More than 40 of us were fortunate to have a sunny if cold day for our trip to London, with good journeys both ways and some lovely views over the Thames in central London. We spent the morning at Two Temple Place, a little known late Victorian mansion overlooking the Victoria Embankment. It was commissioned in the 1890s by William Waldorf Astor, then perhaps the richest man in the world, whose New York background is evidenced by the golden weathervane of Christopher Columbus’s ship that surmounts the roof. Astor wanted an Estate Office but also somewhere to impress and entertain his clients and indulge his own interests. Accordingly, it was designed for him by John Loughborough Pearson with no expense spared and employing the best craftsmen.
The exterior, built with Portland stone in Pearson’s trademark Gothic Revival style, is beautifully embellished with crenellations, carvings and decorative ironwork. Inside on our guided tour we marvelled at the lavish use of rare marbles on the intricate floor of the grand staircase hall, richly elaborate wood carving and fine stained glass. Delicately carved wood statues and friezes abound, with themes chosen from Astor’s personal interests in British and American literature, history and mythology. Sometimes these seemed almost whimsical – witness the statues of characters from The Three Musketeers adorning the staircase. Probably the highlight was the Great Room with its lofty carved hammer-beam ceiling, wood and gilded relief carvings and glorious stained glass windows, depicting sunset and sunrise in an idealised Swiss landscape. We could certainly agree with the assessments of the house by Pevsner as a ‘perfect gem’ and by Betjeman as ‘a little masterpiece’.
After periods of ownership by Sun Life insurance, the Society of Accountants, and Smith and Nephew, Two Temple Place is now owned by a charity, The Bulldog Trust. Since 2011 it has opened the house for three months each year in conjunction with a special exhibition. This year’s, on The Age of Jazz, was sponsored by The Arts Society. Exhibits were on show throughout the house. We were able to wander the exhibition individually and enjoy some very special paintings, ceramics, posters and cartoons, textiles, shoes and much more, all influenced by the arrival of Jazz in Britain 100 years ago. Naturally it was all accompanied by the sound of Jazz.
At lunchtime we walked along the embankment to the 18thC splendour of Somerset House for lunch in a café or restaurant and then an individual visit to the Courtauld Gallery. The result of gifts and bequests by several benefactors, including Samuel Courtauld, the Gallery’s art collection stretches from the Renaissance to the 20th C and is one the best of any smaller museum in the world. We were particularly struck by the large collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works, including the largest collection of paintings by Cézanne in the UK. The Gallery continues be given works, sometimes, we noted, given by the Government after a work has been acquired in lieu of inheritance tax – it’s an ill wind and all that!
Two venues, neither as well-known as they deserve to be, but affording a very pleasurable day.
More photos of the visit can be seen here.