Next to Green Park is a palace and a long row of grand houses, and one of those grand houses is open to the public. It’s not that well known it seems, but Spencer House is everything you could want from a visit to a grand mansion, but one that’s right in the middle of London.
You’ll have a big building, a grand staircase, richly decorated rooms and enough paintings to fill an art gallery, but there’s a twist, much of what you see is not from this house.
To explain, we leap back in time.
The house was commissioned by the fabulously wealthy John Spencer, whose family home was, and still is, at Althorp. He already had two London homes, but wanted another grander home as a gift for his wife.
Unusually for an aristocrat of the time, he married for love rather than position, and the house is richly decorated with symbols of love and marriage, although today most of them need explaining as they are very much of the time.
The house remains in the Spencer family, but in the 1920s they shipped all the interior fittings, and I mean ALL of them, to their family home, and ever since they’ve rented it out as offices.
In 1948, it was leased to Christie’s, in 1956 a chemicals firm, and in 1963 to The Economist. However, the current lease is held by a much more interesting owner, RIT Capital Partners, which is actually the investment trust for the English branch of the Rothschild family, headed by the philanthropist, Jacob Rothschild, who is also chair of Waddesdon Manor.
It was they who restored the house to pretty much how it looked in the past. Away with the offices, and in with flock wallpaper, restored woodwork and an awful lot of gold leaf. They also borrowed a lot of art and furniture from major museums, and the museums said yes but on the condition that they open the house up to the public to see the collection.
And they’ve done that for for the past 21 years. I had planned to visit in its 20th anniversary year, but like so many anniversaries over the past couple of years, that wasn’t possible.
Entry is by what looks, by mansion house standards, to be a fairly modest side entrance, but as the building faces Green Park, and it’s not possible to ride your coach and horses through the park, the entrance was put on the side of the building. Do notice the gas-powered lights by the entrance.
Wait in the waiting room, which has just a few fewer seats than people on the tour, so arrive early if you want to sit, because ahead of you is an hour of wandering around rooms full of seats with signs telling you not to sit on them.
It’s also a building where photography is only allowed in two rooms, and fortunately, they’re the most impressive rooms to photograph.
A grand reception room leads into a library, then to the dining room, all full of paintings and furniture that’s explained by the guide. Much of the furniture is from the correct period so historic, but the fixtures and fittings are often modern replicas of what would have been here had the Spencer’s not chiselled them out and shifted the whole lot up to their ancestral home instead.
One room you can photograph is the gentlemen’s room for after-dinner chats, also known for obvious reasons when you see it as the Palm Room, with its gold-leaf palm trees and an 18th-century replica of the Venus de’ Medici in the centre.
Upstairs, dodging the tour group coming down, and now for something very different. The main building was designed and the ground floors decorated by John Vardy in the Palladian style, but the owner was persuaded to switch architects halfway through to James Stuart, a designer so well known for his classical approach that he was nicknamed The Athenian.
Although to be honest, unless you’re really up on knowing the difference in architectural styles, it can be difficult to know that there was a swap of styles partway through – it’s a big grand house looking terrifically big and grand and impressive.
What’s really impressive though is how the restoration has woven its magic, to the point that it’s quite difficult to believe that this was all once being used as offices. There are still offices in the building, on the upper floors where the family used to sleep and servants lived, but the great staterooms are all looking as great as they were when first built.
Once you’ve done the house, there’s a chance to wander around the modest but pleasant garden. Designed to be seen from the terrace that faces Green Park, there’s a step of steps that take you down to have a wander around.
A quirk is that the house is owned by the Spencers, but the garden is owned by the Royal Parks. This is because this row of grand houses originally fronted directly onto the park, but it was later agreed to fence off a bit of the park for the houses to have private gardens. But the land still belongs to the Royal Park, not the Spencers.
On a personal basis, I would have liked a bit more about the house, but as you’re inside looking mostly at furniture and paintings, the tour understandably focused mostly on those. Considering that the Rothchilds only hold a lease on the building, albeit a very long one, they didn’t have to restore it to its full glory, but they have, and now we get to enjoy it. However, it’s not a well-known place to visit, and I bet if you did a straw poll amongst friends, few will have heard of it. So that’s your reason to pay a visit.
Spencer House is open every Sunday (except during August) from 10am to 4.30pm.
The house tour and garden takes about 90 minutes and while you can turn up and join a tour if there are spaces, it’s wiser to book one in advance from here.
There’s also a guidebook available for £6.
Getting to Spencer House
If coming from Green Park tube station, the easiest way to Spencer House is to leave by the exit leading into Green Park and walk down the path a bit until you spot an alleyway gap in the fence leading to a passage under the houses. Head down here, and at the other end, turn right, and Spencer House is in front of you at the end of the road.
Otherwise, head to St James’s Street, and you want to look for the side road, St James’s Place and Spencer House is at the end of the road.