In and Out of London Or, the Half-holidays of a Town Clerk

Loftie, W. J.





THE removal of such a landmark as Northumberland House must be the cause of a certain amount of regret. Sorrow is much tempered, however, by an examination of the interior of the building. If ever a building could be said to have put its best foot first, it was this. The centre of the Strand front, and the turrets at either end, are all that was beautiful or interesting in the whole house. After them, any enthusiasm which might have been felt for its preservation had to depend on the historical, sentimental, and archaeological associations of the place. And they are but meagre. The fact that Northumberland House is the last of a row of palaces which once began at Baynard's Castle, in the City, and ended at Westminster Hall, gave it a claim to our regard. Within the walls one or two remarkable events took place, and General Monk here held some of his meetings with the Royalists before the restoration of Charles II. And the plan, which was of the type known in France as , becomes extinct


among us by the demolition. It would not be easy to say any more than this in its favour. It was as ugly, as inconvenient, and probably as uncomfortable a family residence as any in London. Many people are by no means convinced of the expediency of removing it; and it may turn out that the public will not gain materially by the sacrifice. It must be remembered that not only do we take away a relic of antiquity with a fair amount of historical interest attaching to it, but we do so at the expense of half a million of money; and, as far as we are aware, no very commendable design for utilising the site acquired at such an expense both of feeling and of cash has yet been put forward.

The history of Northumberland House has been detailed more or less correctly in almost every London newspaper within the last two years, and is to be found, with less, rather than more, correctness, in all the London guide-books. In reality, however, there is very little to tell about it. The street front only towards the Strand bore any traces of the work of Bernard Janson or Gerard Christmas, and even this was greatly altered and not improved. It had over the oriel the initials and badges of Algernon Seymour, who was Duke of Somerset for fourteen months, from to , and who had inherited the representation of the Percies on the death of his mother some five-and- twenty years before. His daughter, Lady Elizabeth


Smithson, carried on the reparation and alteration of the house in conjunction with her husband, who was the first Duke of Northumberland of the present family. In their time probably the corner turrets were lowered to the height they had before the demolition. Towards the end of the last century any marks of antiquity remaining were carefully wiped off the exterior, and a fire some few years ago completed the transformation of the interior. The side next the Strand had originally an open-work parapet, formed of the letters of a motto, probably that of the busy and scheming Henry Howard, Surrey's second son, who was Earl of Northampton during ten years before , and who built the house. A letter fell down in , during the passage of the funeral of Queen Anne of Denmark from Somerset House, and killed a bystander, for which reason the other letters were removed. At least so runs the story, with the impossible addition that it was the letter S from Esperance en Dieu; how the Percy motto came on the parapet more than twenty years before the Percies themselves came into the house, we are not informed. In fact, to judge from a letter quoted in the recent Report of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, the family had no town house at this time, for one of them writes in to Lord Middlesex to excuse himself from calling on him, because he has no house nearer town than Syon. There is some difficulty, too, in the received accounts


of the descent of Northampton House, first to Suffolk and then to Northumberland. Mr. Craik expressly states that the Earl who built it gave it as a New Year's gift to his grandnephew, the second Earl of Suffolk; but it is not easy to believe that Northampton did anything so generous except for a consideration. Lord Suffolk again gave it away. Perhaps it was a kind of white elephant. It must have always been expensive to keep up. But Suffolk's son-in-law was well able to make use of the gift. From his time it is identified with the fortunes of the Percies, and during the Commonwealth and afterwards was the scene of many of those dubious but apparently successful efforts which the tenth Earl made for keeping himself in power under any form of government. His granddaughter, the wife of the Duke of Somerset, and the favourite of Queen Anne, is immortalised as much by Swift's hatred as by her strange history and great possessions. It was when the Irish Dean lampooned her for her red hair, warning England to beware of carrots from Northumberland, and accusing the Duchess of complicity in the murder of her second husband, the victim of Konigsmark, that he cut himself off for ever from all chances of a seat on the bench of Bishops.

Northumberland House must have been singularly unsuited to the requirements of family life at the present day. The street front was practically separated from the rest of the house, and contained


at least two unconnected residences. The rest of the house resembled an H in plan. The cross-bar was formed by an entrance-hall or corridor, with some reception rooms towards the garden. This was said to have been originally built by , but it retained no traces of his handiwork. Two wings at the back partly enclosed the garden, that on the west containing a great gallery upwards of a hundred feet in length, but badly lighted; the east wing consisted only of offices. There was a low wall beyond the garden towards the embankment, but the view over the river was neither extensive nor attractive, its chief feature being the dome of Bedlam, which rose conspicuously in the background, flanked by tall chimneys. Bedlam, indeed, has travelled nearly all round . It stood three centuries ago near the site of the present National Gallery, whence it migrated to Bishopsgate, and at last went across the river and settled down exactly opposite its original station. The garden, owing to the slope of the ground, is at a much lower level than the Strand front, and has the cheerful and verdant appearance of other London gardens where the grass has grown long and rank, and only half covers the naked clay below, while the trees are miserably stunted and black with smoke. The great staircase stood to the left of the entrance. It probably supplanted an older, and possibly a more picturesque, structure on the same site, under Janson's turret, but for a


long time it had been the best feature of the house. Yet, costly as was the ormolu balustrade, and handsome as were the marble steps and pilasters, they were not much more substantial than the ornaments of the other parts of the house, in which stucco, gilding, and scagliola were the chief ingredients in a magnificent effect. When the walls were covered with tapestry or pictures, and especially when the floors were occupied with people, all must have looked very different. At Knole or Haddon the architectural features which would disappear with the furniture might not be very great; the windows, the oaken floors, the panelled walls, the groined roofs would still remain. In Northumberland House there was nothing of this kind-nothing, in fact, but what might be expected when we read in Brayley's description that at the beginning of the present century a very general repair took place under the direction of the brothers Adam. Even this, however, will hardly account for its being more ugly by many degrees than the Adelphi Terrace, though it will account for the prevalence everywhere of plaster work and paint for stone. Successive architects, including, it is true, many of eminence, had managed to reduce it in two hundred and fifty years to an extreme of ugliness seldom, if ever, equalled even in London. So many cooks never perhaps before more completely ruined a pudding. And nothing could have improved it. The faulty arrangement by which the best rooms were hidden


from the sun, which must have shone chiefly on the offices and seldom on the inhabited parts; the absence of those conveniences of hot air and water which are now to be found in the most humble dwellings; the interminable length of corridors and passages; the want of concentration; the suites of apartments which opened only out of one another, and were therefore almost useless for the purposes of modern life,-all these things must have made Northumberland House a singularly disagreeable residence, notwithstanding its great dignity.

The change when it is swept away will be very great, but the difficulties of making a good use of the site will be almost insuperable. The slope to the level of the Embankment is steep, and would admit of very picturesque treatment, but as the direct road will not square with any of the existing roads or buildings, it is difficult to see how any better design than that of Sir James Pennethorne can be suggested. By this scheme the destruction of Northumberland House might have been avoided; and a graceful curve, such as that which produces in the Quadrant in Regent Street one of the most satisfactory architectural effects in London, might have been happily employed. To lay out the slope with terraces and flower-beds may perhaps be thought a pleasing idea, but it is hardly worth the price paid for it. If buildings are to occupy the ground with a street leading straight to the Embankment, the hill must be such as to make the


approach to the river extremely inconvenient; and if traffic cannot be persuaded at present to use the road through Whitehall Place, neither will it be tempted by a heavy declivity to drive over the site of Northumberland House.

A very much more sweeping measure, by which the magnificent bend of the river at this point might have been made available for a pictorial effect, could only be carried out by some Baron Haussmann. Yet short of something of this kind it will be almost impossible to do anything at which will be a real improvement. When Whitehall with its gateway blocked the road to Westminster; when Spring Gardens and Leicester Fields, and the Abbot's Garden and Long Acre surrounded the village of Charing, while the river lay open at the fourth side and the great spire of St. Paul's was visible from Hedge Lane or the Reading Road, the place of Northumberland House was filled by the alien Priory of St. Mary Rouncival, whose chapel extended to the water's edge; and if we could bring back the ancient buildings as well as the gardens, and could make a break in the endless row of brick walls which covers so many miles without interruption, we should do something satisfactory with the place. But, short of the execution of some wild scheme like this, nothing will now much improve the appearance of ; all the land we have bought for our five hundred thousand pounds is a mere flea-bite, and all that


can be done with it is of very little consequence. We shall be glad of course if it can, even in part, be left without buildings; but we must have all felt that sooner or later, with or without good reason, Northumberland House was doomed to go. Just two hundred years ago the progress of the spirit of improvement began on this bank of the Thames by the removal of Essex House, which with its gardens was outside Temple Bar. Steadily has the wave swept forward till Paget House and Arundel House, Durham House and York House, and many more, have one by one disappeared. The palace of the Protector Somerset retains not even the ancient plan. Of the Savoy there is nothing left but the chapel; and Northumberland House alone survived to tell in our time of the glories of the days gone by.