Building Spencer House (1756-66)

Painted Room, ceiling detail Photograph by Mark Fiennes
Painted Room, ceiling detail
Photograph by Mark Fiennes

John Spencer initially employed the Palladian architect John Vardy, a pupil of William Kent. Vardy was responsible for the external elevations of Spencer House and the design of the ground floor rooms including some of the furniture. James 'Athenian' Stuart, then newly returned from Greece, superseded Vardy as Lord Spencer's architect in 1758. As a result, the House became the first example in London of the application of accurate Greek detail to interior decoration, making it one of the pioneer examples of neo-classical architecture.

Spencer House was conceived as a showcase of classical design but it was also designed for pleasure and a festive theme runs through the decoration of all the many state rooms which were used for receptions and family gatherings. The first Earl Spencer and his wife were prominent figures in London society, and during their lifetime Spencer House was often the setting for lavish entertainments. Their descendants, notably the fourth and sixth Earls, both of whom served as Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, continued this tradition.

Refinements to the House

Dining Room, chimneypiece detail Photograph by Mark Fiennes
Dining Room, chimneypiece detail
Photograph by Mark Fiennes

Following the death of the first Earl Spencer in 1783 the House was partly remodelled by the architect Henry Holland, who was soon to be engaged by the Prince Regent on the construction of Carlton House. Holland added the Greek Ionic columns in the Dining Room, encased in Siena scagliola, and the large mahogany doors in the Staircase Hall, the Ante Room, and the Library. In the 1840s the ground floor was decorated and the first floor restored by the famous Victorian architect Philip Hardwick. Thirty years later the Parisian designer, Barbier, redecorated the ground floor rooms.

The 20th Century

Door Furniture Photograph by Mark Fiennes
Door Furniture
Photograph by Mark Fiennes

The Spencer family continued to live at the House until 1895 when the building was let to a series of tenants, including the Duke of Marlborough and his wife, the former Miss Consuelo Vanderbilt. Following the death of the fifth Earl Spencer in 1910 the family returned to the House and in 1926 the building was substantially restored. A year later, however, the family moved away and the House was let to the Ladies' Army and Navy Club, which remained in occupation until 1943.

The contents of the House were removed to Althorp and in 1942, at the height of the Blitz, valuable original fixtures such as chimneypieces, doors and chair rails were also removed. During the war the House was occupied by the nation's nursing services, and in 1948 a lease was signed with the auctioneers Christies's, whose bomb-damaged premises in King Street were being rebuilt. Christie's were succeeded by the British Oxygen Company in 1956, when the House was converted into offices. In 1963 the Economist Intelligence Unit moved to Spencer House; they remained in occupation until 1985 when the lease was assigned to J.Rothschild Holdings and thence to RIT Capital Partners plc.

Spencer House Today

Spencer House has now regained the full splendour of its late eighteenth-century appearance after a ten-year programme of restoration undertaken by RIT Capital Partners plc, under the Chairmanship of Lord Rothschild.

The final appearance of the rooms, complete with carved architectural detail, chimneypieces and copies of original furniture, is also a testament to the support of the Spencer family who provided access to Althorp to enable replication work of outstanding quality to be achieved.

The House, partly used as offices, provides a unique setting where entertainments can be held in the historic setting of the eight state rooms.

The accurate restoration is complimented by a magnificent collection of paintings and furniture, specially assembled for the House, including five Benjamin West paintings graciously lent by Her Majesty The Queen.

The House is open to the public for viewing on Sundays and private tours can be arranged (except January and August).