Adam’s London: then and now – Coventry House, 29 (now 106) Piccadilly
For the next in her series discussing Robert and James Adam’s work in London Dr Frances Sands will focus on Coventry House, 29 (now 106) Piccadilly.
Running between Hyde Park Corner in the west, and Piccadilly Circus in the east, Piccadilly is one of the oldest thoroughfares through London. Development of the street began in earnest from 1661, when the land along the eastern half of Piccadilly was granted to Henry Jermyn, 1st Earl of St Albans, the great politician who served as Lord Chancellor to King Charles II. At this time it was known as Portugal Street, in honour of Charles II’s Portuguese queen, Catherine of Braganza. It had, however, long been known colloquially as Piccadilly, thanks to a house built in 1612 by a tailor, Robert Baker, at the north-east end. Baker had made his fortune selling fashionable collars known as ‘picadils’ at his shop in the Strand, and as a result of this, his home came to be known as Piccadilly Hall. By the middle of the eighteenth century the name had fallen into common parlance, and the old compliment to Catherine of Braganza was long forgotten.
The only seventeenth-century survivals from the Earl of St Albans’ development of Piccadilly are St James’s Church and Burlington House, and the rest was rebuilt from the middle of the eighteenth century. In the seventeenth century the eastern half of Piccadilly was largely composed of inns and shops facing Green Park, and number 29 (later 106), on the corner of Piccadilly and Brick Street, was built in 1759-62 on the former site of an inn called The Greyhound for Sir Henry Hunloke, 4th Baronet, of Wingerworth Hall, Derbyshire. The house was built to the designs of an unknown architect, possibly Matthew Brettingham (1725-1803). Sir Henry had purchased a 99-year lease of the plot from William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath (1684-1764), who owned the surrounding estate. Then in 1764 the remaining 94 years on the lease were transferred to George William, 6th Earl of Coventry (1722-1809) for 10,000 guineas.
Coventry was the second son of the 5th Earl, and he succeeded his father in 1751. He was considered a great leader of fashion, most notably from his patronage of French decorative arts, including the Gobelins tapestries he purchased for his country house, Croome Court, Worcestershire. In 1752 Coventry married his first wife, the famous Irish beauty, Maria Gunning (1733-60), by whom he had two children, and in 1764 he married his second wife, Barbara St John (d. 1804), the daughter of the 10th Lord St John of Bletsoe. This second marriage brought a considerable amount of money to Coventry, and in that same year he purchased 29 Piccadilly. Coventry was already in possession of townhouses on St James’s Square and Grosvenor Square, but it has been suggested by Catherine Gordon that the motivation to purchase a third townhouse was to provide Barbara with a London home unconnected with Coventry’s first wife, Maria.
Executed design of a ceiling for Lady Coventry’s octagonal dressing room at Coventry House, 1765 (SM Adam volume 14/85)
On purchasing 29 Piccadilly, Coventry immediately commissioned Robert Adam to remodel the house. His selection of Adam as his architect is unsurprising, as he was already working for Coventry at Croome Court. We can see from the extant drawings for Coventry House that alterations to the fabric were considered, although these were not executed. Adam’s interior decorative works, however, were on a grand scale and included redecoration in the ante room and great room on the principal front of the first floor, a third room behind the great room which was redecorated as Lady Coventry’s bedroom, and a small octagonal room beyond was established as Lady Coventry’s dressing room. And further to these interior decorative works, Adam also made improvements to the service quarters in the basement.
There are 56 surviving Adam drawings for Coventry House at the Soane Museum. These largely show designs for interior decorative work, and encompass a diverse range of subjects, including ceilings, walls, chimneypieces, carpets, all manner of furniture, and even a set of sedan chair poles. They include designs for the great room, facing the park on the first floor. This was the principal reception and drawing room of the house, and therefore Adam’s ceiling design for the room is particularly lavish. As in the neighbouring ante room and bedroom, the walls of the great room were hung with red damask, so Adam’s ceiling was his principal decorative contribution. The ceiling was executed to a slightly altered version of Adam’s drawings, and with painted panels by Antonio Zucchi (1726-1795), all of which survives in situ. According to his bill sent to Coventry, Adam charged £20.0s. for the ceiling design in June 1765. One month later working drawings were provided at a cost of £5.5s, enabling construction to begin, and then, in November 1765 a drawing showing alterations to the original design was produced for £1.1s. This drawing does not survive, but presumably showed the minor alterations to the design that can be seen in the surviving ceiling.
Design of a ceiling for the great room at Coventry House, 1765, executed with minor alterations (SM Adam volume 11/40)
Shortly after his father’s death, the 7th Earl of Coventry commissioned repairs to the house in 1810-11, as well as a cast-iron balcony for the principal front, and the heightening of the top storey. This work was executed to designs by Thomas Cundy (1765-11825). Apart from Cundy’s early nineteenth-century balcony, and heightening work, the original façade survives. The house remained the principal London residence of the Earls of Coventry until 1848 when it became the home of Comte de Flahault de la Bellarderie, Napoleon III’s ambassador to Britain. Then in 1868 the house was purchased by George Warren, Baron de Tabley, a trustee of the St James’ Club, who gave the house over to the club almost immediately. 29 Piccadilly remained the location of the St James’ Club for over a century, until it merged with Brooks’s Club in 1978. During the tenure of St James’ various alterations were made, including the demolition of the stables to accommodate a rear extension. In this area a card room was added by Edward Robert Robson (1836-1917) in 1880, and a further extension was made to the east of the building in 1912 by Albert Palser (dates unknown), of Messrs Maple and Co., including two domed billiard rooms. Now renumbered as 106, the house was until recently the location of International House, a language school, but in 2007 it was acquired as the London campus of Limkokwing University.
Photograph of 106 Piccadilly, taken in December 2012
By the end of 2013, 4000 drawings from the Adam collection will be available to view online. Dr Frances Sands continues her work to make the remaining drawings collection digitally available.
As part of the Museum’s programme of digitization and improved access to collections the Adam drawings will also be amongst the 50,000 – 60,000 works of art, books and drawings, plus the Soane Archive to be transferred into the Collections Index+ Collections Management System (CMS) that will for the first time ever allow the Museum to store and sort records of all the items in the Museum’s collection. This has been made possible with thanks to funding from the HLF and an additional year’s funding by the Arts Council England’s Designation Development Fund for the collections information to become available to the public, starting from late 2013.