Riverside views

This book is about the heyday of the so-called Strand palaces: eleven great houses, now destroyed, that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries flanked the Strand. Then, as now, the Strand – from the Old English “strand”, meaning the edge of a river – ran parallel to the Thames for nearly a mile, from Temple Bar in the east to Charing Cross in the west, connecting the City of London and the City of Westminster.

In the Middle Ages this thoroughfare was lined with a series of imposing buildings that functioned as the London power bases of leading members of the clergy. After the Reformation the most ambitious Tudor and, in due course, Stuart courtiers moved in. To succeed at the English court in this period it was advantageous to have at least three strategically located great houses: one in the countryside, in which to host the monarch on progress; one just outside London, for when the court was at the palaces of Richmond, Greenwich or Hampton Court; and one in London or Westminster, to facilitate access when the monarch was at Whitehall or St James’s Palace.

Several courtiers transformed the Strand’s existing medieval ecclesiastical buildings into urban prodigy houses. In about 1570 Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester – Elizabeth I’s favorite – purchased a property at the easternmost end of the Strand from the Third Baron Paget which, prior to the dissolution of the monasteries, had been the Bishop of Exeter’s London headquarters. The house’s Strand frontage was about 350 feet across. It sat on an irregularly shaped plot of land, approximately 600 feet deep, the breadth of which varied where: at its narrowest, the property’s gardens met the Thames, the plot was about 200 feet across. Dudley’s renovations probably included converting one of the upper floors of the house into a long gallery in which to his growing collection of paintings and sculpture, one of the largest of its day in England. He also lavished money on the gardens, commissioning a new sundial and, in all likelihood, erecting a banqueting house at the water’s edge. Thus, Paget Place (previously Exeter Inn) became Leicester House – and, in due course, when Dudley’s stepson Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex, inherited it in 1588, morphed into Essex House.

Other courtiers built their Strand palaces from scratch. In 1605 Henry Howard, First Earl of Northampton – the second son of the poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and the younger brother of Thomas Howard, Fourth Duke of Norfolk – began accquiring plots of land at the westernmost end of the Strand, near what is now Trafalgar Square, razing the existing buildings. He spent several years erecting Northampton House, a turreted mansion in the form of an almost perfect square: the house’s Strand façade was 162 feet across, its depth slightly greater. There was an internal courtyard, also in the form of a nearly perfect square, with a loggia. A formal garden extended for more than 300 feet all the way down to the Thames. Northampton House would later be transformed – and renamed Northumberland House – following another round of ambitious building works undertaken in the 1640s and 1650s at the behest of Algernon Percy, Tenth Earl of Northumberland.

Some of the Strand palaces fell victim to the Great Fire of London in 1666. Some were sold off – and beginning knocked down by property developers – during London’s post-Restoration building boom, which coincided with the of a westward migration, mainly to Chelsea , on the part of fashionable courtiers. Only one of the properties discussed in this book – Northumberland House – survived into the nineteenth century. None is permanent today.

London’s “Golden Mile” is, therefore, a work of historical reconstruction and reimagining. Manolo Guerci has pieced together clues from visual sources such as early maps and views of London, and knitted that information together with details gleaned from documentary sources, including household inventors, court correspondence, financial accounts, diaries and wills. Only rarely have hand-drawn building plans – the sources most directly illuminating, perhaps, to an architectural historians – survived. Much is, of necessity, speculative. Guerci’s treatment of the houses under discussion varies: the Strand palaces for which more source materials survive inevitably are rendered with a greater sense of immediacy and more attention to detail. Yet he has done an excellent job of conjuring up a lost urban landscape.

The importance of the river is a recurring theme. The south side of the Strand – with river frontage – was generally perceived as the most prestigious piece of real estate. Only two of the Strand palaces were located on its north side: Burghley House (also known as Cecil House and Exeter House) and Bedford House. The former was a product, in the main, of the vision of William Cecil, First Baron Burghley, arguably the most innovative architectural patron at the Elizabethan court; the latter of successive ears of Bedford. Both properties backed onto Covent Garden. Although these houses lacked river views – and, for that matter, direct river access – the plots of land on which they stood were less hemmed in than those of their riverside counterparts. There was more scope for expansion and speculation on the north side of the Strand, including the possibility of accquiring fields and orchards.

The palaces on the south side of the Strand generally had river-facing façades that were grander than their Strand-facing ones. This was not invariably true: much depended on the exact position of a given property. More often than not, though, the Thames rather than the Strand seems to have been envisioned as the principal approach. Distinguished visitors, arriving by boat, would have made their way through water gates and splendid gardens up to the main house. Inside, many river-facing palaces were equipped with large, vertically orientated windows that offered stunning views of both river and gardens – as depicted in Daniel Mytens’s (probably slightly idealized) portraits of Thomas Howard, Fourteenth Earl of Arundel, and Aletheia Howard (née Talbot), Countess of Arundel, c.1618. Now in the National Portrait Gallery, these life-size full-length paintings depicting the earl and countess at Arundel House, on the south side of the Strand, immediately to the west of Essex House. Behind the earl, who sits in the sculpture gallery, is a window overlooking the Thames and, in the distance, the green fields of what must be Lambeth and Kennington. Behind the countess, who poses in the picture gallery, is a window – or perhaps a doorway – onto a formal, walled garden located between the house and the river.

For some of these great houses, the Strand entrance seems, for all intents and purposes, to have been the tradesmen’s entrance. But then the Strand was a place in which high and low sat cheek by jowl. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries all manner of tenements, taverns and inns could be found wedged – higgledy-piggledy – between the palaces of the great and the good.

As one would expect from a publication by Yale and the Paul Mellon Center for Studies in British Art, London’s “Golden Mile” is expertly designed and beautifully illustrated, with (mainly color) reproductions of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century maps and views of London – and, where they survive, architects’ plans and drawings. Reproductions of painted portraits of most of the key patrons described help to bring these courtiers to life by putting faces to their names. There are also some interesting conjectural reconstructions of the floorplans of individual properties.

The book – though not quite coffee-table size – is probably too large to be comfortably tucked in a bag for reference when strolling along the Strand. But the alert pedestrian can still get a sense of the world evoked by Guerci from the names of the cross streets, many of which pay homage to the families whose houses once graced this stretch of London.

Elizabeth Goldring is an Honorary Reader at the University of Warwick. Her most recent book is Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an artist2019. She is currently writing a book on Hans Holbein the Younger

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