Had it not been for the genius of Philip Jebb, London’s most famous 20th-century nightclub, Annabel’s, originally at 44 Berkeley Square, might never have existed. Philip was part of a remarkable British Catholic dynasty: grandson of Hilaire Belloc, brother of the late Father Philip Jebb, headmaster of Downside School and also brother of Julian Jebb, the Sixties and Seventies BBC cultural figure, famous for interviews with Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen and John Betjeman. His sister, Marianne, was a nun.
Back in 1961, when Mark Birley first conceived the idea of standing up a Mayfair basement haunt named after his wife Lady Annabel, the plan was to turn the dank cellars into a piano bar, rather a cramped one at that.
Birley had acquired the lease through his friendship with John Aspinall, whose son Damian now runs the Howletts Wildlife Park & Conservation charity (whose head of communications is Carrie Symonds). Following the relaxation of British gambling laws. Aspinall had earmarked the imposing upstairs Georgian townhouse – in need of total refurbishment – for his Clermont Club casino.
Since Aspinall’s intention was to empty the pockets of the aristocracy faster than Princess Margaret could sink a gin and tonic, he liked Birley’s idea. No doubt a downstairs drinking den – with a connecting spiral staircase – would work as an extra incentive for London’s smart brigade to part with their cash, country houses or whatever else they were foolish enough to play for.
Aspinall had previously hired Jebb in 1958 to restore Howletts, his country house near Bekesbourne, Kent. Aspinall was Jebb’s first private client. Howletts had been decorated by John Fowler, who he also hired as the decorator of the Clermont.
Birley and Jebb hit it off immediately. Not long after their first meeting, they were standing in the dimly lit cellars discussing Birley’s bar plans when Jebb turned to his new client and said: “Why not tunnel?” Birley looked at him as if he was describing some crazed Colditz escape plan. “No, seriously,” said Jebb. “Why not dig up the entire garden to make more room?’ A light suddenly flashed in Birley’s head and a social revolution – a chic restaurant with a dancefloor – was born. Over the next few months, diggers excavated 5,000 tons of soil. “You would never be allowed to do that now!” says Birley.
Not only was Annabel’s born, but so too was a great friendship that was to last until Jebb’s death from cancer in 1995. Jebb went on to become the Birley family’s very own Vanbrugh. He turned 46 Charles Street into Mark’s Club in 1969, 26 South Audley Street into Harry’s Bar in 1975 and designed a wine shop for Mark B Riley at 66 Fulham Road in 1978.
“I think what I liked most about Philip is the fact that he wanted to do what you wanted.” Mark Birley told me over 15 years ago. “It was sometimes rather difficult to describe exactly what I did want, but that’s the way we used to work. I would say the most improbable things to him and he would take careful note. He was a unique man. Philip’s talents as one of Britain’s most distinguished post-war architects haven’t been properly recognised.”
With the 60th anniversary of Jebb‘s Annabel’s commission, this seems a timely moment to reassess the legacy of Philip Jebb, as well as that of his artistic and intellectual family.
Unthreatening and highly intelligent, his personal value system was drawn from his ascetic intellectual Catholicism. He was educated at Downside, where his brother Anthony became a monk and confusingly had his name changed to Father Philip on ordination. There was an element of Charles Ryder about Jebb. He ended up often becoming part of his clients’ families. One example is the Beaufort family, for whom Jebb completed a major restructuring at Badminton. When Jebb’s son Louis visited the Duke of Beaufort after his father’s death, the duke told him: “He was somebody I could ring up not just as a friend but almost like a doctor.”
Jebb was born in 1927 at Hawkesyard Priory, a former Dominican priory built by Edward Goldie between 1896 and 1914 – later known as Spode House after the Spode pottery family that converted to Catholicism in the late 19th century at Stone in Staffordshire. The Dominicans remained until 1988, when the estate was sold, but the priory church is now the “spiritual home” of the Society of Traditional Old Catholics. His father Rex used to run Spode House as a school. His mother Eleanor came from an old Catholic family “acutely aware of the blood of martyrs and the destruction of the monasteries”, as his brother Anthony once wrote.
He seemed to identify Spode with an idyllic childhood. When he and his son Louis went to revisit the house in the Eighties, Louis remembers being startled by the sight of his father, then in his fifties, “almost running through the garden like a boy”. The gothic influence was to feature in many of his follies and pavilions. The Jebbs were also brought up at King’s Land, the “wildly eccentric” Sussex house of Philip’s grandfather Hilaire Belloc, the travel writer, Catholic man of letters and polemicist.
In a nod to Belloc’s French ancestry, King’s Land – once a shop – looked like a French house deposited at the foot of the South Downs. There were Aladdin lamps, Belloc’s huge oak bed, a French courtyard “and Catholicism all round”, wrote Vivian King in a book of remembrance for Julian Jebb (who committed suicide in 1984 after losing his battle with drink and depression). There was a private chapel in the upstairs room next to the bathroom for Belloc, whom King’s family referred to as a “Bohemian Catholic hard-drinking writer chappie”.
The Jebbs continued to move in such haute Catholic literary and artistic circles. Julian began his career in the Fifties at the Tablet, although he was no huge fan of his literary grandfather whom he described as “literally made of darkness” (he usually wore a dark suit “stained with food and candle-grease” and spent hours in his study reading aloud his own works). “Admirable,” Belloc would say. “This man can write!”
Philip read architecture at King’s College, Cambridge, going up in 1949 after doing his national service in the Royal Marines. He wrote his dissertation on Hawksmoor, who would remain one of his greatest influences. After cutting a dash in London in the early Fifties as something of a boulevardier-dandy around town, he moved to New York in 1955, at the height of the skyscraper boom, where he often worked through the night to complete his drawings on time.
Then he moved to San Francisco, where he married Lucy Pollen, the sister of architect Francis Pollen, whom he had been at school with before the war. Lucy came from a family of artists and painters; her parents had been friends with Hilaire Belloc.
Jebb’s aesthetic sensibility and innate catholic taste – with a small “c” – endeared him to a roll call of high-profile clients. The “good Aspinall” and the “good Birley”, as he would refer to them, are typical of the sort of clients that Jebb worked with. For over 30 years he was the architectural darling of the Establishment, remodelling their Chelsea or Belgravia houses, adding luxurious chrome-filled bathrooms, building their newly acquired country houses, designing stately-home gift shops, tea rooms (he did the Chartwell restaurant), libraries and – something of a Jebb speciality, for which he won prizes – creating the smartest public lavatories.
“I am always getting letters saying: ‘What lovely loos you have,’” the dowager Duchess of Devonshire told me. “They were all done by Philip. He was incapable of making anything ugly.”
One reason why such clients liked him was that he was almost pathologically discreet. Jebb’s son Louis puts this down to “good psychology”. “I think he was rather savvy, because most of his clients were very high achievers, tycoon types who wouldn’t have liked it if they had thought he was working for anybody else.”
But it wasn’t just because Jebb was diplomatic, or knew how to feed occasionally demanding egos, that he became the favoured architect of the Establishment. They liked him because he was a totally reliable, perfection-seeking workaholic, as his widow Lucy described him to me. He was knowledgeable, amusing, quirky, honest (perhaps too much so, his wife and bank manager might protest) and meticulous. Most importantly, he didn’t want his client’s life – a common problem among architects. He knew their secrets and they knew those secrets were safe with him.
“My father was without social ambition, but he could get on with anybody,” says Louis. “He didn’t want the life of the real high-flyers he dealt with but, at the same time, he was at their level because he was totally unaffected, had very good manners and could relate to anybody without being overbearing. He didn’t want to jump on their coat-tails, so as a result he developed rather natural friendships. He knew his own worth.”
Jebb was very much an architect’s architect. At all his own houses, he always kept a study room where he could draw late at night. When he wasn’t drawing, he could be found studying the drawings of his favourite classical architects – Vanbrugh, Hawksmoor and Edwin Lutyens. The heritage campaigner and banker Sir John Smith, who knew him since the Fifties, said there were several things which singled Jebb out as perhaps the outstanding architect of his generation. First, he was “extremely scholarly”; secondly, he really knew how to draw; and thirdly, he was as accurate as it was possible to be. “I have dealt with dozens of architects in my life and Philip was by far the best,” Sir John once told me. “He would sit down in the builders’ hut and go through everything, and there was never any trouble before or after the job.”
Jebb’s commissions often involved a modern reinterpretation of a classical building and much of his architectural talent lay in the art of disguise. After the work was completed, and the classical proportions of a house or stately home seamlessly restored, owners often said they could never imagine their house being built any differently.
Although his name has always been held in the highest regard by architectural writers and historians. The problem, from the point of view of recognition, has been that from 1970 onwards he did very little modern architecture. As a result, his name is seldom mentioned in the same breath as, say, Quinlan Terry or Norman Foster.
In a way this is ironic, especially in Terry’s case, as it was Jebb who helped put him on the map. Back in 1967, Jebb’s modesty was such that when he was approached to come up with plans for a new classical house at King’s Walden in Hertfordshire, he advised the trustees to consider other architects as well as himself, even going so far as to suggest they try Raymond Erith – Terry’s partner. “They got the impression that my father didn’t want to do it, but he was just being courteous. That was one of the very few large-scale commissions going at the time and it really made Terry’s name as a country-house architect,” says Louis.
Jebb’s career does include a few modern jewels. One of his earlier commissions was the Castlerosse Motel, Killarney, a quixotic and brilliant homage to Frank Lloyd Wright. The most difficult period of Jebb’s career as an architect was the Seventies, when even the tycoons ran out of money to fund lavish new building projects. He was forced to close his Sloane Square practice, eventually moving his office and studio to his Berkshire country house at Beenham Hatch, Bucklebury.
The Eighties saw something of a Jebb renaissance. His projects included new houses as well as restorations, such as that of Daylesford for Sir Anthony Bamford (educated at Ampleforth) and Poston Court in Herefordshire for the Bulmer family. Other notable houses include a beautiful, if bizarre, classical brick mansion on a cliff in Guatemala.
Alas, Jebb’s Annabel’s club is no more. The new club, owned by Richard Caring, moved a few doors down and was remodelled in the style of a cruise ship. But for the generation that loved the old Annabel’s, a glass should be raised in memory of Jebb in its 60th year.
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