Adam’s London: then and now – Cumberland House, Pall Mall

To read Fran's previous blog post in this series, please click here.

For the next in her series discussing Robert and James Adam’s work in London Dr Frances Sands will focus on Cumberland House on Pall Mall.


Pall Mall – or pell-mell – takes its name from the Italian ball game 'pallamaglio' played by King Charles II in St James’s Park. In order to prevent clouds of dust from passing carriages obscuring the game, the nearby thoroughfare was moved to its current location in 1661. It was always a fashionable residential street, most likely owing to its proximity to St James’s Palace, and by the eighteenth century it was also the location of various clubs and shops. Number 86 was originally known as York House, being a brick Palladian house built in 1761-63 to designs by Matthew Brettingham the elder (1699-1769) for Prince Edward Augustus, Duke of York and Albany, the brother of King George III. When the Duke of York died in 1767 the house passed first to his brother Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, and then in 1772 to his youngest brother, Prince Henry Frederick, Duke of Cumberland and Strathearn (1745-90). And by these means it came to be known as Cumberland House.


Design for the chimney wall of the great dining room at Cumberland House from 1780
Design for the chimney wall of the great dining room at Cumberland House, 1780 (SM Adam volume 14/138)


The Duke of Cumberland was a colourful character. His family did not credit him with intellectual prowess, and he was given few of the responsibilities shouldered by his older brothers. In 1766, aged 21, he succeeded his uncle as Ranger of Windsor Forest and Great Park. At the age of 23 in 1768 he entered the navy as a midshipman, being promoted to Rear-Admiral only a year later, Vice-Admiral in 1770, and Admiral of the White in 1782. However, Cumberland is not remembered for his naval career, but for his romantic dalliances, first with the wife of the 1st Earl of Grosvenor – another of Adam’s patrons at Eaton Hall. In 1770 Cumberland was obliged to borrow money from his brother, the King, in order to pay £10,000 in damages to Lord Grosvenor, following his trial for ‘criminal conversation’ with Lady Grosvenor.

In 1771 Cumberland married Anne Luttrell (1743-1808): described by Horace Walpole as ‘a gay young widow of 24 […] and as artful as Cleopatra’.  She was the daughter of Simon Luttrell, Baron Irnham, and widow of Mr Christopher Horton, who had died two years previously. The marriage was greatly disapproved of by George III as Anne was not a suitable bride for the brother of a king. Although the daughter of a Baron, she was a ‘commoner’ and therefore, any child born of the marriage would not be a legitimate heir to the Electorate of Hanover. As a result Cumberland and Anne were exiled from court, and in 1772 the Royal Marriages Act was passed. To safeguard the royal line from dilution or the threat of an unsuitable succession, the Act heavily prescribed the terms under which any descendant of George II was able to marry legally, and a strict right of veto was vested in the sovereign. Unfortunately, this forced Cumberland’s older brother, the Duke of Gloucester, to admit his secret marriage to the equally unsuitable Dowager Countess of Waldegrave, the illegitimate daughter of Sir Edward Walpole.

The Cumberlands were not to be reconciled with the King for almost a decade, and Anne was never received at court. They spent much of their time on the Continent, but when in Britain they lived at Cumberland House. Until his death in 1790, Cumberland persistently sought to improve the house, largely with the aid of Robert Adam. It has been suggested that these enhancements were made to produce a social alternative to the royal court, in which the Cumberlands could blithely ignore the King and entertain their own social circle. This circle included Anne’s sister Elizabeth – who later lived at Cumberland House – who was badly behaved and vulgar; a gambling thief convicted of pick-pocketing in Augsburg, and who eventually died as a penniless street-sweeper; and Anne’s aunt, the Dowager Countess of Home – an Adam patron at Home House in Portman Square – who was famously known as ‘The Queen of Hell’ for her lavish social entertainments.


Design for the window wall of the unexecuted third drawing room at Cumberland House
Design for the window wall of the unexecuted third drawing room at Cumberland House, c.1780-85 (SM Adam volume 49/19)


In 1781 Adam made designs for altering the music room on the ground floor, adding a new ceiling which survived until the demolition of the house in the early twentieth century. Adam also introduced a lavish new great dining room, adjacent to the music room, which he created by knocking together two of Brettingham’s original rooms. There is photographic evidence that Adam’s Etruscan-style ceiling for this room was executed, although it was gone by the time that the house was demolished. The Etruscan style of this room was relatively novel, being both antique – based on Etruscan vases – and yet unaffected by the Palladian and neo-classical doctrines of the eighteenth century, but rather by the popularity of Wedgwood wares which often follow the same style. Other examples of Adam’s use of the Etruscan style can be seen in the Etruscan dressing room at Osterley, and the Etruscan room at Home House – the home of Anne’s aunt – in which the chimneypiece is very similar to that designed by Adam for the great dining room at Cumberland House.

Unexecuted designs for Cumberland House include a small private eating room on the ground storey, an oval boudoir for Anne in what had been Brettingham’s state dressing room, and three magnificent drawing rooms for the first floor of the house. In addition, in 1785, Adam produced plans for structural alterations to the house with the addition of a new wing, including a private apartment for Anne’s dissolute sister Elizabeth, but this was not executed.


Plan of Cumberland House showing an unexecuted extension to the right-hand side, 1785.
Plan of Cumberland House showing an unexecuted extension to the right-hand side, 1785 (SM Adam volume 49/15)


The Duke of Cumberland died from an ulcerated lung in 1790 as he stepped from his carriage outside  Cumberland House. Anne was awarded an allowance of £4,000, but being already encumbered by her husband’s debts she was forced to move out of Cumberland House in 1793, transferring its ownership to her bankers for £20,000, and selling the contents at Christie’s. In 1807 the building was taken on by the Ordnance Office, later the War Office, and after years of neglect under that usage it was demolished in parts between 1908 and 1911. The site – and its neighbours – were then taken over by the Royal Automobile Club who erected their building, with a 228 foot-wide Portland stone frontage, built to designs by Messrs Mewès and Davis at a cost of £250,000, and which remains in situ.


Photograph of the Royal Automobile Club, Pall Mall, taken in September 2013
Photograph of the Royal Automobile Club, Pall Mall, taken in September 2013


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.

Posted on 14 October 2013 in Looking at Drawings
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