|Spencer House Garden||Westminster|
In 1755 the first Earl Spencer purchased land for his new town house here, a fashionable area with uninterrupted views of the Green Park. Spencer House was built in 1756-60 and survives intact as a palatial private mansion. The first Earl was succeeded by his son, and the garden dates from his time, becoming one of the largest in Piccadilly. It was planted by July 1798, designed by Henry Holland possibly in collaboration with Lavinia, Countess Spencer, wife of the second Earl. The family remained at Spencer House until 1895, and again briefly in the C20th, but it was let continuously from 1927. Now leased to RIT Capital Partners the house and garden have been restored under the chairmanship of Lord Rothschild. The paths, lawn and perimeter beds have been reinstated using plants and shrubs appropriate to the late C18th/early C19th.
The information shown above was correct at the time of the last update 01/05/2012
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The plot of land purchased by John Spencer had previously been leased from the owner, the dowager Countess Burlington, by Henry Bromley, Baron Montfort, who died in 1755. Outline plans for a palace had been drawn up for Montfort by architect John Vardy, a pupil of William Kent, and when he purchased the land Earl Spencer initially employed Vardy and the external elevations of Spencer's new house are his design. However, in 1758 James Stuart took over as the Earl's architect, a pioneer of neo-classicism, who had travelled in Greece. Stuart inserted much Greek detailing in the decoration of Spencer House, which became known as an exemplar of classical design. Earl Spencer sought and gained permission to encroach on the land of Green Park (q.v.) by 2 feet, so that his house projected further into the park than the neighbouring houses. At that time the mansion had no garden, instead commanding a fine uninterrupted view over the park.
When the second Earl Spencer inherited the property from his father in 1783, he appointed architect Henry Holland to remodel parts of the house. Holland was also responsible for laying out the garden, probably in collaboration with Lavinia, Countess Spencer. In order to create this private garden, the Earl was required to gain permission from the Crown to encroach onto the land of Green Park, in which he was finally successful after Holland presented a petition on his behalf in April 1795. The petition was presented to John Fordyce, Surveyor Her Majesty's Land Revenue and cited various nuisances such as a 'very large heap of dust and rubbish lying directly under the windows of Lord Spencer's House', which arose from adjacent storage sheds, stabling and workshops for craftsmen working at St James's Palace (q.v.). Mr Fordyce commissioned a survey to be carried out of the western boundary of the park and a plan was put forward by a Mr Richardson whereby the gardens of houses along the park boundary should be one single pleasure ground. This was rejected by the private owners of the houses and eventually they were made 'separate grants of small portions of ground in the Green Park near to their different houses'. The owners in question included Lord Grenville, the Duke of Bridgewater, Lord Malden, the Marquess of Salisbury, Mr Errington and Mr Smith. A revised plan was adopted in 1795 and the Treasury issued warrants for the lease of land, that of Lord Spencer eventually engrossed on 21 July 1799, after the garden was laid out. Fordyce's adopted plan stipulated the type of boundary fencing to be used, prohibited the building of walls or buildings, or planting, that impeded the view.
The cost of the Spencers' new garden was c. £1,500, including railings, walling and terrace as well as plants and garden materials. It is depicted in Richard Horwood's Plan of the Parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields of 1799 with long narrow shrubberies on 3 sides and a lawn containing a central oval path circumscribing 7 round beds. The garden appears to have remained largely unchanged until the 1830s, although the number of flower beds and their shape altered somewhat. In the 1840s the fourth Earl Spencer employed architect Philip Hardwick to refurbish the house and some improvements were then made to the garden. A new garden entrance was made to Catherine Wheel Yard by late 1845, and a railing on the southern boundary. In March 1846 the gardener's store was created beneath the terrace and later new steps were built leading from the terrace to the garden. The southern portion of the garden was leased to the Earl's neighbour Lord Ellesmere in 1850. The various editions of the OS Maps show how the flower beds and paths altered in the second half of the C19th. By 1896 the path between Spencer House and Bridgewater House was closed and the path to the park from the garden to Queen's Walk had disappeared.
The Spencer family entertained lavishly here, and remained living at Spencer House until 1895. Thereafter it was let to tenants who included the Duke of Marlborough. However after the death of the fifth Earl in 1910, the family came back to Spencer House for a time and it was restored in 1926. From 1927-43 it was let to the Ladies' Army and Navy Club, during which period a large conservatory was erected over the terrace, later removed in c.1987. During WWII many of the valuable contents and fittings were removed to the family property at Althorp, and Spencer House was used for war-time nursing services. The C18th gates to the terrace were removed for scrap metal in 1943. It was let in 1948 to Christie's auctioneers, and then in 1956 to the British Oxygen Company when it was converted as offices. From 1963-1985 it was offices of the Economist Intelligence Unit, and thereafter was leased to J.Rothschild Holdings and now to RIT Capital Partners plc. Since 1990 a 10-year restoration programme was undertaken by RIT Capital Partners under the chairmanship of Lord Rothschild to return Spencer House to its late C18th splendour. The work, which included the replication of much of the original detailing, was enabled by the Spencer family. The house is now partly offices, and also used for functions and entertainment, and open at certain times to the public. The restoration included the garden, by 1990 somewhat overgrown, which was reinstated with paths, lawn and perimeter beds using plants and shrubs appropriate to the late C18th/early C19th. The work was undertaken by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, who prepared a garden plan in June 1992. The first stage of work recreated the oval path within the lawn, planted box hedging around the perimeters of the flower beds, replanted the north border with herbaceous flowering plants, and enhanced the evergreen screen along the north garden wall. The garden has been used to display contemporary sculpture as a part of an exhibition programme in conjunction with Christie's.
Todd Longstaffe-Gowan 'History of Spencer House Garden, 27 St James's Place, SW1' in The London Gardener, vol 1, 1995; history on Spencer House website