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The Dorchester House Bookcase, a remarkable early Victorian bookcase in the Italianate style
the three arcaded glazed doors with foliate carved spandrels above three smaller glazed doors, the cornice bearing the index letter 'V' painted with foliate ornament in the Renaissance taste with conforming pilasters,
Dorchester House Bookcase
A remarkable early Victorian walnut bookcase in the Italianate style, by Turner & Co of Marylebone, c.1855
Dorchester House-A Brief History
The glass towers and domes of the ‘Crystal Palace’ in Hyde Park would have just been visible above the trees from Park Lane when architect Lewis Vuillamy started the building of Dorchester House there in 1851.
The internal flavours of the Great Exhibition were doubtless influential on the chosen design of Dorchester House (whose site is now occupied b y the Dorchester Hotel). Robert Staynor Holford, the multi-millionaire who was having the mansion constructed, had been researching the ‘Italian Villa Style’ that had come into vogue in preceding decades in Europe and England (Prince Albert’s Osbourne House being one example). The most notable individual influence that Holford drew on, however, although not instantly recognisable, was the Peruzzi’s Farnesina Palace in Rome.
R.S Holford himself was an amateur architect and landscape gardener, and had played an active, if not guiding, role in the design of both Dorchester House and his country residence ‘Westonbirt’ in Gloucestershire, as can be seen from the lengthy correspondence with Vuillamy over a thirty year period.
Lewis Vuillamy (1791-1871) had been a talented pupil of Sir Robert Smirke and had won academy medals. He had built in every possible style starting with Smirkian neo-classicism in the Law Society’s Hall in Chancery Lane in 1828 and the facade of The Royal Institution in Albemarle Street in 1838.
R.S Holford, educated at Oriel College Oxford, was Conservative M.P for East Gloucestershire from 1854 to 1872. It is not entirely clear how he amassed his substantial wealth other than by the large family holding of ‘New River Company’ shares acquiring a high value at the time. There was also reputed to be a source of ancestral treasure that had been buried on the Isle of Wight during the time of the Napoleonic invasion scare! His wealth enabled Holford to become what Christopher Hussey describes in ‘Country Life’ of May 1928 as ‘one of the last great patrons of the arts in England’.
What is clear is that Holford built Dorchester House in order to house his collections. The piano Nobile was conceived as the grandiose space in which to hang pictures and display the astounding works of art and furniture in appropriate and complementary surroundings. The ground floor was intended to house his immense library. In true Victorian style, and typical of society figures in the boom years of the 1850s, he used the best of the world-renowned resources and craftsmen that were tending to the luxurious needs of the Empire builders in the capital.
Hussey described the completed Dorchester House as ‘a private palace of monumental construction and unusual beauty on one of the most pictorial sites in London’, quoting Professor A.E Richardson in ‘English Monumental Architecture’ who said: ‘the arrangement of the house with the entrance courtyard and enclosing walls presents one of the finest instances of town planning in London, not only for the grandeur of its plan but for the beauty of its accessory details.’
A rather poetic piece by a contributor to ‘The Builder’ journal of 1855 details how: ‘Every metropolitan journeyers must have noticed, in Park Lane, a mansion of more than ordinary size and pretensions, which has been growing up for a long time pat too external completion...We must add that this mansion is a very good specimen of masonry, and is built for long endurance.’
He details the quality of the sound construction before lurching into a rather flowery allegory: ‘If the New Zealander, who is to gaze on the deserted site of fallen London in some distant time to come, see nothing else standing in this neighbourhood, he will certainly find the weather-tinted walls of Dorchester House, erect and faithful; and will perhaps strive to discover the meaning of the monogram which appears on the shields beneath the balconies, “R.S.H”...’
How wrong he was. The building was not to last even eighty years.
R.S Holford had passed the house and its collection to his son Sir George Holford on his death. Sir George bequeathed the art collections to various nephews and nieces but the building itself to one in particular, the Earl of Morley.
The famous collection Italian and Dutch pictures, Objects of Art, Porcelain and Sculpture, were sold at auction by Christies in an historic series of sales which realised just short of £1 million. The books and manuscripts were sold by Sothebys.
Dorchester House had been built in order to house these collections. Stripped of them, it somewhat represented a ‘white elephant’ to Morley.
Christopher Hussey watched in dismay during 1928 as successive bids on the £400000 asking price for the empty mansion fell too short and he seems to have embarked on something of a crusade to save the building. He wrote for the journal of the RIBA in the August complaining that: ‘a renewed effort is due from the nation to preserve a building that, taking into consideration its site, its original and possible future purposes, the period of its erection and the excellence of its construction, must be recognised as a noble thing in itself.’
The Italian government, by that stage, had been £100000 short, with Mussolini reputed to have said that he did not want his embassy with its address being in ‘a lane’.
Ultimately demolition, freeing up this prime Park Lane site, enabled the building of the Dorchester Hotel. This was in line with the Grosvenor House and Chesterfield Houses’ adjacent and contemporaneous demolition.
Holford would not settle for anything nut the best when it came to the interior. The most famous room was to be the dining room where the sculptor Alfred Stevens was virtually given a free rein, unusually so for Holford.
The auction of the contents of Dorchester House was announced in the Sunday Times of 28th August 1928 with a drawing by Hanslip Fletcher. It depicts Stevens’ dining room, the sculptural fireplace and the monumental buffet, the mirrors and doors, all of which can now be seen in the collection of the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.
Trawling the auctioneer’s books reveals that the contents of the house were widely distributed and, once in a while, an item with provenance attached will appear on the market. Co-incidentally, at the time of writing, part of the set of dining chairs from Dorchester House has appeared for sale at Sothebys.
It was Sothebys who took care of the books, selling them in a series of sales, from 12th July to 8th December 1927. The books, including Holford’s purchase of Lord Vernon’s library, were described by E.B. Chancellor in ‘Palaces of London’ (1908) as: ‘well nigh priceless in which the productions of the presses of Caxton, Wynken de Worde, and Pynsen, are only equalled by the extraordinary number and value of the block-books and illuminated missals.’
The library included, ‘practically every work of importance printed in Italy before 1500.’
The books, Chancellor continues, ‘could hardly have desired a more splendid resting place than the library of Dorchester House, where they are locked away in splendid security...With such a lining as is afforded by these rows upon rows of varied colour and glittering decoration, the dullest room would look palatial, but here the beauty of the apartments, leading one from the other, in which these riches are housed, is in keeping with the value of its contents; for not only are the bookcases beautifully decorated in Italian designs, but in what little wall space there is uncovered by books hang some fine pictures; and when the full light of Park Lane floods the room through their many long windows, there is revealed such an artistic bookman’s paradise as might have gladdened the heart, if it did not excite the envy, of Peiresc or De Thou.’
Holford had commissioned ‘Turner & Co.’ of Marylebone to construct his bookcases around the walls of the two biggest ground floor rooms, measuring 40 x 28’ and 26 x 22’. The same high quality joiners were also responsible for the ‘pocket doors’- huge carved doors that slide into concealment- on the first floor (there were reputedly teething problems with these!). ‘Turner & Co.’ worked alongside ‘Holland and Sons’, both cabinet makers to the Queen. The latter company’s day books record in infinite details the endless work carried out over at least two decades for R.S. Holford, and indicate his taste, extravagance and attention to detail.
LASSCO found the present bookcase in a pigsty in Hertfordshire. It is believed that, during the demolition of Dorchester House in 1928, Lady Beerbohm-Tree, on passing along Park Lane, bought this section of the bookcase from the workmen and had it delivered to her Hertfordshire home where it was fitted and remained until recently. On the sale of her house the bookcase was dismantled and moved to the piggery - reputedly an award winning sty in its time - where is has remained in storage. It is not known what happened to the rest of the library bookcases, they may have been demolished with the fabric of the building. Pilasters can be found in a lobby of The Dorchester Hotel. Other parts may have been transported to Westonbirt for use there but this is merely conjecture. LASSCO has also recovered a smaller section of the same run of bookcase from the same source. It conforms to the configuration and ornament of the above section.