The Buildings of Green Park: A tour of certain buildings, monuments and other structures in Mayfair and St James’s
Andrew Jones, £25, 168 pages, ACC Art Books
Green Park is a strangely forgotten park. But it was once – as this charming little book shows – the grandest in the land.
Yes, it still has some pretty grand residents. The Duke of Wellington lives at Number 1 London, Apsley House, at the south-west corner. And Her Majesty is at the south-east corner, at Buckingham Palace.
But Piccadilly and Queen’s Walk were once crammed with the great and the good. Spencer House – with its exotic interiors by James “Athenian” Stuart – is still owned by the Spencers (as in Princess Diana) but it’s on a long lease to Lord Rothschild. The Dukes of Devonshire fled London for Chatsworth a century ago, leaving Devonshire House – a huge Palladian beauty – to be replaced by a 1926 New York-classical tower block.
Andrew Jones, who lives near the park, is an excellent guide, particularly to its more obscure glories.
But the real culprit that ruined Green Park’s glamour was the motor car. In an 1810 painting of Piccadilly (the book is full of ravishing vintage pictures), the road is a half-empty track with walkers and carriages. The row of houses stretching along Piccadilly from Apsley House was knitted into the park. Today, they are separated from Green Park by a thundering quasi-motorway.
Even worse, in 1961, a great chunk of houses was ripped out, allowing that motorway to head north along Park Lane. Apsley House was left stranded. Even the Queen’s childhood home, 145 Piccadilly, wasn’t spared – it was replaced by the hideous InterContinental London Park Lane in 1968. Still, there are plenty of gems left. Andrew Jones, who lives near the park, is an excellent guide, particularly to its more obscure glories. I’d never noticed the old gatehouse to Rutland House, Arlington Street, with its vermiculated, rusticated arch, until he pointed it out.
In lockdown, Jones took to walking round the park, taking photos of buildings, putting them on Instagram and compiling entries that, as Instagram dictates, are limited to 2,200 characters. The brevity is a bonus – oh how many writers would benefit from being told to slash the word count. And it’s amazing how many nuggets you can squeeze into 2,200 characters: such as the fact that Lancaster House, the government’s Bath stone palace, houses the 39,000 bottles of the government wine cellar; or the revelation that Milkmaids Passage was where cows were kept until the 19th century – their warm milk could be bought on the spot.
Each short entry shows how the smart houses of Green Park are palimpsests of history. So Bridgewater House, Charles Barry’s 1848 Italianate palazzo, began life as the Earl of Ellesmere’s pile and is now owned by the Latsis shipping family. But it’s much more recognisable as the telly toffs’ London house: it stars as Grantham House, the Crawleys’ London house in Downton Abbey, and as Marchmain House in the magisterial Brideshead Revisited (1981).
The book illustrates how the rich have changed the way they live, too. Why on earth does Rupert Murdoch live in the ugly block of flats at 25 St James’s Place, rather than one of the neighbouring Georgian schlosses?
The book illustrates how the rich have changed the way they live, too. Why on earth does Rupert Murdoch live in the ugly block of flats at 25 St James’s Place, rather than one of the neighbouring Georgian schlosses? We get tantalising, sometimes otiose hints of Andrew Jones’s life. He refers to a retractable roof in Arlington House that appears in The Look of Love, a film about Paul Raymond, the porn king, which, Jones tells us, “I once watched on a plane somewhere over Algeria.” Not an anecdote worth publishing.
He tells us that a distant relative of his once eloped with King Zog of Albania. Now that is interesting – but only if you expand on it, and he doesn’t. Maybe the 2,200 characters didn’t allow it. His attempts at humour can fall flat. When he fails to get into the RAF Club, he wonders, “Do the waiters wear goggles? Is the soda-water dispensed from a life-sized jet engine?” Far better to have done more research than to engage in unfunny whimsy.
But these are minor quibbles about a lovely book that shines a dazzling light on this neglected corner of gilded London – and reveals heavenly collisions of history. How I long to see the Sex Pistols guitar in the Coutts strongbox at 1, Old Park Lane – an old branch of the bank is now the Hard Rock Cafe.