London EC4N 8BH
Tuesday September 6 2016
The Mansion House can only be visited in a guided group once a week on a Tuesday afternoon so we duly assembled at the side entrance in Wallbrook, where we were security checked and had our money taken. The tour takes about an hour, costs £7 (£5 concessions) and there are also tours specifically to look at the paintings.
Doubtless to the confusion of several overseas visitors the guide explained that this is the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London, in fact the 688th of that title, as opposed to the Mayor of London who governs from City Hall across the water and lives – probably – still in Tooting. The other difference of course is that London’s mayor is paid out of the rates of the 32 (oops) boroughs whereas the Lord Mayor is self-funded and receives no salary from the Corporation of London aka the City, so must therefore be a man of considerable means as he entertains and travels his way through his one year tenure – a tenure which is about to end with the election of his successor soon to take place.
The Lord Mayor’s show in November marks the handover and swearing in of the next mayor, who has the equivalent status of an Earl and within the ‘Square Mile’ has no-one above him, save the Monarch when she visits, and whom he offers allegiance and protection...
The various traditions, and there are many, are explained as you make the tour.
The Lord Mayor, who is always drawn from one of the Livery companies, used to live in his respective guild hall, however many of these burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666 (350 years ago this last weekend – they had hot dry weather too) so trying to plan for the future, the City, already a rich corporation, decided to buy up Stocks Market and build a mansion to compete with those already going up round the country. They chose George Dance the Elder who had a complex commission to fill: it required him to combine an official residence with guest rooms, huge entertaining space for banquets and balls, stables, staff accommodation, offices for the corporation administration, and a small courtroom plus jail space as the mayor was the local magistrate. Dance in turn was influenced by Inigo Jones who had been influenced by the Italian Palladio who of course harked back to Vitruvius all ten volumes presumably. Dance’s original building was stiff with columns but also had an internal courtyard (very Roman but not much fun in drafty old London) and a double height hall leading the then population of London to dub it the Noah’s Ark – as that is what it looked like perched on top from the outside. As this was neither practical nor very stable Dance’s son, George the Younger, carried out the alterations to what you more or less see today. The cells, which once held the Suffragette protester Emmeline Pankhurst, now hold the treasures which include the mayoral chains and the mace and staff, which accompany the Lord Mayor on public engagements. The visit does not include the cellar level rooms (though you can smell the damp) nor of course the private residence quarters at the top.
The current Lord Mayor is Geoffrey Evans, who belongs to the Guild of Shipwrights and is a major shipping broker. The prerequisite for being elected (apart from a substantial private income) is that he be a Freeman of the City, an Alderman and member of a Guild. The City is responsible for 9.000 residents, 320,000 daily workers, 5 London Bridges, the Old Bailey, the Port of London and other more distant outposts (including Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest), a few schools, nearly 700 years’ worth of investments, let alone the current commerce.
The tour starts in the Walbrook Hall, originally the stables and open to the elements, but now an imposing entrance hall with what I thought might be a sedan chair but we were informed was for the porter, who would have been obliged to sit outside and is designed to offer shelter and warmth via the ‘hot brick’ tray below the seat!
Each room and the stairs have a wealth of wonderful pictures mostly from the Golden Age of Dutch Painting donated in 1987 by Harold Samuel.
These include a Frans Hals – the first picture to be bought by telephone auction – and more de Cuyps and Avercamps than you can shake a stick at. It was very tempting to linger but we were under a strict curfew, to be out by 3PM.
The plasterwork details on the walls and up the stairs are magnificent and all in very good condition and fresh looking. For an English building the impression is remarkably baroque. The combination of light, columns, gilding, ornate plasterwork (symbolizing the City and the Thames) makes for quite an eyeful.
The upstairs is designed to make an impression and take your breath away which is exactly what it does. Although now only half the height of the original this is an extremely imposing and ornate room flanked by columns and with the most enormous central chandelier. As referred to above this was the space which in the original design was twice the height with the central section open!
Adjacent is the Long Parlour with inset mirrors to match the windows on the opposite wall. The paintings in here are quite small and intimate, in the Dutch domestic style somewhat at odds with the setting.
From there the tour leads into the State Drawing Room, which was newly refurbished 1991-1993 and still looks fresh – the talking point of the room then as now is the Nile Suite – a set of two sofas ( one went missing?) and several chairs now covered in crimson silk damask – they were crafted to commemorate the Battle of the Nile (if you know nothing about this Battle, which tends to be overshadowd by Trafalgar, this video clip is very clear) with the rope motif (I thought it was a Nile snake) and lions’ heads on the arms. The furniture is pushed back against the walls to allow visitors (then and now) to admire the carpets…apparently the Mayor hosts a children’s party here come Christmas.
Hard to believe, but even grander than the Saloon and passage room is the Egyptian Hall – rather misnamed in our view. What it apparently refers to is the type of grand hall built by the Romans (after Vitruvius we imagine) in colonized Egypt to impress the likes of Cleopatra. This one was destined for banquets and balls with its high coffered ceiling, colonnaded alcoves and minstrels’ gallery. The white plasterwork is very fresh, still set off by gilded capitals. The stained glass windows each end are designed to remind visitors of the long history of mayors and their occasional wider role in English history. One has the mayor with King John and Magna Carta, William Walworth (Mayor) slaying Wat Tyler (incidentally at the Bart’s Museum they claimed the wounded Tyler had been brought into them ) another with Queen Elizabeth I whose prowess at sea ensured ever more funds into the City’s coffers.
The tour ends with another staircase, less stately, leading down to where we started and the cloakrooms. The opulence of this building and the emphasis on investment and wealth and commerce leave you in no doubt of the incredible riches of the City of London, reflected as it is in every aspect of this building’s genesis, function and appearance. If you can stomach the opulence this short tour is well worth it.