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The rise and fall of Chesterfield House

28 April 2022

From the May 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

recently rewatched the 11-part television serial Brideshead Revisited, based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel of the same name. Brideshead is an elegy for the demise of a privileged cadre and the environment through which it glided – its demise symbolised by the demolition of Marchmain House, an aristocratic palace in central London knocked down to make way for a more egalitarian block of flats. 

Marchmain House was fictional, of course, but between the wars plenty of real equivalents suffered the same fate: Grosvenor House, Dorchester House, Lansdowne House, Norfolk House and, perhaps the greatest loss of all, Devonshire House. While their disappearance occasioned some public outcry – and helped lead to the foundation of the Georgian Group in 1937 – there was relatively little mourning, except perhaps among those accustomed to being invited to parties in such properties. 

Ninety years ago, in May 1932, Apollo carried a feature examining the history of one of these great mansions, Chesterfield House, and bewailing what even then was clearly destined to be the building’s sad end. The text was not written by Tancred Borenius, the art historian who was one of the founders of this magazine and had been a regular contributor to it over many years. Perhaps the reason was that Borenius had advised the house’s last private owner, the sixth Earl of Harewood, on his art collections and written about them in Country Life in February 1922. 

Instead, it was Herbert Granville Fell who looked at Chesterfield House for Apollo. Originally an illustrator, Fell became art editor of The Strand Magazine in 1910, and was subsequently editor of The Connoisseur from 1935 until his death in 1951. On this occasion, his plaintive prose was primarily devoted to recalling the house’s original owner, the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, one of the great figures of 18th-century England and author of the posthumously published Letters to His Son, of which Dr Johnson famously said that they taught ‘the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing-master’. Chesterfield embarked on building his new town residence in the late 1740s. Unusually, he preferred life in London to that on his country estate, declaring ‘I love capitals. Everything is best in capitals – the best masters, the best companions, and the best manners.’

The grand staircase, Chesterfield House, Mayfair, Westminster, London, (c. 1875–1878). Artist: Unknown. The Print Collector / Alamy Stock Photo

Certainly, everything that was best about domestic design could be seen in Chesterfield House. It was designed by Isaac Ware (1704–66), who, Fell notes, featured the building in his book The Complete Body of Architecture (1756), in which he described it as ‘a Town House of the Greatest Elegance, built for a nobleman of the most distinguished taste and adorned at the greatest expence’. A protégé of Lord Burlington and a follower of Palladio, Ware was required by his patron to devote almost half the front portion of the building to what would become its most famous feature: the main staircase. Fell repeats what was then the commonly held belief that this had come in its entirety from the Duke of Chandos’s magnificent house Cannons, demolished around the same time that Chesterfield House was constructed. However, writing in 2000, John Cornforth proposed that only the marble sections of the staircase and its pillars came from Cannons: the wonderful wrought-iron balustrade with its intertwined Cs was original to Chesterfield House. 

Fell notes how, in consequence of this overwhelming feature, the house’s original owner was obliged to add wings to the rear of the site, holding a dining room and library respectively. These were decorated in what might be deemed a last flourish of English baroque, unlike the music room and drawing room, for both of which Ware produced an anglicised version of French rococo. Chesterfield clearly had no qualms about mixing architectural styles, even in his prose. Fell observes how on one occasion he proposed that his son ‘have a Tuscan foundation to his character, as the strongest and most solid of the orders, but to grace the fabric of his person with the adornments of the Corinthian’. This willingness to draw on different fashions and meld them into a satisfactory whole is what made Chesterfield House so distinctive among the great private palaces of London. Unfortunately, that was not enough to save the building. The year before Fell’s piece appeared, the house’s contents had been sold by Sotheby’s, and five years later, in 1937, the splendid staircase and all were razed and, like Marchmain House, replaced with a block of flats.

From the May 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.