Ever since he started pottering about in 1759, aged 29, Josiah Wedgwood’s surname has been synonymous with feats of clay. Just 11 years later the self proclaimed ‘Vase Maker General to the Universe’ wrote to his business partner Thomas Bentley about a “violent vase madness” afflicting the Anglo Irish aristos. Trust the West British to have a weakness for garniture. Americans have subsequently assumed the mantle.
In person, Lee is charming and polite. “I was inspired by Wedgwood’s historic black and white Jasperware,” he explains. “It already has a contemporary feel. I’ve taken the classical elements and silhouettes and stripped back the ornamentation for an even more modern look. I love the charcoal colour and biscuit texture of Jasperware which I’ve injected with neon high gloss details!” Priced from £7,500 to £12,000, the bowl and vases are handcrafted in Wedgwood’s Stoke-on-Trent factory. Josiah would approve.
Storming past the trompe l’oeiled reception and faux tented lobby, we take on in the tiered Céleste at The Lanesborough, a glazed roofed internal pavilion looking heavenwards. It’s Wedgwood blue now. A jasperware temple. Regency, just like the building. Last time round, the wildly eclectic gothiental Conservatory as it was then called was flamingo pink. Sometime in between, lurking here for four years was a greyish art decoesque intruder named Apsleys. The hotel has changed hands as well as hand painted wallpaper, but is still Middle Eastern owned. Once Rosewood managed, Oetker Collection has adopted it as an English half sister to Le Bristol Paris.
A careless magpie’s droppings of edible gold and silver leaf are liberally sprinkled across afternoon tea, even landing in the clotted Devonshire cream. We skip the lemon curd for strawberry preserve on the freshly baked scones (enveloped in pristine linen) but yearn for coloured sugar crystals (a dead cert at Marlfield House) to melt in the coffee. Although technically this is afternoon tea. Pastry chef Nicholas Rouzaud’scelestial array of hazelnut, caramel, chocolate and lemon meringue fantasies arrive. They quickly do a Lord Lucan.
In another quarter of a century a Victorian revival will be due. Brown will be the new black. Or at least the new greige. Expect heavy oak panelling, heavier drapes (again) and half a dead zoo’s worth of taxidermy in the revamped Céleste. It will be renamed Charlotte at The Lanesborough in honour of our newly married princess.
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…”
“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!”
“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.