Spencer House


27 St James’s Place, SW1A 1NR


020-7514 1958



Opening times:

Guided tours at regular intervals throughout the day. Doors open at 10:00. Last tour is at 16:45.

How to get there:

Tube: Green Park

Entry fee:

Admission charge

Additional information:

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Spencer House was designed by John Vardy, a pupil of William Kent, as a palatial Neoclassical mansion for John, 1st Earl Spencer, great-grandson of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. The work began in 1756, the year after Earl Spencer had secretly married Georgiana Poyntz. The house was intended to establish their reputation in London society. After two years, once he had completed the shell and ground floor rooms in austere Roman style, Vardy was replaced by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, irrepressible compiler of the The Antiquities of Athens (1762), partly funded by the Society of Dilettanti, of which Spencer was a member. This group of Whig grandees believed in emulating at home the classical styles they had admired on their Grand Tours. For the next eight years Stuart was given free rein; the result is the earliest purely Greek Neoclassical interior in Europe. He himself undertook some of the work in the Painted Room, which remains his masterpiece and the most complete surviving example of his designs. Relatively untouched by a succession of tenants, the room was damaged by a bomb blast in 1944, destroying the ceiling. In 1985 the house was bought by Lord Rothschild’s bank, RIT Capital Partners, which has completed a thorough and detailed reconstruction of the interiors of most of the 18th-century rooms on the ground and first floors. Viewable on guided tours on Sundays only, the house now provides an insight into mid-to-late-18th-century aristocratic taste, and is an outstanding example of the craft of period replication, largely designed by David Mlinaric and carried out by Dick Reid and his workshop.


Tour of the House

The tour begins in the Anteroom, originally the family’s private dining room but altered to suit its current role by Henry Holland, architect of Brooks’s Club, for the Second Earl Spencer. The ceiling, dating from the 1750s, is original. Paintings from the period hanging here include a small Virgin and Child by Jan Gossaert or Mabuse and an Allegory of Art by Carlo Maratta and Giuseppe Chiari from around 1706, showing the Genoese banker and patron of the arts Niccolo Pallavicini having his portrait painted as he is guided into the Temple of Fame by Apollo. Next door, the Library was also altered by Holland, now restored with replica Vardy bookcases, and a meticulous reproduction of the original marble fireplace. Six hand-coloured Italian engravings by Antonio Giuseppe Barbazza (1752) depict the spread of Christianity through stone, marble and metal. Figures on the mantelpiece originally came from Castle Howard. The Dining Room features scagliola columns designed by Holland in imitation of Siena marble, and Vardy’s original ceiling has been restored, the design based on Inigo Jones’s at Banqueting House. Paintings include three by Benjamin West, on loan from the Royal Collection, originally commissioned by George III as inspiring models of stoical fortitude. They are The Death of Wolfe (1771), The Death of Chevalier Bayard (1772), and The Death of Epaminondas (1773). The Palm Room is the most extraordinary room on the ground floor, designed by Vardy as the gentlemen’s retiring room. Lavishly decorated in white, gold and green, Corinthian half- and quarter-columns double as palm trees, symbolizing marital fertility. The original furniture has been reconstructed.

On the first floor, the Music Room gives little indication of Stuart’s exuberant designs beyond. A set of 24 hand-coloured Italian engravings published in 1781 record the paintings found in Nero’s Golden House in Rome, an inspiration to Raphael when first discovered in the 16th century. Lady Spencer’s Room is a faithful reconstruction of her private drawing room, where Stuart’s ceiling was based on the Baths of Augustus in Rome, with the frieze adapted from the Erechtheion in Athens. The paintings in this room include some by Benjamin West and also Sir James Thornhill. The Great Room follows, the largest state room in the house, with a coffered ceiling and frieze based on the Temple of Concord and Victory in Rome. The monumental paintings Oedipus at Colonus (1781) and Philoctetes on Lemnos (1781), by Giovanni Battista Cipriani, have been reframed here in copies of Stuart’s original design to match the door and window architraves derived from the Erechtheion. Other paintings here include Mrs Trecothick and Lady Frances Wyndham by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and L’Allegro (1770) and Il Penseroso (1780) by George Romney. The Painted Room provides the climax of the tour, a room decorated in celebration of the Triumph of Love. Restoration in the 1950s painted the walls’ background green darker than the original, but otherwise the work of three artists depicting exuberant classical scenes remains well preserved on every flat surface, including the designer James Stuart himself on the pilasters.

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Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

FULL LISTING of CURRENT EXHIBITIONS in London from Apollo Magazine »

Emily Barber recommends five major London museums »

Please do share your comments and updates with us via the form below the entry for each museum.


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