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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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Architecture People Restaurants

Danson House + Danson Stables + Danson Park London

Danson Abbey

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.

Freshly beknighted with a 19 year old bride to serenade, the 40 something client commissioned Sir Robert Taylor to design him a home worthy of his station in life. The 1st Baronet Boyd owned Caribbean sugar plantations and was Vice Chairman of the British East India Company. “It really is a most skilful plan,” observes John O’Connell, and as Ireland’s leading conservation architect, he should know. “With the summer sun Danson House could be a villa along the Brenta Canal!” A double blow of the American and French Revolutions wrecked Sir John’s businesses. He died in debt in 1800. His son chopped off the wings, reclaiming the building materials for stables designed by George Dance. Five years later, the house was sold.

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.

The landscape has erroneously been attributed to Capability Brown. Where hasn’t? It’s like every church carving must be Grinling Gibbons. Capability may have visited Danson, but the setting is the work of his associate, Nathaniel Richmond. Danson House (tour) and Danson Stables (lunch) and Danson Park (stroll). “It really is a place apart and invokes the Veneto,” John O’Connell lyrically waxes. Danson with the stars. The day is so singular, a true joy.

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Architecture Luxury People Restaurants

Spring Restaurant Somerset House London + Skye Gyngell

Summer at Spring

Somerset House The Strand London © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

At a Lavender’s Blue dinner with a Park Lane ambassadress, a Green Park restaurateur and a Beverly Hills realtor, the conversation naturally turned to Lisa Vanderpump. But it was the combination of the interior and food – good taste and tastes good – that proved the hot topic in the cool surroundings of Spring. Even if Ruby Wax was within earshot of our table. Spring is the best of the six dining rooms in the people’s palace, Somerset House on the Strand. That’s why it’s full and we’re full on a Monday night.

Somerset House has a surprisingly coherent architecture considering Sir William Chambers’ 1770s masterpiece has been tinkered with ever since he laid the cornerstone. James Wyatt to Sir Robert Smirke then Sir Albert Richardson have all had a go at it. Five wings spread out from the Strand Block like a cyclopean crustacean (crab with nduja and yellow polenta £16 or grilled lobster with curry leaves, tomato and bhatura £34). Spring is in the New Wing. Newness is relative – it was designed by James Pennethorne in 1849. The restaurant is chef Skye Gyngell’s latest enterprise in London. Australian born Skye was previously head chef of Petersham Nurseries, the restaurant with a garden centre attached.

Horses for courses although we’d prefer not for main course (halibut with spinach, chilli and preserved lemon dressing £32) and course after course at Spring is not coarse of course but rather seasonal – and sensational. Crisp but not autumnal (fritto misto of prawns with lemon pinwheels and foraged herbs £16). Cold but not wintry (rhubarb and rye tart with crème fraîche £8). Pantaloon and stripy sweater clad waiters resemble – dare we say – Venetian robbers. Perhaps later they’ll nick a gondola to sail home along the Thames.

Spring Restaurant Somerset House Pudding © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley