In this chapter
War creates an industry
Roehampton House was designed by Thomas Archer and built for Thomas Cary between 1710-12. Archer, a pupil of Sir John Vanburgh, was also the architect of Heythrop in Oxfordshire, the fine pavilion at the head of the long water at Wrest Park; St John’s Church, Smith Square, Westminster; the tower at St Philip’s Church (now the Cathedral at Birmingham) and other fine buildings.
Curiously, there was already a building of the same name on the other side of Roehampton Lane, and the two continued as neighbours for some 60 years. The other Roehampton House had been built for Sir Richard Weston, later the Earl of Portland, in 1630. In 1777 it was pulled down by its owner, Lord Huntingfield, and replaced by a new building designed by James
Wyatt. This was renamed Roehampton Grove and now, as Grove House, is part of the Froebel Institute.
Roehampton House, as built by Archer, was a much smaller building than the present one. It consisted of what is now the central block of seven bays, with a basement, two and a half storeys and a top parapet. Archer’s embellishments to the red brick exterior have not found favour with some architectural commentators: Pevsner calls them “wilful” and Simpson says they show “borrowing from mannerist Italy which sit strangely on the Anglo-Dutch body of the house.” The ground plan and elevation for Roehampton House appeared in Vitruvius Britannicus by Colin Campbell in 1725. This volume, published with the intention of illustrating the glories of British architecture, includes the following description of the House:
“This is the seat of Thomas Cary Esq. in Surry, in a most agreeable Situation: The Apartments are well disposed for State and Conveniency. The Salon is very noble, and has an excellent ceiling, by Mr. Thornhill. But, above all, the Humanity and Liberality of the Master deserves to be transmitted to Posterity.”
In spite of the fact that the architect himself apparently submitted the drawings, historians do not now think the House was built quite according to plan. The published elevation includes a large broken pediment (similar to that at St. John’s, Smith Square), but it is now generally agreed that this can never in fact have been built and that the present more modest parapet has always been in place.
The Painted Salon
The most noted internal features were the “painted salon” and the main staircase. The saloon, which was two storeys high, was on the first floor above the entrance hall. The fashionable Sir James Thornhill painted the walls with landscapes and “The feast of the Gods” on the ceiling. He also painted the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, and the ceiling of the Queen’s bedchamber at Hampton Court. Thornhill was a very capable portrait painter and his works may be seen in Chatsworth House, the Tate Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and elsewhere. In his article about Roehampton House in Country Life, 14 August 1915, Lawrence Weaver commented:
“Much varnishing has obscured Thornhill’s heroic design and given it a glitter which makes photography of the walls impossible and of the ceiling most difficult.”
It is fortunate that two of Thornhill’s original designs were deposited in the British Museum, because the room was totally destroyed by the bombing in 1940 and has since been subdivided.
The great staircase, which is still the original although it has been moved, is an example of Archer’s power of design. The balustrading is good and typical of its period. The detail which gives the staircase its individual distinction is the soffit. Weaver defines it:
“the moulding of the soffit (or underside) of the solid oak treads, so that their profile matches the form of the console brackets. This is not a unique treatment, but unusual and rich enough to demand special notice.”
The dining room opened out of the hall by a doorway immediately opposite to the entrance and, with the hall, occupied the full depth of the central portion of the house. The chimney piece of the dining room was a remarkable piece of work, carved in freestone, said to be the work of Grinling Gibbons. To the right of the dining room and opening out of it was the boudoir. To the left of the dining room, and opening out of it, was the drawing room. These rooms occupied the rear of the house or the “garden front” as it was known.
The aristocratic Georgian country villa
When first built, Roehampton House had many surrounding buildings including a brewhouse, granary, stables and coach house. There was also a small farm with a barn, cowhouse and piggery. The kitchen garden consisted of, among other things, a hot house, a cool-house and a melon ground. The garden front opened onto “a large pleasure ground, beautifully formed and richly planted” part of which was walled-in. At the end of this ground was a terrace, a greenhouse and “two alcoves surrounded by six enclosures.”
Daniel Lysons in his Environs of London, 1792 wrote:
“The beauties of the surrounding scenery and the contiguity to Richmond park have induced many persons to build villas at Roehampton.”
The late eighteenth century saw something of a building boom as several well-to-do families established summer homes in the area. Lysons singles out Dover House, Mount Clare and the Earl of Bessborough’s House (first called Parkstead, later Manresa House) designed by William Chambers. Elm Grove, William Harvey’s old home, was rebuilt in 1792.
“Despite the disappearance of some of these houses in the early 20th century, and the buildings in the grounds of the survivors, there is still nothing like Roehampton anywhere in London to get an impression of the aristocratic Georgian country villa.” (Pevsner)
The ownership of Roehampton House is very difficult to ascertain since the original documents are not available. The habit of the time meant that the House might have been owned by one person, leased to another, who then rented it to a third person. It is therefore easier to say that certain people were known to have been in residence at certain times.
Roehampton House changed hands many times during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It seems that George Cary lived there at one time. William-Anne Keppel, 2nd Earl of Albemarle, purchased the House from Thomas Cary’s widow; but John Wilkinson bought it in 1775. Wilkinson was one of the owners of the two ships in Captain Cook’s expedition of 1771-8; after his death in 1778 his widow lived there until it was put up for auction in 1791. The notice of its auction by Mr Christie on 7th July 1791 still exists and gives a wonderful description of the house and gardens:
“The premises form an elegant elevation with wings connected by colonnades, seated in the midst of its own grounds, built in an uncommon substantial manner, neatly finished on a plan replete with uniformity, elegance and convenience; the situation beautiful, the offices are fully competent for the purpose of a large family; the grounds are elegantly disposed, the plantations grown to the summit of luxurience, and crowned with stately Cedars of Lebanon, forming umbrageous walks impervious to the sun.”
The House was acquired by William Drake M.P. at that auction. It is known that Dr Markham, Archbishop of York, rented the House in 1807 and 1808 and that in 1814 JohnPearse rented the House from William Duncan.
In 1830 Lord Ellenborough bought Roehampton House, having moved from Elm House (also in Roehampton), after an acrimonious divorce. He was Lord Privy Seal at the time, but in 1841 was sent to India as Governor General. On his return to England in 1844 he was made First Lord of the Admiralty and created an Earl.
In about 1830 it is known to have been the residence of George Fitzclarence, 1st Earl of Munster, eldest son of George IV and Mrs Jordan. As a soldier he served in the Peninsula War under Wellington and then in India, where he made a dangerous and difficult journey to deliver dispatches. He was later created Duke of Munster and Baron of Tewkesbury and became involved in politics. Before his suicide in 1842 he had also become well known as an orientalist.
In 1841 Roehampton House became the London home of the Earls of Leven and Melville. It is described, in 1850, as the seat of Alexander Leslie-Melville, a younger brother of the eighth and ninth Earls of Leven (they were also the seventh and eighth holders of the Melville Earldom). He was living at Roehampton House in 1857, where his nephew Lord Balgonie, the only son of the eighth Earl of Leven, died. The widow of the ninth Earl continued to live there until her death in 1887. In 1859 she had added a north wing (which was subsequently demolished during Lutyens’ alterations). This wing is visible in some of the photographs surviving from this period.
Lutyens alterations and a wider Roehampton Lane
Around 1910 the House was bought by Arthur Grenfell, a Canadian financier and noted polo player who wanted to be near the Roehampton Club polo ground. He commissioned Sir Edwin Lutyens to carry out major alterations which were to treble the size of Roehampton House. Lutyens raised Archer’s curved links to 2 storeys and 3-storey wings were added to the north and south of the main block. According to Weaver, plans to remodel the old walled gardens to the south-east of the House were never carried out, nor were Lutyens’ plans for the interior of the new wings. Lutyens also built new pavilions around the entrance forecourt. On the southern elevation he followed Archer’s treatment of a slightly projecting middle feature, emphasised by a stone doorway carried up to the window above but slightly varying the details which distinguishes it from the old work.
By 1915 the House had been sold to Kenneth Wilson, of the Ellerman Wilson Shipping Line, but it seems unlikely that he had time to live there before the House was requisitioned by the War Office as a troop hostel.
Presumably Lady Falmouth and Mrs Gwynne Holford were drawn to the area because of its reputation as a healthy country retreat. During the earliest days of the Hospital patients were accommodated in the main house and the limb makers in the basement. Access, especially to the upper floors, was difficult for disabled men, and the patients and workshops were gradually moved out to single storey huts in the grounds. Since Lutyens’ alterations in 1910 the grounds have been widely covered by hospital buildings, commencing in 1915 and many old outbuildings (including the ancient icehouse) were demolished in the process. There were no permanent hospital buildings on the site before 1925. In the 1930s 3 acres of land to the south of the House were sold to a speculative builder for £9,000. Throughout the Hospital’s history the House has generally been used for offices or as a nurses’ home. In 1956, part of the frontage was sold to the London County Council for the purpose of widening Roehampton Lane, which was too narrow to cope with increasing traffic. Three lodges, including one built by Lutyens, were demolished and 2 new lodges designed by the LCC Architect’s Department were built directly in front of Roehampton House. At the same time, a handsome pair of iron gates with a gilded overthrow were moved from where Lutyens had placed them (north of the estate) to a new position between the new Lodges facing Clarence Lane. These gates have the monogram AG (standing for Arthur Grenfell) in the over-throw.
Development, rescue and conservation
In 1965 when the BRADU (Biomechanical Research and Development Unit) was being built to the south of the House and in view of its proximity to the old building the plans were submitted to the Royal Fine Arts Commission for approval. This is the large square building faced with portland stone which can be seen from Roehampton Lane. During the building operations the deep foundations were constantly flooded with water, presumably from a spring: no doubt the “plentiful water supplies enjoyed by the estate” referred to in the 1791 bill of sale.
Among architects and planners the name of Roehampton is synonymous with housing development. The cottage-style estates built after the First World War were followed by a similar drive after the Second World War, and gradually the parks and aristocratic villas were engulfed. Most famous is the Alton estate, built in the 1950s, on land formerly belonging to Manresa House and providing some 2,500 new homes. This account of the history of Roehampton House has outlined why it was spared this fate. In October 1978 its architectural merit was recognised when it was declared a Grade 1 listed building.
In 1983 the House, which was being used mainly as residential accommodation for staff, reached another crisis in its history when poor quality asbestos insulation was discovered around the heating and hot water pipes. The building was emptied, and further investigation revealed a host of problems, the most serious of which was the structural weakness of Archer’s original central section. In addition, fire precautions were inadequate, there was beetle infestation and wet rot, and improvements were needed in the electrical, heating and hot water systems. The Health Authority wished to convert the building into a much-needed District Headquarters. The conservation lobby became interested in the project and vocal in its insistence that the character of the building be preserved and restored. Unfortunately, as the Project Manager wrote in his report: “Politically with a number of NHS hospitals under threat of closure due to insufficient funds, a project of this nature, large in capital cost, was not desirable”.
After prolonged negotiation and much hard bargaining, the District Project Design Team, with advice from English Heritage and Wandsworth Borough’s Conservation Officer, reached a practicable solution acceptable to all parties. The building was strengthened and brought up to standard. This included a last minute request to incorporate computer cabling. At the same time original features, such as layout, panelling and fireplaces, were preserved. The oak staircase was restored. Great care was taken with the decoration. Research by English Heritage revealed that the panelling had been painted, and the original colours have been adhered to as far as possible. Financial contributions were received from Wandsworth Borough Council, the Heritage of London Trust, the Leche Trust and the Pilgrim Trust. The house was re-opened on 15th June 1987 by Princess Alexandra.
The restoration of Roehampton House represented an interesting exercise in the practicalities of conservation. It is not a museum, but very much a working environment. It was a condition of the financial help given by the Borough Council that there should be some public access to the House. The first Open Day was organised in September 1988. Guided tours around the House were organised, together with displays illustrating the history of the House and the restoration work. It proved to be an almost overwhelming success, and subsequent Open Days have been combined with the traditional Garden Party in June.