, Number 38 Charlotte Square is the alternative place to stay. The Roxburghe is an updated architectural microcosm of Edinburgh itself. Reflecting the conjoined Old and New Town twins, this hotel is formed by a New Town and Very New Town embrace of Georgian and contemporary. Taking up residence permanently as Nicola’s neighbour would cost a wee bit under £600k for a four bedroom penthouse on Charlotte Square. Calling by Dave’s for a pint of milk, a lot more.

Roxburgh Hotel Edinburgh Reception © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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The Irish Georgian Society + 20 St James’s Square Westminster London

Adam Fine House

20 St Jame's Square Apse © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s a bit like painting a Siamese twin onto the Mona Lisa. And plonking a hat on her head. That’s what happened in architectural terms more or less (mostly more) at St James’s Square off Pall Mall. Number 20, Robert Adam’s 1770s townhouse was duplicated side on (throwing in an extra middle bay between the two for good measure) and heightened by an attic storey plus mansard thanks to Mewès and Davis in 1936. It looks like the three bay three storey original façade has taken steroids to become a seven bay five storey palazzo. Two faces in Portland stone, both beautiful, one a grisaille. Number 20 is currently a double page thrill in Country Life, sexy images of Adam interiors splashed across a centrefold. Its four bay doppelgänger, Number 21, is 20th century offices. The Irish Georgian Society London Chapter gets a privileged evening sneak peak of 20 St James’s Square before it changes hands.

20 St Jame's Square Overdoor © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Dr Frances Sands, Catalogue Editor of the Adam Drawings Project at Sir John Soane’s Museum, leads the tour with added artistic insight by Irish Georgian Nick Sheaff. Fran arrives armed with copies of a few of the 8,000 Adam drawings under her management. “It’s very unusual for an Adam townhouse to have been built from scratch,” she says, holding court on the steps. “It was difficult to obtain a plot. This one is generously long and wide for London.” Following the unravelling of an entail – very Downton Abbey – the alliterative Sir Watkins Williams Wynn got his way. He promptly demolished the existing building and employed “the greatest architect of the day”. Fran highlights that “the house hasn’t changed much since the Adam engraving in the Soane. Number 21 is a whole different story…”

20 St Jame's Square Overmantel © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“We’re going to move around as if we’re guests of Sir Watkins,” Fran announces. Invisible sedan chairs pull up and we’re off. “Every single square inch of the entrance hall is Adam. His hallways should be cool, masculine, stone. Strong colours are Victorian. This scheme is calm, demure, authentic.” Holding court on the stairs, Nick tells us the baronet’s salary was £27,000 a year. Not bad. No wonder he was able to splash out on the “grandest staircase in any London townhouse” according to Fran. “Let’s progress as guests into the first of three first floor reception rooms.” We’re in the ante room: “a rather nice space articulated by resonances of Wedgwood’s jasperware”.

We’re lead through the ante room into the first drawing room but there’s a technical hitch. No lights. The Irish Georgians’ 21st century solution – waving mobile phone torches – allows the Adam splendour to be viewed surprisingly authentically. “This is where we will dance, talk and play cards!” Pointing to the wide shallow chimneypiece in the flickering light, Fran observes “this is deeply reminiscent of the work of Piranesi”. The period gloom soon wears thin. “We’ve languished in the dark quite long enough.” The double doors of the second drawing room are thrown back. “Adam’s interior becomes more and more elegant building to a crescendo at the back of the house!” she exclaims. “The second drawing room is fairly bling – the gilding is later. Aren’t the painted door panels rather wonderful? All this decoration would’ve been ruinously expensive!”

20 St Jame's Square Cove © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“The ceiling design makes the barrel vault appear heavier,” she remarks. “It alludes to Kenwood’s great library but the barrel vault and apses there are much more depressed. It is a huge misconception that Adam always designed carpets to match his ceilings. There’s often a resonance in the geometry but they generally don’t copy each other.” Great windows closed to the south. “Adam’s rebuilt screen is rather wonderful,” Fran observes, holding court over the yard. “Now we’re going to have an intimate reception in Lady Williams Wynn’s dressing room off the second drawing room. We are very close friends of her ladyship.” This mesmerisingly imaginative tour continues with a health warning about the repro work to the rear of Number 20: “Feel the jar as you step from original Adam to Adam style.” After all this first floor socialising, Dr Sands will lead us downstairs to the eating room and afterwards we will be serenaded by silent harps in the music room.

20 St Jame's Square Serlian Opening © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

  • Interior mood shots: 1/60, F14, 10,000 ISO