If the former Lady Diana Spencer had never become the world’s most famous woman, her ancestor’s London town home would still be one of the most significant sites in what is surely the world’s greatest city.
In 1985 the 200-plus-year-old mansion was acquired by the fabulously wealthy J. Rothschild Administration and thus fell out of the Spencer family, which still uses the house for occasional entertaining. The house is open to the public for one-hour guided tours only on Sundays ten months of the year. (Tours are not given in August and January.)
Under the chairmanship of Lord Rothschild, the house has been expertly restored to the same condition it was when it was built by the extravagantly rich first Earl Spencer in the last half of the 18th Century.
Part of the house (not on tour) is used as offices; the rest is decorated with magnificent furnishings and paintings of the era and is designed as a place to hold entertainments in a historical setting.
And what a setting it is! The massive casement windows at the rear of the mansion all give out to Royal Green Park and a view that has likely remained unchanged for two centuries. The front entrance is on the exclusive St. James Place just around the corner from White’s Club (where Prince Charles is a member).
The splendors inside the house befit the first earl, who inherited the fortunes of his great grandmother Sara, Duchess of Marlborough, and his grandfather, the Third Earl of Sunderland. One of the richest men in the kingdom on his twenty-first birthday, the First Earl Spencer married his childhood sweetheart and commissioned Spencer House, where he and his loving partner lived happily until their deaths. He was so wealthy, the diamond buckles on his honeymoon shoes were valued at £30,000!
Spencer House was recognized as one of the most ambitious private palaces ever built in London. Rooms on the tour include the morning room, the ante room, the library, the dining room, the music room, the palm room, Lady Spencer’s private drawing room, the great room, and the painted room.
It is thought the morning room was where visitors waited and where Lord Spencer conducted business. It is in the front of the house, the first room to the left from the entry stair hall.
Across the hall is the ante room, a grandly gilded room where it is thought the family may have taken meals when not entertaining.
The large dining room is noted for its columns of polished Sienna marble. Upstairs is Lady Spencer’s red drawing room, along with the cozy music room and the great room where balls were held.
The town house’s two most remarkable rooms are the palm room and the painted room. Carved and heavily gilded palms form columns lining the palm room, where gentlemen retired after dinner while the ladies climbed the stairs to Lady Spencer’s drawing room. A reputed beauty who experienced the rarity of a happy marriage, Lady Spencer furnished her drawing room with a game table and a baroque gilded desk.
The painted room, which took six years to complete, is said to be among the most famous 18th century interiors in England. There are garlands of flowers and roses and paintings covering the walls and ceilings. Many of the festive scenes are painted directly on the wall’s plaster; others are painted on canvas then applied to the wall and framed in gold.
The library is modest by English standards but wonderfully cozy with its asparagus green walls and dark woods.
Three lavish living floors are topped by a much smaller, dormer-windowed fourth floor, where the servants resided. The kitchen was located in the basement.
For those interested in the Regency period, a visit to Spencer House (27 St. James Place) is a must. The nearest tube stop is Green Park. Hours are on Sundays from 10:30 to 5:45 (last tour starts at 4:45) and admission is £12.