If ever a structure was constructed out of superlatives it was this one. In 1774 Horace Walpole described it as “still the most beautiful edifice in England”. His friend William Mason went further, claiming it was “the most astonishing and perfect piece of architecture that can possibly be conceived”. Edward Gibbon, author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, declared that “in point of Ennui and Magnificence [it] is the wonder of the XVIII Century and the British Empire”. The authoritative Survey of London observed that it was regarded “both by natives and foreigners, as the most elegant structure in Europe, if not on the globe”.
One could go on but suffice to say that no building facing on to Oxford Street before or since has gathered such plaudits as James Wyatt’s Pantheon. It was opened on 27 January 1772 on part of the site occupied today by Marks and Spencer. Why, you might ask, would anyone want to build a structure of such magnificence in of all places Oxford Street, which is more famous for the sound of money than the lure of beauty.
The answer may be found in Fanny Burney’s (anonymously published) novel of 1778, Evelina. Its eponymous heroine thought the Pantheon was not as satisfying as the notorious Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea, the erotic playground of the rich. And there’s the clue. The Ranelagh was enormously popular – among those who could afford it – but it was only open in the summer. Patrons wanted a similar place of public entertainment to go to in the winter.
Soundings were taken among people of “rank or fortune” as to whether a Pantheon for winter entertainment to fill the social gap caused by the closure of Ranelagh would be appropriate. The answer was a resounding “yes” and after the usual complications attached to new buildings, not least sharply escalating costs, the Ranelagh of the West End was finally opened and attended by approaching 2,000 of the great and the good, including eight dukes and duchesses and a complete set of foreign ambassadors.
They were, by all accounts, impressed by the interior of the complex, not least by the dome which topped its central area, whose dimensions had been copied meticulously from the Pantheon in Rome. According to the antiquary John Timbs, the Pantheon contained 14 rooms, exclusive of the rotunda which had double colonnades “ornamented with Grecian reliefs; and in niches at the base of the dome were statues of the heathen deities”.
After an opening like this what could possibly go wrong? After healthy profits in its first few years, things did. It was partly because the Pantheon had ideas above its station, especially in its early days, when admission required the “recommendation of a Peeress”. It had to compete with Ranelagh Gardens during the summer seasons, when it struggled to attract enough people even after resorting to balloon demonstrations and scientific experiments.
The Pantheon enjoyed a brief revival when it became an opera house following a fire which destroyed the King’s Theatre in Haymarket in June 1789, but that proved short-lived as the Pantheon itself was ravaged by fire in January, 1792. Thereafter various attempts were made to revive it, without success. In 1867 the Pantheon, by then a bazaar, closed and the building was purchased by Gilbey, the wine and spirit merchants, who sold it to Marks & Spencer in 1937. Attempts were made to preserve the facade for erection elsewhere, but to no avail. The stones of the Pantheon will almost certainly have been incorporated into other buildings in London or, perish the thought, used as hardcore.
Meanwhile, the Pantheon in Rome built by Hadrian in 126 AD on the site of Agrippa’s original, still stands proud in Rome. There is a moral there somewhere.
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