Lansdowne House – Rape and Death in a Ballroom

“Do you mean to tell me you’ve another interesting display?”

Louisa cringed.  “Oh, I wish you would not tease me, Diana.  You cannot know how dreadful it is to have a husband who brings home everything that is dug up.  Why is it that the Romans had to conquer so many places and scatter their things about?  I vow they did this just to distract wives in decent society hundreds of years later.”

The offending art was located in the ballroom at Lansdowne House.

Louisa gestured to large fragment of Roman sculpture mounted on the wall, watching Diana’s reaction with trepidation.

“It’s called the Rape of Persephone.  And from a coffin, no less.  Lansdowne would have it mounted there, just in time for our first ball of the Season.  I declare he has done so for no other reason than to vex me.  And you know there will be any number of debutantes and their mamas in attendance.  They shall all think it terribly ill-bred, being forced to gaze upon the image of a young girl being carried off to suffer any number of indignities.”

“I shouldn’t worry about it, Louisa.”

“Really?  You amaze me.”

Diana turned to face her.  “It’s a metaphor for untimely death.  Not at all improper, I assure you.  The sarcophagus probably belonged to someone who died very young.  Snatched away by Death in the prime of her life.”

Louisa swallowed, just then remembering Northam’s tragedy.  “Diana, please forgive me.  I had no notion, otherwise I shouldn’t have–”

“Do not be distressed, Louisa.  My parents have been dead for so long that I can scarce remember them.”

Yet Louisa could not miss the strange glitter in Diana’s eyes.

She took Diana’s arm.  “Uh–come away, dear and see my latest watercolor.  I am persuaded you will enjoy il Signor Rossi’s technique.”

The ballroom at Lansdowne House is still extant, but without the decoration that made it famous.  The panel known as the Rape of Persephone was one of several Lansdowne marbles that were arranged in this room–originally intended to be a sculpture gallery.  In the 1930 photo, you can see them set in the wall.

And you thought only Elgin had them.

Originally the ballroom  was meant to be a music room by Lord Bute, the first owner of Lansdowne House.  The Earl of Shelburne, later Lord Lansdowne, had visited Italy after purchasing the house and was possibly inspired by the excursion to have a gallery for his sculpture.  He commissioned the Scottish painter Gavin Hamilton to convert the music room to a suitable space.  Hamilton lived most of his life in Rome and was considered a gifted neoclassical history painter, favoring Greek and Roman subjects.  He was also an art dealer and excavator of antiquities.  How convenient.

Eventually, however, the plans for the sculpture gallery were dropped and by the time of my story Notorious Match, the room assumed its present and final function.

The ballroom can still be seen today at the Lansdowne House Club (see below) which has a marvelous gallery of its own you can peruse here.

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Lansdowne House – Regency Centre of London

The opening chapters in Notorious Match take place in a London mansion that still stands today.

In my manuscript, the fictional hostess, Lady Louisa Lansdowne, has the privilege of holding the inaugural event of the Season.  Louisa has little regard for the house’s political history even though it witnessed the final negotations that confirmed a Nation’s independence.  She is more concerned that her balls are well-attended and therefore is thrilled when Lord Griffin Montgomery arrives at her party.  Now she is assured her ball will be the premiere event for every eligible, unmarried female for many Seasons to come.

Lord Griffin Montgomery rarely attends ton parties, you see.

Lansdowne House – before alteration

This post is the beginning of several in a series that tours this magnificent home.

Lansdowne House was built upon real estate sold off by Lord Berkeley’s widow in the eighteenth century.  The third Earl of Bute purchased the south side of the square that took her husband’s name.  Lansdowne House was built according to Robert Adam’s 1761 design and was largely completed by 1768.  By then Lord Bute had thrown in the towel and the house was finished under the ownership of another British prime minister, Lord Shelburne, whose name graced the house for a time until his lordship was granted the marquisate of Lansdowne.

Lansdowne House was built according to Adam’s predeliction for ‘movement,’ a term which refers to the diversity of form throughout the building, inside and out.  One can see from the black and white photograph several elements:  the rusticated (dare we say, Tuscan?) ground floor topped by the classical coolness of the Palladian pediment and the portico with its Ionic pillars.  The pavilions on either side were placed forward, giving the mansion an assertive, yet graceful presentation:

“This august edifice…unites at once the gay, the elegant and the grand.”

—James Ralph, A Critical Review of the Publick Bulidings:  Statues and Ornaments in, and about London and Westminster

Berkeley Square – 1830

The odd thing about Lansdowne House is its placement.  It does not face Berkeley Square (note the arrow in the adjacent map and the circular front drive), having been situated in such a way as to present its side to the park.   This configuration was to allow the Dukes of Devonshire to have an unobstructed view of the square from their London mansion situated to the south-east (in red).  Lansdowne House was therefore allowed a massive front garden, an advantage few others in the great metropolis had.  Indeed, walkers in Berkeley Square were excused from assuming they were in the country when walking past Lansdowne House, peering through the iron gates at a drive that disappeared into carefully tended landscape.  The only evidence of a building beyond was its exquisite pediment rising above the trees.

This quality was also very nearly the downfall of Lansdowne House.

In the Great Depression, the London council with authority over Berkeley Square determined that a road linking Curzon Street to the square was sorely needed.  The line of houses known as Bolton Row, where Henry James’ sister and other intellectual luminaries had resided, was demolished.  But this was not enough.  The road was extended through Lansdowne’s front garden and Fitzmaurice Place was created in front of the mansion.  To accommodate the new street and buildings, Lansdowne House had to be moved back forty feet.  The only solution, short of destroying the house, was to remove all the front rooms and reconstruct the facade on the truncated building.

Lansdowne House – post truncation

Some of these front rooms were among the finest designs of Robert Adams in England.  The mutilation of Lansdowne House meant that they must go.  And so they went–to far-flung places.

Now that’s cutting off your nose to spite your face.