Next to the Green Park is a palace and a long line of magnificent houses, and one of these magnificent houses is open to the public. It doesn’t seem to be very well known, but Spencer House offers everything you could want from a visit to a grand mansion, but one in the middle of London.
You’ll have a grand building, grand staircase, ornate rooms, and enough paintings to fill an art gallery, but there’s a twist, a lot of what you see isn’t from this house.
Let’s jump back in time to explain.
The house was commissioned by the fabulously wealthy John Spencer, whose family seat was, and still is, in Althorp. He already had two houses in London but wanted another grander house as a gift for his wife.
Unusually for an aristocrat of the time, he married for love rather than position, and the house is richly decorated with symbols of love and marriage, although today most of them need explanation, as they are most of the time.
The house remains in the Spencer family, but in the 1920’s they shipped all the interiors, and I mean ALL, to their family home and they have rented it out as offices ever since.
In 1948 it was leased to Christie’s, in 1956 a chemical company, and in 1963 to The Economist. However, the current lease is held by a much more interesting owner, RIT Capital Partners, which is actually the investment trust for the English branch of the Rothschild family, run by philanthropist Jacob Rothschild, who is also Chairman of Waddesdon Manor.
It was they who restored the house to how it looked in the past. Away with the offices, in with flock wallpaper, restored woodwork and lots of gold leaf. They also borrowed a lot of art and furniture from major museums, and the museums said yes, but on the condition that they open the house to the public to see the collection.
And that for 21 years. I had planned to visit in the year of its 20th anniversary, but like so many anniversaries over the past few years, that wasn’t possible.
The entrance is a fairly modest side entrance by mansion standards, but as the building faces Green Park and it is not possible to travel through the park by carriage and horse, the entrance was placed on the side of the building. Note the gas powered lights at the entrance.
Wait in the waiting room, which has just a few fewer seats than tour visitors. So arrive early if you want to sit, because ahead of you is an hour of wandering through rooms full of seats with signs telling you not to sit them.
It is also a building where photography is only allowed in two rooms and fortunately these are the most impressive rooms to photograph.
A large reception room leads into a library and then into the dining room, full of paintings and furniture explained by the guide. Much of the furniture is period, so historical, but the fixtures and fittings are often modern recreations of what would have been here if the Spencer hadn’t chiseled them out and instead moved the entire property into their ancestral home.
One room you can photograph is the after-dinner sitting room, also known as the Palm Room for obvious reasons, with its gold-leaf palms and an 18th-century replica of the Venus de Medici in the center.
At the top, dodging the tour group coming down, and now for something else entirely. The main building was designed by John Vardy in the Palladian style and the ground floors decorated, but the owner was persuaded to switch architects midway to James Stuart, a designer so renowned for his classical approach that he was nicknamed The Athenian received.
To be honest it can be difficult to know there was a style change halfway through unless you really know the difference in architectural styles – it’s a big, magnificent house that’s incredibly large and grand and impressive looks.
However, what is really impressive is how the restoration has woven its magic, to the point that it’s quite hard to believe this was all once used as offices. There are still offices in the building, on the upper floors where family used to sleep and servants lived, but the great state rooms all look as grand as they did when they were built.
Once you have finished the house you can stroll through the modest but pleasant garden. Designed to be seen from the terrace overlooking Green Park, there is a stair case that takes you down to walk around.
A special feature is that the house belongs to the Spencers, but the garden belongs to the Royal Parks. This is because this row of large houses originally directly bordered the park, but it was later agreed that part of the park should be fenced off so that the houses would have private gardens. But the land still belongs to the Royal Park, not the Spencers.
Personally, I would have liked a bit more about the house, but since you’re mostly looking at furniture and paintings inside, the tour understandably focused mostly on those. Considering the Rothchilds only have one lease on the building, albeit a very long one, they didn’t have to restore it to its full glory, but they did, and now we can enjoy it. However, it’s not a well-known place to visit and I bet if you’ve done a straw poll of friends few will have heard of it. So that’s your reason to pay a visit.
Spencer House is open every Sunday (except August) from 10am to 4.30pm.
Tours cost £18.50 for most people, except for discounted guests, members of the V&A, Royal Academy or Tate (£15.50) or members of the Art Fund and Historic House (£9.50).
The tour of the house and garden lasts around 90 minutes and while you can show up and take a tour if there are spaces, it’s wiser to book one in advance here.
There is also a guide book for £6.
Arrival to Spencer House
If you are coming from Green Park tube station, the easiest way is to exit Spencer House through the exit that leads into Green Park and walk down the path a bit until you spot an alley gap in the fence that leads to a passage under the houses. Walk down here and turn right at the other end and Spencer House will be at the end of the road in front of you.
Otherwise go to St James’s Street and look for the side street, St James’s Place and Spencer House is at the end of the street.