This review by London’s ‘Golden Mile’: The Great Houses of the Strand, 1550–1650 by Manolo Guerci (Paul Mellon Centre) was published in the March 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.
The Strand is one of London’s intermediate zones, part of the West End but not in the center of it. Today its main function is to carry traffic from the City of Westminster to the City of London. It’s a road where you rush rather than linger, and the noise, traffic and pollution mean you do so with your head down. But it is also a place of constant change. The proposed pedestrianized area in front of King’s College and Somerset House will transform this section into a quiet piazza. Perhaps future generations of Londoners will see the Strand as a place of rest rather than transit.
About half a millennium ago, Londoners would have experienced the beach very differently. Back then, The Strand – the name refers to the fact that it was then on the banks of the river – was the site of London’s ‘Palace Quarter’, home to many of the country’s most powerful and influential aristocrats. Their names form a list of some of the most important figures in the Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean courts: John of Gaunt, forefather of the Tudor dynasty, lived here; so did the “Protector” Lord Somerset, guardian and regent of the young King Edward VI. Elizabeth I’s Prime Ministers, Lord Burghley and his son, the Earl of Salisbury, were later residents, as were the Earl of Arundel, tastemaker at James I’s court, and the notorious Duke of Buckingham, James’ favourite— and possibly even lovers.
In his meticulously researched and elegantly presented book on the subject, Manolo Guerci refers to this area as London’s ‘Golden Mile’. The nickname is apt as it evokes the section of Blackpool’s promenade where the highest concentration of its slot machines is found. One can almost imagine hearing a similar ker-ching as one walks down early modern London’s own promenade.
But while country houses like Burghley still stand as monuments to the wealth and power of the leading English statesmen, the great London mansions which were often their prototypes have been lost and buried under the many changes of the Strand. Mostly only the street names are left. If you turn off the beach towards the river and you are on Arundel Street, Essex Street, Villiers Street or Northumberland Avenue, you are actually walking the grounds and facades of some of these magnificent palaces: Arundel House, Essex House, and York House Northumberland House.
Surviving examples are rare but impressive. There is the York Watergate, now incongruously situated in Victoria Embankment Gardens, a classical arch once thought to be the work of Inigo Jones but actually by the mason and sculptor Nicholas Stone, and serving as the entrance from the river to the Duke of Buckingham’s residence at York House. Although Somerset House today is the work of 18th-century architect William Chambers – his masterpiece – you still get a sense of what used to be there. There are architectural references to Chambers’ Inigo Jones and John Webb’s work for the one-time resident Queen Henrietta Maria, such as the composition of the main façade overlooking the beach, which is inspired by the New Gallery, then believed to have been designed by Chambers Jones, but probably originated from Webb. And there is the vast footprint of the palace itself, a reminder of the fact that Lord Somerset was in fact king when he had it first built (in an Italianate style never before seen in England).
Although these remains are very impressive, they do not convey much of the sheer splendor of these palaces. To do this, you need to travel outside of London to, for example, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Here you will find the Arundel Marbles, a collection of classical statues founded by Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel in the early 17th century. When Arundel, inspired by his travels abroad, decided to display his collection in the gardens of his residence at Arundel House, he created the first Italianate-style sculpture garden in England, recalling the example of Julius II in Rome. Seeing them in the background of Daniel Myten’s portrait of the Earl, it’s hard to believe that the river they extend down to could be the Thames.
As magnificent as the Arundel Marbles are, it’s hard to imagine how they could ever stand in an environment now largely occupied by the somber 180 The Strand. Hence the importance of Guerci’s book. In chapters dealing with each of the Strand Palaces in turn, he lays out the surviving evidence with admirable clarity. Illustrations, maps, manuscripts and plans – both contemporary and author-reconstructed – are assembled to give the most vivid impression possible of the to convey what has been lost, much of it before the age of photography. Guerci takes us on a tour of these palaces when they were at their peak, and brings us closer to an age when The Strand could be viewed as what he calls ‘an extension of Whitehall’.
The beach palaces were truly unique. In contrast to those of continental Europe, which dominated their urban environment, the palaces of the Golden Mile presented themselves to the river. As such, Guerci notes, they might be considered quintessentially English—a mixture of exteriority and interiority. However, unlike their continental counterparts, they do not survive. Nonetheless, there is plenty of gold buried just above the dam. We must hope that the author’s ambition to inspire more scholarship about these palaces will be fulfilled.
London’s ‘Golden Mile’: The Great Houses of the Strand, 1550–1650 by Manolo Guerci is published by the Paul Mellon Center for Studies in British Art.
From the March 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.