Spencer House stores sale in Sussex

Items of furniture and works from the Spencer House stores, the neoclassical artistocratic palace in London, will go under the hammer in a Sussex saleroom next year.

The objects included in the sale at Bellmans are mainly a mixture of items once used or on display in the State Rooms and those used in the offices and meeting rooms after the extensive renovation of one of the last London private palaces, which was restored to its former glory by Lord Rothschild after
agreeing the lease in 1985. Some of the items were sourced and acquired through David Mlinaric’s company, Mlinaric, Henry & Zerduvachi Limited, who was in charge of the record-breaking project.

Spencer House in London

When the Economist Intelligence Unit left the building in 1984, the search for a new tenant started and Lord Rothschild happened to have offices opposite and decided to look into how he could use the impressive town house for offices, while also rescuing the house from its long decline and restoring it in line with its architectural importance.

The project also had to be commercially viable and Lord Rothschild and his team explored several options before deciding on occupying the building as the headquarters of RIT Capital Partners and using the restored State Rooms as a venue for private event hire and public tours to rival the events during its Georgian heyday. He successfully negotiated a lease with the Spencer trustees in 1985 and the restoration of the interior was entrusted to David Mlinaric, who was involved from the outset and advised on the project throughout.

Before work began, Joseph Friedman (later author of Spencer House: Chronicle of a London Mansion (Zwemmer, 1993) was commissioned to undertake a historic survey of the house which would inform the restoration. In addition, a microscopic analysis was made of the paintwork in the State Rooms to determine the prior use of colour and gilding. This was done by Tom Helme, an expert on historic paints.

While for some rooms there was enough evidence found to attempt a close approximation to the original decorative scheme, in other rooms David had to use his instinct and knowledge of the period to produce convincing interpretations of how the interiors may have looked. A panel of advisers was also appointed with expertise of this particular Georgian period. Thus began one of the largest restoration projects ever attempted in England outside the public domain.

When it came to furnishing the rooms with objects, David Mlinaric worked with John Harris and Christopher Gibbs (a London dealer with special knowledge of the 18th century) to scour show rooms for suitable antique furniture. However, even their generous budget couldn’t stretch as far as it needed so they also secured loans of furniture and artworks from public and private collections, including from the V&A, and the Leeds Museums and Galleries to name a few. The rest of the house was sensitively converted into offices and is still the headquarters of RIT Capital Partners plc. David Mlinaric also oversaw the decoration and furnishing of these spaces.

Among the highlights of the auction are a George III wood bench, various original Regency chairs and perfect replicas as well as several lamps which have been converted from gas to electricity.

Spencer House is one of the last great family houses remaining in London, only Aspley House and the Wallace Collection (solely a museum now) are also still intact. The Blitz, lack of planning controls and crippling taxes, mean that tragically most of the grand townhouses have disappeared. They were often showier than their country cousins as London was more competitive, so they were more daring in their architecture and decoration. Spencer House is a fine example of the neoclassical movement.

In 1927 the house was leased to the Ladies’ Army & Navy Club, removing all its contents to Althorp. In 1942, worried about air raids, Earl Spencer removed many original interior features, including chimneypieces and doorcases, to Althorp for safekeeping. And rightly so, in 1944 a bomb fell on neighbouring Bridgewater House causing serious damage to Spencer House, particularly in the Painted Room. After the war it was used as an office building with its grand State Rooms pressed into use as typists’ pools and executives’ offices, adorned with lifts and fire doors, neon lights and lino floors.

Spencer House was one of the most ambitious and finest aristocratic palaces ever erected in London. John, 1st Earl Spencer asked John Vardy and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart to build it between 1756 and 1766. John had inherited a fortune from his grandfather, the 3rd Earl of Sutherland and his great-grandmother Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, while still a minor.

He had a rare love match and married 18-year-old Georgiana Poyntz, one of the great beauties of her generation, only 24 hours after he became of age in December 1755. They were fêted by London society and within a year of their marriage they began building the house overlooking Green Park. The house was conceived as a temple dedicated to Bacchus, the embodiment of hospitality and the 1st Earl preferred the classical style to the Chinese or Japanese popular in interior decoration at the time. The house remained structurally unchanged for years, but the 2nd Earl, a bibliophile, converted the Palm Room into a library.

Victoria Wilson, Spencer House’s Collections Manager, said: “Anyone valuing Georgian architecture will appreciate the magnificent restoration. It was very much decided not to take any shortcuts and although the objects included in this sale are not original to the house, they form a part of its incredible recent history of survival and revival against the odds.”

Spencer House is open to the public for viewing every Sunday (except during August) from 10.00 am – 4.30 pm – find out more here.