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.”
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 Britain – Chiswick, 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.
This Palladian style villa may have originated as a bolthole from London but there’s nothing provincial about it. While suburbia has crept round Danson Park over the last two and a half centuries, miraculously the house, stables and park have survived virtually intact. Now owned by Bexley Council, a registry office makes for a decent unobtrusive use for the historic building. And lunch in the courtyard of Danson Stables is a winning combination of good food and architecture.
Serendipity – and a £4.5 million restoration by Historic England – has saved Danson for the next two and a half centuries. In 1995 the house was falling to pieces. Jump a decade and the Queen is cutting the ribbon. “It’s smaller than I thought,” Her Majesty observes upon her arrival. Understandable – there are optical illusions at play. Two fenestration tricks make the building appear larger than it is: (internally) not expressing the architraves and (externally) shrinking window sizes on the upper floor.
“Very Miss Jane Austen!” declares John O’Connell, climbing the serene sweep of steps to the entrance door. Unusually there are two large panes of glass in the beautifully aged mahogany door. Good for catching northern light but also an 18th century display of wealth. The walls are equally blessed by the patina of age. Portland stone given a lime wash has a mellowed texture and, set high up on a ridge, the house turns golden yellow in the sun. If you’ve got it flaunt it. And Sir John Boyd had it. Before he lost it.
The entrance hall, in Palladian terms, is really a closed loggia so relatively simple with a plain marble floor. Opulence follows. Why employ one starchitect when you can get two? Sir John Boyd got Sir William Chambers to jazz up Sir Robert Taylor’s design, adding fireplaces and doors and other decorative touches. A rare cycle of Georgian allegorical wall paintings by the French artist Charles Pavillon stimulate after dinner conversation in the dining room.
A Victorian daughter of the manor, Sarah Johnston, helpfully painted watercolours of the interiors. Historic England used her paintings as inspiration for the carpets. A painting by George Barret hanging in the Chinoserie wallpapered octagonal Ladies’ Sitting Room illustrates the house with its wings. Incidentally, an exhibition of this Irish born artist is planned for the newly reopened National Gallery of Ireland.
The plaster roundels in the Gentlemen’s Music Room cum Library were found in cupboards. Imprints on the walls for the surrounding swags allowed them to be accurately reinstalled. That ingenious layout – interlocking rectangles and polygons around a dream of an oval stairwell – adapts well. Modern services are tucked into servants’ corridors wedged between the reception room shapes. The butler’s pantry contains a lift.