They don’t make mansions like Bridgewater House anymore. It is one of three palatial edifices – the others are Spencer House and Lancaster House – almost side by side facing Green Park from Cleveland Row in what may be the last stand of the great aristocratic residences.
The entrance to it is also one of the best-known in the country, as its facade was used as the set for scenes shot outside the fictitious Grantham House, London residence of the Crawley family in the Downton Abbey TV series.
Yet few people have seen the inside of Bridgewater House, which is owned by the Latsis family, led by Spiro Latsis, an LSE-educated Greek businessman, and not open to the public except on exceptional occasions: even the Downtown cast and crew were, apparently, not allowed in.
The building’s current Palazzo-style design was by Sir Charles Barry, dating from 1840, although different versions have been on the site for much longer and Bridgewater House did not acquire its present name until 1854, when it was owned by Lord Ellesmere, heir of Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater. The house had been in the Egerton family since 1700. Ellesmere had the unusual distinction of having an island named after him, one almost as big as Great Britain.
I was lucky enough to see inside the mansion some years ago with the Thorney Island Society. Walking through the front door you are almost blown over by what you see. Instead of a hallway to a private residence you are immediately propelled into The Grand Saloon. It looks like the entrance to the Reform Club in Pall Mall, which is not surprising as Barry designed that too, as well as the Houses of Parliament. The big difference is that the Reform Club is smaller.
Standing on the million-pound carpet and looking skywards towards the glass roof, your eye is caught by a ring of domes, half of which turn out to be mirror images.
At one end of the ground floor is a set of murals by Jakob Götzenberger depicting scenes from Comus, a masque in honour of chastity commissioned by the Egerton family from the celebrated poet John Milton and performed in 1634 at Ludlow Castle before John Egerton, the 1st Earl of Bridgewater to celebrate his appointment as Lord President of Wales. Part of the mural depicts the Earl talking to Milton, who lived for part of his life in nearby Petty France. To make sure posterity did not forget him, Ellesmere left dozens of sets of his initials at strategic points throughout the house.
The first dwelling on this site was called Berkshire House and built around 1626 for Thomas Howard, second son of the Earl of Suffolk and later Earl of Berkshire. In the 1670s it was given by Charles II to Barbara Villiers, one of his most notorious mistresses, who became the Duchess of Cleveland. She rebuilt and extended the property and called it Cleveland House.
It is sometimes claimed that the outline of the foundations of the Cleveland mansion can still be seen in the front garden of Bridgewater House, if the climatic conditions are right. The photo of the garden above was taken during this year’s drought. Whether it bears out the claim is left to your imagination.
Bridgewater House once hosted the biggest private art collection in London with over 300 works, including masterpieces by Raphael, Titian and Palma Vecchio, some of them from the famed Orleans collection. The gallery was opened in 1803 and could be visited on Wednesday afternoons during several months in the summer.
But there was a catch: you had to be recommended by friends of the family or be an artist endorsed by a member of the Royal Academy. The photo above is believed to be from around 1900. The collection was eventually dispersed, but some of the works can still be seen in the National Gallery in London or the National Gallery of Scotland.
London should be grateful that a historic dwelling like Bridgewater House has been restored at private expense, but it is also inescapably sad that a gem like this is not more open to the public.
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