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At Two Temple Place

December 22, 2017
by the gentle author

If you were to take a turning off the Strand, walk down Essex St, then descend Milford Stairs to Milford Lane, emerging within the shadow of the nineteenth century edifice of Two Temple Place, then sneak between the ornate railings and slip in through a crack in the panelled door – you might find yourself alone, as I did, in the hallway of the extravagant mansion built for the reclusive William Waldorf Astor when he inherited a hundred million dollars in 1890, became the richest man in the United States and fled to London in exile.

“America is not a fit place for a gentleman to live,” he declared after receiving death threats and kidnap attempts upon his children. Yet even before you know the details or learn that Astor employed pre-eminent architect, John Loughborough Pearson – luring him with an unlimited budget – you sense that you are at the portal to a fantasy. The staircase is oak, the panelling is mahogany, the pillars are solid ebony and the marble floor is inlaid with jasper, porphyry and onyx. Twelve characters from Robin Hood sculpted by Thomas Nicholls upon the newel posts emerge from the gloom, harbingers of another world that awaits you at the head of the stair.

So frustrated was Astor that, in 1892, he released announcements of his own death in the vain hope of winning greater privacy, only compounding his personal enigma once they were revealed as false. After Astor’s wife died in 1894, he often retreated from his family home in the more fashionable Carlton House Terrace to sleep at Two Temple Place, built as the headquarters of his sprawling business empire. “There I am safe,” he confided to Lady Warwick and showed her a lever upon the first floor which locked every entrance to the building. Similiarly at Hever Castle, Astor’s primary country residence, he had a drawbridge constructed that could be raised each night.

Two Temple Place is the glorious product of an idiosyncratic and unfettered imagination. After Astor’s death in 1919, it was rented and then sold for use as offices, only opened to visitors in 2011 by the Bulldog Trust, when it was revealed to the wider public as a lost masterpiece of late nineteenth century architecture.

Standing at the foot of the staircase, you understand why Astor felt “safe,” in the sense that you are entirely enclosed by the wood-lined room which permits no window to the outside world. Comprising a square stairwell, the space rises to an enclosed gallery with arches similar to those in engravings by Esher.

The bitter aroma of pine from the Christmas tree rises in the soporific warmth of the central heating as you ascend in the shadows to the gallery, where the extent of the literary iconography which recurs throughout the building becomes apparent. At each corner of the stairwell stand Astor’s favourite protagonists from novels – Hester Prynne, Rip Van Winkle, The Pathfinder and The Last of the Mohicans – characteristically, all are outsiders who are misunderstood. Above them is a Shakespearian frieze with eighty-two identifiable characters from Anthony & Cleopatra, Henry VIII, Othello and Macbeth, significantly chosen as plays that dramatise the torments of power. Yet, remarkably, the proportion and order of the space, the lustre of the materials and the expertise of the workmanship place everything in perspective – the chaos of human endeavour is reconciled within this sanctuary of the imagination.

Unsurprisingly, Astor’s private office is equipped with both a secret door and discreet drawers for the storage of champagne, the latter hinting at a brighter side to his nature. Through the secret panel is the largest room in the building, known as The Great Hall or The Mediation Room, where Astor summoned those he chose to do business with. I was told that Pencil Cedar was chosen for the panelling in this room, emitting a relaxing aroma calculated to dispel any tension, yet such is the grandiose nature of the seventy-foot long hall, I doubt anyone would seek controversy in the face of its creator.

At either end, stained glass windows portray the rising and setting sun while the epic mahogany hammer-beam ceiling above is modelled upon the design of the roof in Middle Temple Hall, a wooden frieze depicts a mixture of personalities from history and myth, including Bismarck and Pocahontas, and characters from Ivanhoe perch upon the beams – gilded, just in case you might fail to notice them in the flurry of literary references. Once the time comes to leave, overwhelmed by the wealth of detail, your eye falls upon the Arthurian heroines by George Frampton languishing upon the rear of the door.

You stumble back into the vestibule, intoxicated by the decorative excess yet seduced by the dazzling assurance of your host. There are so many corners and doors within this intricate building, which retains the presence and personality of its creator so vividly, you half-expect William Waldorf Astor to appear at any moment and pull the lever to lock all exits. Yet who could object to spending Christmas holed up by the fire at Two Temple Place and letting the outside world recede far away?

Twelve characters from Robin Hood sculpted by Thomas Nicolls adorn the newel posts

The floor is inspired by the Cosmati pavement in Westminster Abbey

Scenes from Shakespeare with eighty-two identifiable characters filling the frieze above the stairwell

Frieze of a scene from Macbeth

The Great Hall

Gilt panels by George Frampton upon the door in the Great Hall depict heroines of Arthurian myth

The window by Clayton & Bell at the west end of the Great Hall depicts sunset in the Swiss Alps

Ground floor reception room overlooking the Thames

The entrance on Temple Place

Weathervane by J. Starkie Gardner depicts Columbus’ caravel in which he discovered America

In Milford Lane

Milford Stairs leading to Essex St

Rhythm & Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain opens at Two Temple Place on 27th January

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Debra Matheney permalink
    December 22, 2017

    Fascinating. Thanks for these lovely photos of a not well known place. Happy Christmas! I hope 2018 brings a new cat (or cats) into your life. I have 3 and their antics keep us amused.

  2. December 22, 2017

    Thank you … I love 2 Temple Place and visit their exhibitions. You’ve done the building proud and given us lots of interesting information that I didn’t know … and I’ll add this link to the posts I’ve written up – not nearly as good as these.

    Your posts are always brilliant – love reading them … have a very peaceful Christmas and New Year and all the very best for 2018 – cheers HIlary

  3. December 22, 2017

    We visited Two Temple Place during London Open House weekend. Wonderful building. And we walked down Essex St. from the Strand, taking those stairs. (We were coming from the Royal Courts of Justice.)

  4. December 22, 2017

    Beautiful place! Merry Christmas, Valerie

  5. Colin L permalink
    December 22, 2017

    Brilliant blog as always GA. 2 Temple Place is mostly given over to corporate stuff these days, so well done for getting through its portals in December. However, the house hosts an exhibition each year between January and April and this is free to the public – you just need to turn up and you will be made very welcome. Its a wondrous place to wander around and will truly brighten up your winter. If you are a GA follower and are within easy reach of central London you should go; you won’t regret it.

  6. Jo Isaac permalink
    December 22, 2017

    Beautiful & sumptuous truly a hidden treasure – thank you for sharing

  7. December 22, 2017

    What a glorious place. (Surely a grand home like this has a magnificent library?) Loved all the
    custom details, and thought of the artisans who were given these exalted assignments and executed them so perfectly. I have concocted an “imaginary” archive of all the sketches, research materials, notations, renderings and blueprints that are stored-for-posterity in a small paneled room, just off the Great Hall. I’ll be right there, sitting in a wing chair, holding a brandy and perusing all the materials. Pure joy.
    Happy Holidays!

  8. Helen Breen permalink
    December 22, 2017

    Holiday greetings from Boston,

    GA, you really made my day this morning. Two Temple Place is one of my favorite buildings in London. I first noticed it on a Pub Tour which began at Temple Tube station a few summers ago. I never thought I would see the interior until today! I know that the building is accessible on London Open House Weekend and in the early months of the year – yet I always visit in June.

    The Astors were a remarkable bunch. Then we have the Cliveden connection, along with Hever Castle. What a way to live. Yet William must have been a serious reader for all the other distractions that such wealth brought. At Two Temple Place he celebrated the best of British and American literature. As you said,

    “Yet, remarkably, the proportion and order of the space, the lustre of the materials and the expertise of the workmanship place everything in perspective – the chaos of human endeavour is reconciled within this sanctuary of the imagination.”

    Thanks again!

  9. SissyWissy permalink
    December 22, 2017

    Thank you so much for this article- I have often wondered what this is and now I know! What a beautiful building and the interior is something to behold.
    Seasons greeting to you and I look forward to reading more of your fascinating writings.

  10. Kitanz permalink
    December 23, 2017

    Oh My! What a Beautiful Place! I’d Love to call it “MY HOME”!!!

  11. Marcia Howard permalink
    December 23, 2017

    What an amazing and unique place. Definitely adding it on my increasingly long list of places to visit. Thank you for sharing with us such an interesting post.

  12. Annemarie Fearnley permalink
    January 2, 2018

    Hang on a minute!! Where have the 3 (or 4) Muskateers gone? They are usually found on the newell posts at the bottom of the staicase. I am rather disturbed…. (This is one of my favourite places in London, by the way).

  13. tovangar2 permalink
    May 28, 2018

    BTW, if one approaches the entrance to 2 Temple Place on Google maps, one finds that the walls dissolve, allowing one to enter and explore the entrance hall and staircase, the ground floor hall and other, smaller rooms.

    Thank you GA.

  14. Dave Hurn permalink
    November 17, 2018

    Thomas’s original Thomas Nicholls upon the newel posts of the stairwell depicted the Musketeers, and we’re replaced with the bronze figures of Robin Hood shown in the photographs, made by David Williams-Ellis in 2002-2003.

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