Bonomi – Architect to the Regency

” ‘I am excessively fond of a cottage; there is always so much comfort, so much elegance about them.’ ”

Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen (1811)

So says Mr. Robert Ferrers, a secondary character in Austen’s novel. His oft-quoted ode, following a discourse on Gray’s toothpick cases, forms a particularly odious lecture given to Elinor, the heroine. Odious because he clearly imagines his patronizing speech will inspire her to feel fortunate in her much-reduced circumstances after his sister forces her and her family to move out of their home, Norland Park.

“..a cottage… calculated for the convenience of persons of moderate income.” Designs for Elegant Cottages and Small Villas, E. Gyffard (1806)

He positively presses Elinor on the advantages of building a cottage, going so far as to relate to her, in his self-important way, that he advised no less a personage than Lord Courtland on the matter.

” ‘Lord Courtland came to me the other day on purpose to ask my advice, and laid before me three different plans of Bonomi’s. I was to decide on the best of them.’ “


Rear view of cottage showing servants’ entrance to the kitchen and extension of a veranda

Joseph (born Giuseppe) Bonomi came to England in 1767 at age twenty-eight, to work as a draftsman at the invitation of the Adam brothers, innovators of Neo-classicism in Georgian design and architecture. Bonomi also worked with Thomas Leverton, the famed English architect who had the distinction of executing a triumphal arch commemorating American independence for a British nobleman.

From these connections, Bonomi took his native foundation in Roman antiquity to design country residences for the ton. He was known for adapting classicism to suit practical needs. As an example, classicism demands an even number of columns, but Bonomi would made their number odd, if that suited the proportion and function of a building. He took the classical portico and extended it, to protect arriving and departing carriages from inclement weather.

The Royal Institute of British Architects calls Bonomi the creator of the porte-cochère.

Roseneath House, designed by Bonomi for the Duke of Argyll. Note the fifth column, put there so folks wouldn’t confuse the carriage way with a grand entrance. — from Papers Read at the Royal Institute of British Architects (1869)

A Bonomi-designed country house was the sign of marked distinction during the Regency. Even his drawings were on display at the Royal Academy. Yet Robert Ferrers destroyed Lord Courtland’s set, boasting:

” ‘My dear Courtland,’ said I, immediately throwing them all into the fire, ‘do not adopt either of them, but by all means build a cottage.’ And that, I fancy, will be the end of it.”

One must surely choose a cottage over a mansion, after such a masterful demonstration of preference (and destruction!) We do not learn of Lord Courtland’s eventual course of action, but Robert Ferrers lives on as perhaps the most-quoted person on the desirability of cottage-living.

I daresay his brilliance has quite cast poor Elinor in the shade. Her reaction to his conceit, ever sublime, can scarcely be remembered:

“Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.”



James Bond and the Regency Townhouse

I was rather ambivalent about the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. HM Elizabeth II actually received her spy in person, and that’s not the half of it.

She’s the Head of Government, the Queen. He’s supposed to be a secret agent known only by a number.  Should they need to communicate, that’s what M is for.

James Bond and the Regency townhouse have something in common, it seems.  Neither are immune to changing tastes.

In Dr. No, we learned 007 had a name.  It was in the Le Cercle club when he uttered those immortal words, “Bond, James Bond.”

The club is housed in the famous casino known as Les Ambassadeurs–or, “Les-A.” It occupies No. 5 Hamilton Place, an area of Mayfair developed for the Regent in 1806 by the architect Thomas Leverton.

An interesting side note: Leverton had been hired in 1802 to build the home of the Fraternal Guild of Grocers.  The Grocers were once known as the Pepperers. Their interesting history may be found here.  To the Order’s dismay, Leverton’s edifice turned out to be unsatisfactory, that is, “badly built, due to defective foundations (!)”

Happily, No. 5 still remains–built in 1805 it was first occupied by Robert Hobart, 4th Earl of Buckinghamshire (1760 – 1816). A Tory, he was the Secretary of State of War and for the Colonies (1801 – 1804) and President of the Board of Control (1812 – 1816).  The latter occupation was a difficult endeavor, fraught with petitions from various persons railing against the abolition of the East India Trade Company.  In a letter from one known only as Fabius, the Regent’s plan to open up trade was despised.  It was thought that such a plan would bring about a glut of cheap Indian goods.  The Indians themselves had no need for British goods.  Why should they by good English wool, for example, when their

“..warm climate renders any clothing beyond what decency requires intolerable.”

He died at No. 5.

The earl met an early end at the age of 56, the consequence of being thrown from a horse. He suffered a “tedious” three months after the accident, going to Bath upon the advice of his doctors.  He did not improve and demanded to be taken back to No. 5 Hamilton Place where he died.

No. 5 then became the home of the 1st Marquess of Conyngham.  Henry Conyngham (1766 – 1832) was an Irish peer and a “familiar” friend of the Regent, serving as lord steward when the Prince became George IV.  Upon his king’s death, he broke his staff of office upon the coffin of the monarch, as was the custom.

Lord Conyngham had an interesting lineage.  A considerable part of his fortune came to him by way of his grandmother, who retained full control of her estate through two marriages.  Another ancestor, one Edward Burton, narrowly escaped imprisonment and execution during the persecution of the Protestants.  His death was apparently the result of “excessive joy” at the death of Bloody Queen Mary in 1550.

The marquess, like the earl, died in the house at No. 5.  His funeral procession was headed by “two mutes and a plume of black feathers.”

Years later, the house passed from the Conyngham family to the Rothschilds, who made it over in the fin de siecle Louis XV style.  This heavily ornamented renovation covered over the elegant Regency decoration both inside and out.

Like 007, No. 5 is something to be made over to suit modern taste, until it is scarcely recognizable.