Library readers will know well the current, rather lavish interior of no 6, Carlton House Terrace, where the Centre for History of Science’s reading rooms are situated. Developed by the wealthy C H Sanford around 1890, no 6 is a veritable feast of marble, with some ornate wood carvings, a fresco and even a Juliet balcony thrown in for good measure.
If this seems ornate, consider the rooms which were to be found in Carlton House, the mansion which occupied the stretch of land along the Mall and opposite St James Park until its demolition in the 1820s, and where Carlton House Terrace now stands. Whilst having a rummage in our archive stores recently, I stumbled across some engravings of a selection of rooms from Carlton House, and was astounded at their grandeur and opulence. The engravings show an extravaganza of architectural features, from a gothic dining room which featured a series of arched windows and carved wooden ceiling brackets from which were suspended large chandeliers, to the ‘blue velvet’ room, where heavy gilt frames enclosed the rich velvet wall panels, and a neo-classical golden drawing room, with its many colonnades, rounded off with a sumptuous carpet.
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In the possession of the future King George IV since 1783 – a monarch renowned for his good taste, as well as his ability to spend money – it is perhaps not surprising that Carlton House was full of fine antiques, fancy French furniture, the best artwork and some incredible interior architecture. Like many things which came his way, King George IV – or the plain old Prince of Wales, as he was then – threw money at Carlton House the moment he took possession of it, having the building refurbished and substantially extended from 1784 onwards. Despite a grant of £60,000 from Parliament and an annual income of £50,000, the Prince was forced to go cap in hand to his father, King George III, in order to complete the work on Carlton House, such was its cost (and such were his debts). The work was eventually completed in 1796, by which time Carlton House measured 202 feet long and 130 feet wide; the Prince entertained widely and frequently at Carlton House, hosting extravagant parties in the mansion – surely a palace, in all but name.
Despite the grandeur and apparent size of Carlton House, it soon fell out of fashion with the King. Having acceded to the throne in 1820, after the death of his father, George considered that Carlton House, Buckingham House – his father’s previous residence – and St James’ Palace (the official Royal residence) all failed to meet his needs. Having successfully negotiated an enormous grant from Parliament, George was able to substantially redesign and enlarge Buckingham House, transforming it into a palace. In 1825, the King declared Carlton House to be unsafe; it was eventually demolished in 1826, and the architect John Nash was commissioned to design two blocks of private housing – the splendid Carlton House Terrace – which were to be leased to the great, the good and the wealthy, in part to pay for the refurbishment of Buckingham House.
It seems such a shame that a building once treated so lavishly could so quickly be treated with disdain by its owner; I, for one, would love to have wandered around Carlton House and its myriad splendid rooms. However, while the building itself may be gone, traces of Carlton House remain, not least in the engravings I came across in the archive stores recently. Much of Carlton House’s furniture, artwork and other features were relocated to Buckingham Palace and other Royal residences, where it forms part of the Royal Collection; and its portico was donated to the National Gallery, where it now forms part of the magnificent entrance which overlooks Trafalgar Square.