For one weekend in September, London opens many of their glorious buildings to the public, who would normally not be allowed in. A couple weeks back, Charlotte and I enjoyed amazing access to many of the City’s historic buildings and visiting many of the locations mentioned in IN SEARCH OF SCANDAL. (Images of these places are on my pinterest inspiration board for the book, and in the Victorian London board.)
There is so much incredible history in the city, and so many places written of in my favorite historical romance novels that still survive, that the Open House London weekend is one of the best times of year to visit. It is like traveling back in time, so long as you keep your eyes above the first story of the buildings. (Example of how street level-views RUIN everything: a blue plaque marking a workplace of Charles Dickens above a TGI Fridays in Covent Garden.)
The first year I attended the London Open House was in 2013. Over two days, I visited the Royal Geographical Society, Admiralty House, Banqueting House, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, The Royal Society, Marlborough House, the Royal Society of Chemistry, The Linnean Society, the Royal Academy of Arts, Dr. Johnson’s House, Leighton House, 18 Stafford Terrace, Middle Temple Hall, the Bank of England Museum, the Foundlings Museum, the Argentine Ambassador’s House and the Romanian Cultural Institute.
This year, I was less insane than 2013, but no less starry-eyed by all that I saw and learned. The history of each building expands like a kaleidoscope, and it is so wonderful to talk with the knowledgeable and passionate docents at each address. (My favorite being the cute Scottish guide at the Royal Geographic Society. His accent was dreamy.)
Over the course of two days, I visited The Royal Overseas League, the Linnean Society, The Reform Club, the Royal Geographical Society, and Home House.
The Royal Overseas League stands on the site of a brothel once run by the notorious Mother Needham. The woman came to a sad end when she succumbed either to the stress of anticipating her second day (of a 2-day pillory sentence) or the mass stoning she received on Day One of her sentence. [Check out the 9/26/15 posting at Spitalfields Life (a fantastic blog) for a picture of a whipping post. http://spitalfieldslife.com/2015/09/26/the-hackney-whipping-post/]
The Royal Overseas League was established in 1910 by Evelyn Wrench (who led a full and interesting life himself, who was a postcard-printer in the early 1800’s). The league was dedicated to British Citizens who died in the Great War.
The League is formed by two buildings: Rutland House 1736; designed by James Gibbs, bought in 1934) and Vernon House (built late 17th Century-early 18th Century, bought by League in 1921). The clubhouse backs on to beautiful Green Park in London, and Rutland House is of the few private residences designed by James Gibbs that survive. The interior has some lovely original features: a stone staircase with an original wrought iron balustrade—one of the first in England—and a secondary “crinoline” staircase with bowed railings that, presumably, allowed the ladies in their hoops to take the stairs with more ease.
If you look closely at the third picture, at the top of the stairs, you’ll see the mounted head of a tiger sent to the Club by a member, who may or may not have been a dentist.
A far better description of the building is found at britishlistedbuildings.com.
In what was the Duchess of Rutland’s dressing room, there is a lovely marble fireplace surround, carved by John Rysbrack in 1736. Rumor has it, the face on the right side is that of the Duchess’ brother who died as a child from eating poisonous berries in Green Park.
Next, I walked the block or so to The Linnean Society, where I’ve been fortunate to a attend lectures in the past that had been opened to the public. The members, brilliant as they may be, could have come direct from Central Casting for a movie with quirky, British academics: tweed coats, mussed hair and bow ties. It’s awesome.
The docent at The Linnean Society was kind enough to attempt to help me when I mentioned I was searching for interesting, historical tidbits as my historical romance stories featured travelling botanists or “plant hunters” of the 19th century. Later, I learned the gentleman, Gren Lucas, created the Kew Conservation Unit in 1974, which was integrated into what is now the World Conservation Monitoring Centre, in Cambridge. The International Plant Red Data Book is one of the many products of this group. A Red Data Book, I learned, outlines endangered species, arranged by degree of threat.
But we mainly spoke of the Broom plant, or Cytisus scoparius, and its connection to the House of Plantagenet, which was included in his school thesis. (Which is as odd to me as, no doubt, my writing fairy tales set in England is to him.) But he was really very nice. A passionate curiosity for a thing is a charming quality in a person.
Next, I went to The Reform Club—a social club formed in 1836 by the Whig Radicals, and was intended to be a place for “radical ideas” as the Reform Bill of 1832 represented. Of the 2,700 members today, many hold careers in journalism and medicine. The docent mentioned, however, there are few members of Parliament nowadays. Of interest to me, both Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray roamed the halls as members.
The club’s Morning Room holds a library of Parliamentary Papers, all the days’ newspapers—including The Daily Mirror. (“Man with no butt crack opens up about his bizarre - and painful - condition!"). All the leather club chairs on this ground floor room are “House of Lords” red. (The chairs on the first floor are “House of Commons” Green.) There’s a bust of Churchill on the mantle, a replica of the Parthenon frieze bordering the walls, and by the door, a Victorian bell pull to call for coffee.
The building was completed in 1841, and designed by Sir Charles Barry. Unfortunately, picture taking was not allowed, but images can be found online. The main floor “Saloon,” is a center atrium, with a beautiful mosaic floor. Every wall holds a portrait or bust of a notable politician, royal or merchant. Interestingly, a portrait of the French chef, Alexis Nenoit Soyer, is hung in one of the dining rooms. Evidently, he was quite the celebrity in his time.
We were allowed into many rooms, including the “Stranger’s Room,” a casual dining room with a longer, communal table down the center for “strangers” to eat together, and smaller 2-seat tables along the perimeter. Though we were not allowed into the former “Smoking Room,” which used to display a sign reading LADIES MAY NOT BE SHOWN THIS ROOM.
Hopping onto a bus, I traveled to the Royal Geographical Society in my quest for interesting facts about 19th century exploration. The Society has an incredible collection of historic maps and that Scottish docent with a charming accent. A wonderful place to visit, though it is only open to the public once a year. They have the bark from the tree where Dr. Livingstone’s heart was buried in Africa, and busts and paintings of many of their members.
Home House was the London “party house” of the Countess of Home (pronounced Hume) and is now a private club/hotel at 20 Portman Square. The Countess commissioned George Wyatt, the favorite architect of George III to build her entertaining house, but she sacked him and hired his rival, Robert Adam, to complete the job.
The interior is very ornate, with a split-circular staircase, which the docent called a “lightning staircase” (?) leading to the second floor parade rooms, where the finely dressed ladies could ‘parade’ through the ante room and music salon and refreshment rooms. (Sadly, photographs aren't allowed in Home House, but there are plenty of images online. Annie Lennox filmed her video “Walking on Broken Glass” at Home House, and the staircase can be seen at the end. The Etruscan Room wallpaper is very worth seeking out online.)
As this is a Grade 1 listed building, pains are taken to keep the interiors historically accurate. The walls are the palest blue, apple green, pink and robins egg-blue. Really very beautiful. As this is now a hotel for its members, I wonder how they are able to maintain the beautiful walls and fixtures, but so far, they are doing a remarkable job. Still, when you hear one fireplace is insured for a million pounds, and you have a toddler scarfing jaffa cakes a foot away, I can’t help but cringe.
The Open House weekend is the best time to be in London and is in the month of September each year.
Next, Charlotte and I go slumming in Dicken's London in Southwark!