At the end of last year I was delighted to award Pitzhanger Manor a package of free sensory equipment bought with Museum Marathon fundraising to promote Autism in Museums. The Youth Panel at the charity Ambitious About Autism helped select the winners from the 67 museums, galleries and heritage venues that applied from across the country. The panel were impressed with their plans to support autism families in their local community and to offer sensory backpacks to visitors.
It was an absolute delight to take some of the panel along to Pitzhanger in January to get a sneak preview of the remarkable Sir John Soane property before it opens after extensive refurbishment.
When we arrive at Pitzhanger it is still surrounded by hoarding as the staff are pushing through the final frantic weeks before their grand opening weekend on 16th and 17th March 2019. Closed to the public in 2014 for the refurbishment it won’t be long before the building can shine again.
Pitzhanger Manor was Sir John Soane’s country retreat, his escape from the hustle and bustle of London. He had been living at No. 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields for nearly 6 years when his career began to take off and he started thinking about buying a place out of London.
Purchased in 1800 for £4,500 you can still see the original 18th century house to the left of Soane’s grand re-modelling. It has taken £12 million to restore the manor to its former glory including a substantial grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
The main entrance with its Portland stone and grand ionic columns adorned with statues modelled from the Erechtheum at Athens1 is impressive. Set in the beautiful Walpole Park Soane was certainly making a statement of his intent, perhaps to attract his two boys into a career in architecture it also double up as a way to showcase his talents as an architect.
We walk up the sweeping drive to get the full ‘Pitzhanger Effect’ the entrance is via what was the old kitchen block, turned into a public library in 1939. This space is the gallery which will hold three temporary exhibitions a year. When we visit, the finishing touches are being made to the space that will first house an exhibition by artist, Anish Kapoor.
It is one of those spaces you walk in to and just go ‘wow’. I love the Art Deco roof lights, Anish Kapoor’s work will, I have no doubt, look amazing in this space.
Then with growing excitement we went on to Soane’s house, using all the tricks at his disposal Soane engineered a grand entrance with steps up into an entrance hall which bathes you in light and grandeur.
Soane loved to trick his visitors, cheaper materials made to look like marble and bronze, the restoration recreates Soane’s skill in offering the very best impact at a much reduced price.
The use of light in the space is stunning, all the more effective as we few are the only visitors drifting from room to room and imagining the master of the house has just stepped out of the door.
The library reminds me very much of the breakfast room at No. 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Soane’s London home. Looking out over Walpole Park it is a beautiful space, the coloured glass panels in the conservatory pulling your gaze out to the world outside.
On the trellis-like ceiling you can still see original paint patches, the greenery bringing the outside in, I wish I could move in to sit and read in this room, it would be heaven.
We move to the conservatory that was originally demolished in 1901, now restored with the help of photographs from the time, sadly not quite the double height Soane had a hankering for, which in reality proved too tricky to construct in Soane’s time.
There are many heart stopping ‘wow’ moments, as you turn and catch the light playing through doorways, windows and stairwells. The Upper Drawing Room, perfect for grande entertaining is stunning, the ceiling is original to the 18th century house. The hand painted Chinese wall paper is beautiful and begs for closer inspection. It took 6 months intensive work with precise historical research to ensure it was as close as possible to Soane’s time.
Mr and Mrs Soane had separate bedrooms as was common for the time, I can’t help but think Soane gave himself the best one. There is actually a surprising lack of guest bedrooms considering Soane enjoyed entertaining. Did he really turf out his guests, including the Duc d’Orleans, later King Louis Philippe of France2 who was then living at Orleans House in Twickenham after a big night?
In a couple of rooms you get the fascinating opportunity to play house detective, comparing wallpaper styles from different time periods and comparing the interior restoration to Soane’s original colour palette.
We finish our tour with a look round the servants quarters in the attic, a chance to appreciate Soane’s ingenuity around architecture and light including a weird aperture in one of the rooms.
This is my first visit to Soane’s ‘country’ retreat and I have been blown away, it is remarkable that so many original features have remained and that the funds were available to restore this architectural gem to it’s former glory.
Ealing is blessed to have such a treasure. Sadly for Soane, Pitzhanger was not the inspiration he hoped it would be for his sons, neither of whom followed in his footsteps.
He sold his ‘Elegant Villa at Ealing’3 in 1810 for £10,000. Pitzhanger Manor opens to the public this weekend, a grand stage that, whilst it never quite became the family home he envisaged, still proves to be a showcase for his skills as an architect even after all these years.
Pitzhanger Manor opens on the 16-17th March with free bookable tickets. For ticket prices after the opening weekend please see the website.
1 – Sir John Soane Architect, Dorothy Stroud, Faber and Faber, 1984. pg 75.
2 – Sir John Soane Architect, Dorothy Stroud, Faber and Faber, 1984. pg 78.
3 – Sir John Soane Architect, Dorothy Stroud, Faber and Faber, 1984. pg 83.
Sir John Soane’s Museum https://www.soane.org/
For more on the Chinese wallpaper – https://www.studiospelling.com/pitzhanger-manor