Monday 8 September 2014
On this beautiful sunny day, Andrew and I went on a private tour of 2 Temple Place, organised by the Friends of the British Library. I thought Linda and Mary would not mind if I wrote it up, though we shall of course visit it when there is an exhibition on and access is more straightforward. They have exhibitions between January and March each year, and the next one will be 'Hidden Collections of the Industrial North West'.
So we arrived in the calm front courtyard of this remarkable building, though the traffic noise from Temple Place and the Strand was intrusive, and were met by our guide, Nigel Black, who began by telling us about the original owner of the building, and pointing out some key features. The money came from William Waldorf Astor, for whom the word 'rich' is an understatement, but the inspiration was his architect, John Loughborough Pearson. For this building, Pearson moved from his usual Neo-Gothic to what the guide aptly called Neo-Tudor. The outside embellishments include lamps with 15th century ships on them. The weathervane, just visible above the crenellated roof, is of Columbus' 1492 ship, the Santa Maria. Columbus, after all, went the 'other way' from Aster, Europe to America.
Since these were to be the offices of the Astor business empire, and therefore modern, the cherubs on one lamp stand are telephoning one another. (The other lamp stand has one winding a coil while the other holds up a light bulb).
If I say that his home in London was in Carlton House Terrace (up for sale last year for £250,000,000) and his country houses were Cliveden and Hever Castle, you will see what I mean about his being rich.
But we were here to see William Waldorf's offices. Having inherited his father's fortune, and wisely continued the family habit of investing in real estate in New York, he moved to England in 1890. He was always worried about his personal security, and the USA was a land of kidnappings and gangsters. So in we went, to the wood panelled entrance hall. It has a striking stone floor, onyx, chalcedony, porphyry and jasper inlaid in the marble.
Astor was very fond of historical fiction, and so the hall and staircase are embellished with wooden carvings of characters from his favourites. The ground floor has the Three Musketeers, plus d'Artagnan, Milady, and various others. Then on the upstairs landing, we have Hawkeye and Uncas from James Fenimore Cooper, two characters from Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and Rip van Winkle and his daughter to illustrate Washington Irving. Above them all, for British literature, are friezes of Shakespeare plays. These are by Thomas Nicholls, taking a break from church embellishment which was his main focus. (You can see some more of his work in Waltham Abbey). Above all this wood is a stained glass ceiling dating from 1895.
Next we moved into the Library, which was book-free, having in fact been Astor's office. (He had bought the Pall Mall Gazette, turning it from a Liberal paper to a Conservative one, though it made him no money and his wealth continued to come from New York) The Library is embellished with lots more cherubs, by William Frith who also made the entrance lamp stands. They depict the Arts and the Sciences, one of them holding a retort, and a couple of others with musical instruments and books
Above, are fifty heads of historical and literary figures by Nathaniel Hitch. Here Bismarck and Martin Luther mix with the Lady of Shallot and others. And then there are characters from Ivanhoe...
At either end of the room are stained glass windows by Clayton and Bell, depicting a Swiss sunrise and sunset. When one end of the building was damaged by a nearby V1 in 1944, the glass was safely is storage, and survived.
Oh, yes, because you can never have too much, there is also a fine door carved by George Frampton, the man who 'did' Edith Cavell and Peter Pan. It shows nine women from the Arthurian legends.
Then we went through a 'hidden door' (part of Astor's security worries) into an exhibition room, still sporting the wallpaper from a William Morris exhibition, and our tour finished.
We had learned a lot of Astor family history, which I shall not detail here. Astors entered British Tory politics and embedded themselves in the establishment. An Astor won gold at the 1908 Olympics (for Racquets, that upper class and now abandoned Olympic sport); one small descendant was bridesmaid to Katherine Middleton; one is stepfather to the Prime Minister's wife.
We also learned about the owners of the building since Astor: Sunlife Assurance of Canada, followed by the Accountants and Auditors/Chartered Accountants, who used it as a sort of Livery Hall. But now it belongs to the Bulldog Trust, a charity which helps other charities with their governance, and by giving 'modest grants' (Nigel Blacks words, not mine!)
It had been a fascinating tour, and one which I would recommend to anyone, especially anyone with an interest in late 19th century decorative arts .... or an interest in how rich Americans like to spend their money.