Saturday 21 March 2020

The Streets of Old Westminster: Green Park and Spencer House.

A visitor to London, exploring the City of Westminster, and having viewed Saint James's Park and Buckingham Palace, can enter Green Park via Canada Gate, immediately to the north. Green Park is one of three Royal Parks in close proximity to one another (the others being Saint James's and Hyde Park). It has no buildings or lakes (although the Tyburn Stream runs beneath it), and no flowerbeds, just grass, mature deciduous trees, and, in the spring, daffodils.

Canada Gate. Photo by Jordan 1972 (image is in the Public Domain).

Green Park. Photo by David Iliff (License CC BY-SA-3.0).

The park was first enclosed, in the Sixteenth Century, by the Poultney family, and passed into the hands of the Crown in 1668. It was landscaped, in something like its present form, by John Nash, in 1820, the favoured architect of George IV, who shaped much of what we now think of as the "West End."

Green Park. Phto by Jordan 1972 (image is in the Public Domain).

Even before Nash's time, however, the fringes of Green Park had become fashionable as a location for the residences of the wealthy and powerful, those who had every reason to locate themselves in close proximity to the Royal Court. As the Eighteenth Century progressed, and the memories of Civil War faded, it became increasingly common for aristocratic families to spend at least part of the year in London. The idea of the "social season" was born: the German composer, George Frideric Handel, set up residence at London in 1713, anticipating the arrival of his patron, George, Elector of Hanover, soon to be crowned as George I of England. Handel brought with him new tastes in Italian opera, which many young aristocrats would have encountered in the course of their Grand Tours. Now they could enjoy it at the heart of their own capital city, and share the experience with their wives and families. Opera, however, was just one element of the social season, the main point of which was to see and be seen.

Green Park, c 1833, by W. Schmollinger (image is in the Public Domain).

Green Park. Photo b Jordan 1972 (image is in the Public Domain).

There is one aristocratic house overlooking Green Park, which can (in ordinary times, which these are not) be visited on Sundays. This is Spencer House, commissioned, in 1756, by John, the 1st Earl Spencer (an ancestor of the late Princess Diana). The exterior of the house was designed by John Vardy (a pupil of William Kent), and the interiors (largely) by James Stuart, recently returned from a sojourn in Athens, where he had drawn inspiration from ancient art and architecture that was beyond the reach of most "Grand Tourists." Tours of the house which must be booked in advance, take in the "State Rooms" (Ante-Room, Library, Dining Room, Palm Room, Music Room, Lady Spencer's Room, Great Room, and Painted Room), which, together, make up one of the earliest and finest examples of Neo-Classical domestic architecture in the British Isles (I am unable to post photographs of the interior here, but a virtual tour may be had on the Spencer House website).

Spencer House in c 1800, by Thomas Malton Jr (image is in the Public Domain).

The "social season" changed the face of London: aristocratic families arrived with retinues of servants, but word soon got around that there were opportunities in service in the capital, and the flow of migrants from the countryside to the capital increased. There were opportunities, too, in retail, and in related industries, such as dress-making and millinery. Great houses had much need of groceries, porcelain, glassware, furniture, and fabrics, and streets such as Piccadilly, Jermyn Street, and Saville Row, grew up to meet these needs. A handful of the businesses established at the time, such as Fortnum & Mason, are still trading today.

The world of Eighteenth Century London was one in which there were few restrictions on business, or limits to ambition, but it was also one without social protection or safety nets. In the words of John Gay's (1728) Beggar's Opera (itself a parody of the Italian operas playing in the West End): "The gamesters and lawyers are jugglers alike/If they meddle your all is in danger/like gypsies, if once they can finger a souse/Your pockets they'll pick and they'll pilfer your house/And give your estate to a stranger."

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be ordered from Amazon.

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