Adam Fine House
It’s a bit like painting a Siamese twin onto the Mona Lisa. And plonking a hat on her head. That’s what happened in architectural terms more or less (mostly more) at St James’s Square off Pall Mall. Number 20, Robert Adam’s 1770s townhouse was duplicated side on (throwing in an extra middle bay between the two for good measure) and heightened by an attic storey plus mansard thanks to Mewès and Davis in 1936. It looks like the three bay three storey original façade has taken steroids to become a seven bay five storey palazzo. Two faces in Portland stone, both beautiful, one a grisaille. Number 20 is currently a double page thrill in Country Life, sexy images of Adam interiors splashed across a centrefold. Its four bay doppelgänger, Number 21, is 20th century offices. The Irish Georgian Society London Chapter gets a privileged evening sneak peak of 20 St James’s Square before it changes hands.
Dr Frances Sands, Catalogue Editor of the Adam Drawings Project at Sir John Soane’s Museum, leads the tour with added artistic insight by Irish Georgian Nick Sheaff. Fran arrives armed with copies of a few of the 8,000 Adam drawings under her management. “It’s very unusual for an Adam townhouse to have been built from scratch,” she says, holding court on the steps. “It was difficult to obtain a plot. This one is generously long and wide for London.” Following the unravelling of an entail – very Downton Abbey – the alliterative Sir Watkins Williams Wynn got his way. He promptly demolished the existing building and employed “the greatest architect of the day”. Fran highlights that “the house hasn’t changed much since the Adam engraving in the Soane. Number 21 is a whole different story…”
“We’re going to move around as if we’re guests of Sir Watkins,” Fran announces. Invisible sedan chairs pull up and we’re off. “Every single square inch of the entrance hall is Adam. His hallways should be cool, masculine, stone. Strong colours are Victorian. This scheme is calm, demure, authentic.” Holding court on the stairs, Nick tells us the baronet’s salary was £27,000 a year. Not bad. No wonder he was able to splash out on the “grandest staircase in any London townhouse” according to Fran. “Let’s progress as guests into the first of three first floor reception rooms.” We’re in the ante room: “a rather nice space articulated by resonances of Wedgwood’s jasperware”.
We’re lead through the ante room into the first drawing room but there’s a technical hitch. No lights. The Irish Georgians’ 21st century solution – waving mobile phone torches – allows the Adam splendour to be viewed surprisingly authentically. “This is where we will dance, talk and play cards!” Pointing to the wide shallow chimneypiece in the flickering light, Fran observes “this is deeply reminiscent of the work of Piranesi”. The period gloom soon wears thin. “We’ve languished in the dark quite long enough.” The double doors of the second drawing room are thrown back. “Adam’s interior becomes more and more elegant building to a crescendo at the back of the house!” she exclaims. “The second drawing room is fairly bling – the gilding is later. Aren’t the painted door panels rather wonderful? All this decoration would’ve been ruinously expensive!”
“The ceiling design makes the barrel vault appear heavier,” she remarks. “It alludes to Kenwood’s great library but the barrel vault and apses there are much more depressed. It is a huge misconception that Adam always designed carpets to match his ceilings. There’s often a resonance in the geometry but they generally don’t copy each other.” Great windows closed to the south. “Adam’s rebuilt screen is rather wonderful,” Fran observes, holding court over the yard. “Now we’re going to have an intimate reception in Lady Williams Wynn’s dressing room off the second drawing room. We are very close friends of her ladyship.” This mesmerisingly imaginative tour continues with a health warning about the repro work to the rear of Number 20: “Feel the jar as you step from original Adam to Adam style.” After all this first floor socialising, Dr Sands will lead us downstairs to the eating room and afterwards we will be serenaded by silent harps in the music room.
- Interior mood shots: 1/60, F14, 10,000 ISO