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We unapologetically re-publish this four year old review of a fifty-three year old book. Originally published in London Historians Members’ newsletter January 2015. By LH Member Simon Fowler.


 

What’s the best guide to London’s buildings?  There’s the superb and very comprehensive English Heritage’s Survey of London and, of course, the appropriate volumes of Pevsner. But might I suggest a 50-year old book by Ian Nairn? First published in 1966, Nairn’s London has recently been republished as a Penguin Classic after many years out of print. And not a moment too soon!

nairn01Ian Nairn (1930-1983) was perhaps Britain’s greatest architectural critic.  According to Owen Hatherley he was “Arguably the finest architectural writer of the Twentieth Century…vivid, sensual descriptions of buildings, a way of writing about architecture that I’d never imagined possible before.” Today he is remembered for several series of iconic TV programmes in the late 1960s and early 1970s: many of which are now available on BBC iPlayer.

But his greatest work is Nairn’s London. In it he describes nearly five hundred buildings, some famous, many obscure and some plain perverse. In the preface Nairn writes that:
This guide is simply my personal list of the best things in London.  I have all the time tried to be rigorous – not any old Wren church or view or pub – and I have tried to get behind conventional aesthetics to an in internal reality of which beauty is only facet. What I am after is character, or personality, or essence.

During the mid and late 1960s there was an explosion of books about the city, many capitalising on the metropolis’s brief notoriety as ‘Swinging London’.  There was even a Good Loo guide. But whereas these guides are almost without exception dated and hackneyed, Nairn’s London remains as fresh as the day it was published. His descriptions match exactly the building, or bring some aspect to the reader’s attention that they might otherwise have overlooked. Best of all he makes you want to go there. Take 12 Langford Place in London NW8 for example:
Sheer horror: a Francis Bacon shriek in these affluent, uncomplicated surroundings at the end of Abbey Road.  It looks like a normal St John’s Wood villa pickled in embalming fluid by some mad doctor. Two very pinched gables and a bay window like the carapace of a science fiction insect. There is something far beyond architectural wildness here, even Victorian wildness. The design radiates malevolence as unforgettably as Iago.

Ian Nairn is remembered for his opposition to modern architecture.  In a February 1966 article for the Observer titled ‘Stop the architects now’ he asserted that: ‘The outstanding and appalling fact about modern British architecture is that it is just not good enough. It is not standing up to use or climate, either in single buildings or the whole environment.”

Yet Nairn’s London is full of entries praising contemporary buildings. Indeed this is one of the book’s great strengths: separating it from other such guides.  Of two blocks of council flats – Waltham House and Dale House in Boundary Road – which were designed by Armstrong and MacManus and built by St Marylebone council in the 1950s, he says:
Plain dealing: an outstanding and far too rare example in London of what honest design and professional self-respect can do with the leanest of programmes.  Just four-storey flats and maisonettes, respectively: just yellow brick, just long-stepped terraces with some planting in front. But all the simple things have been cared for, not fussed over and not made into ‘features’, but treated as straightforwardly as the nineteenth century dock and warehouse men would have. 

Inevitably, some of the buildings here have disappeared.  It would have been nice for example to have walked past Sir Charles’ Reilly’s Lodge Road Power Station of 1904 (and demolished in 1973) which had “all the ornament florid and curling over, everything saying this is a bloody great shed.”

Nairn was a great pubman. Indeed beer destroyed him in the end: he died as a chronic alcoholic of cirrhosis of the liver in 1983. It is perhaps little wonder that there is a postscript on London beer, which is one of the few entries that has dated.  The capital’s pubs are now awash with good beer: something he would have appreciated.

Some of the best entries describe pubs – there are thirty entries – such as the long gone Ward’s Irish House, near Piccadilly Circus: “It is not trying to be Irish, it just is.  A big bare room with a central zinc-topped bar, no concessions to comfort, but on the other hand some of the best draught Guinness in London.” Or the Red Lion in Duke of York Street close by, which is happily still with us much as the author would have known it: “If I could keep only one pub out of the whole London galaxy, this would be it…It is a place to walk out of ramrod-straight, reinforced by those proud sparkling arabesques.”

Ian Nairn drinking in a pub

It has to be stressed that this is a very personal guide.  The original blurb on the back claimed that: “there has never been a guide like it…[it is] an intensely subjective search for the good things in London.” There are many omissions – the area (and pubs) around Little Venice for example. But it matters not one jot.  As the great modern architectural critic Jonathan Meades notes: “Nairn’s London belongs to no genre except its own, it is of a school of one. The masterwork.”

If you live in London or are fascinated by the capital’s history and buildings then this guide should be on your shelves.

Nairn’s London has been republished by Penguin Books, price £9.99 (ISBN 978-0-141-39615-6).  All the original rather grainy photographs have been included and there is an excellent afterword by the late celebrated architectural critic Gavin Stamp.


See also: Nairn.


For the past three years London Historians has marked Ian Nairn’s birthday (24/08/1930) with a pub crawl through establishments mentioned in the book. This year it’s Saturday 24 August. Watch out for more news on this.  

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A guest post by LH Member Caroline Shenton. This article first appeared in London Historians Newsletter of August 2014. The paperback edition of her book, Mr Barry’s War, has just been published.

Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860) is best-known as the architect of the new Houses of Parliament.  With the designer AWN Pugin (1812-1852) he created the most iconic building in London, familiar to millions the world over as a symbol of Britain and democracy.  It was a labour of love.  Barry was a Londoner through-and-through: he was born, married, worked and died in London and, apart from three years on the Grand Tour as a young man, he lived there all his life.  So where were the houses he inhabited in the city whose skyline he, more than anyone else, influenced by means of the biggest Houses of all?  And can these buildings tell us something about a brilliant man who was discreet and private while he lived, and who remains an enigmatic character since he destroyed many of his personal papers before he died?

Barry was the ninth of eleven children of Walter Barry, a government Stationery Office supplier.  He was born and grew up at 2 Bridge Street, which ran along the northern side of New Palace Yard, Westminster.  Some fifty years later Barry would construct the famous Clock Tower of the New Palace of Westminster, to Pugin’s design, almost adjacent to his birthplace, which stood in its shadow until 1867.

The redbrick Georgian terraces of Bridge Street can be seen immediately to the right of the Palace in this 1860 picture in the Parliamentary Works of Art Collection (WOA 1164)

Barry was christened at St Margaret’s Westminster, the parish church of Parliament, just a few steps from home. In the final decade of his life he also designed and oversaw the construction of a new Westminster Bridge.  For the most of his life then, Charles Barry lived and worked in the immediate neighbourhood of the Houses of Parliament, old and new.

When he returned to England in 1820 after travelling through Europe, the Levant and Egypt, he set up a home and office at 39 Ely Place, on the edge of Hatton Garden.  Today this is a gated road containing residential buildings and legal chambers, but until the end of the eighteenth century it had been the Bishop of Ely’s Palace.  It was sold off and redeveloped in 1772 and so Barry had chosen to live on a site with plenty of medieval resonance – including the gothic church of St Etheldreda – but in a house which by then was fifty years old and on the edge of a slum: definitely a first-time buyer’s option.  Two years later he married Sarah Rowsell, daughter of a stationer friend of his father’s whose sister was already married to his brother. Sarah had patiently waited for him to return from his travels and then for a year or two after his return before he had enough money to support them – again a sign of his good sense and prudence.

This is Ely Place today.  No 39 does not survive, having been destroyed by bombing
during World War II which hit the end of the terrace.  We can assume it looked very like this though.

The Barrys continued living at Ely Place until 1827, when they moved to 27  Foley Place with their two sons – Charles jnr (b. 1823) and Alfred (b. 1826).  In the previous seven years Charles had made a name for himself with projects in Brighton and Manchester and the young family’s move to the West End indicates his growing prosperity, and the fact that he was starting to socialise in fashionable Whig circles including members of the Devonshire House set.  Today Foley Place has become Langham Street in Fitzrovia – and is just a stone’s throw from the RIBA on Portland Place, an institute of which Barry was a founding member and whose library today holds significant collections of his papers and architectural plans.

Over the next thirteen years Barry won a series of brilliant competitions and commissions to design and build the Travellers’ Club in Pall Mall (1829); the Birmingham Grammar School (1833); Trentham House, Staffordshire (1834); the Reform Club in Pall Mall (1837); Highclere Castle, Berkshire better known as “Downton Abbey” (1838); and Trafalgar Square (1840), among many others.  In 1840 Sarah Barry laid the foundation stone of the new Houses of Parliament, her husband’s most famous building, and that year the family (now including eight children and three servants) moved to a spacious mid-Georgian townhouse at 32 Great George St in Westminster – in fact, a continuation of Bridge Street where Barry had been born.  This was not only to accommodate his large family better but also so that Barry could be as close as possible to the site of his ‘great work’ which was now growing into the air just a few hundred yards away.  Great George Street was at that time a residential quarter favoured by politicians, civil engineers and railway contractors.  At one point this included Samuel Morton Peto, whose firm had the building contract for superstructure of the new Palace of Westminster, and at number 23 lived and worked James Walker, the famous civil engineer who took over Thomas Telford’s practice and whose firm built the river wall and embankment for the Houses of Parliament in the late 1830s. Across the road from the Barry household was the original National Portrait Gallery, run by the Scharf family of topographical artists, and so this neighbourhood nicely encapsulates the main themes of Barry’s career.  These houses no longer exist but a vestige of those times remain as 1 Great George Street is now home to the Institution of Civil Engineers.

At the very end of his life, Barry moved to the semi-rural delights of 29 Clapham Common North, to a grand mansion called ‘The Elms’.  Exhausted and fatally stressed by some 25 years of work on the new Houses of Parliament, he perhaps felt the need to at last relax in comfort and enjoy the semi-rural delights of the Common where sheep still grazed.  He died just a few months later, in May 1860, of a massive heart attack.  His funeral cortège set out from The Elms on 22 May and led to Westminster Abbey, where Barry was buried under a brass depicting the Victoria Tower of the Palace of Westminster, which the great architect regarded as his masterpiece.  Today, no 29 is part of Trinity Hospice, which has occupied the building since 1899.


 


Caroline Shenton  was formerly Director of the Parliamentary Archives and is now a freelance writer, historian and heritage consultant. Her latest book Mr Barry’s War. Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament after the great fire of 1834   was a book of the year for BBC History Magazine and The Daily Telegraph. Follow her on twitter @dustshoveller or read her blog on Parliamentary history at www.carolineshenton.co.uk.

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del200I was surprised and saddened to hear only yesterday that Derek ‘Del’ Mandel, aka the Cockney Minstrel, had passed away earlier this year on St George’s Day.

As many readers know, our monthly meet-up pub is the historic Hoop and Grapes in Farringdon Street. Every year, early November, after the Lord Mayor’s Show, Del would turn up and lead a proper cockney-style singalong, in his pearly king garb. He’d start fairly low key with both well-known and obscure standards as well as soldier ballads. Before each song he explained the story behind it, so we all got educated into the bargain.

Del’s set was immense, typically lasting well over three hours. Indeed, Springsteen-esque. He invested heart and soul and his audience responded lustily. As we punters became more refreshed, our voices became louder and louder. By the end of the afternoon, I swear the tiles on the roof were rattling.

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Thank-you Del, wherever you are. We’ll never forget you.


Del will be remembered in a special sesh at the Hoop and Grapes after the Lord Mayor’s Show this year, 10 November.

Here is a clip of Del doing the Barrow Boy Song, on 11 November 2016.

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Sopwith Camel, Hawker Hurricane, Hawker Hunter, Sea Harrier.

As a small contribution to #RAF100, I’d like to remember in particular a man who – while never in the RAF himself – did build tens of thousands of their warplanes. Boy, did he build them. That man was Sir Thomas Sopwith (1888 – 1989). Remembered mainly for the aeroplane that bore his name – the Camel – Sopwith also gave us many other famous fighter planes, including the Hurricane, the Hawker Hunter and, believe it or not, he was also involved in the Sea Harrier, some 60 years after World War One. In other words, he was building aircraft from barely ten years after the Wright brothers up to a model which is still in use by the US Marines today, over a century of in-service fighter planes. You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that Sopwith himself lived to be 101.

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Thomas Sopwith c1911

Thomas Sopwith, a Londoner, was born in Kensington in 1888. Although his father died in a shooting accident when Sopwith was a boy, he left the family well-off. In his twenties, young Tom enthusiastically embraced the pursuits of adventurers of his standing: ballooning, motor racing, ocean yachting and flying. He was the 31st British pilot to gain his licence. He was also fiercely competitive, competing in and winning speed and endurance competitions. By 1914 he was building aircraft from a small factory in Kingston in addition to running his flying school since 1912. By the end of the war the Sopwith Aviation Company had manufactured 18,000 warplanes in dozens of variants, but most famously the Camel, nemesis of Baron von Richthofen.

He subsequently in the early 1920s started a new company with his Australian collaborator and test pilot, the appropriately named Harry Hawker. Unfortunately Hawker died soon afterwards in a flying accident but Sopwith took the company forward from its HQ at Brooklands, designing the Hurricane unprompted and before the government realised the looming need for such a fighter. Until 1963, under Sopwith’s leadership, 26,800 aircraft of fifty-two different types flowed from the production lines of Hawkers and its associated companies.

Sopwith remained on the board of the Hawker Siddeley Group until 1988. Knighted in 1953, Sir Thomas Sopwith’s biggest regret was failing to win the America’s Cup in 1934. What a life!


Thomas Sopwith on Wikipedia.
Thomas Sopwith Documentary (1984) on YouTube (30 mins: marvellous!).

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As a great admirer of Wyndham Lewis’s art, I was delighted to see his portrait of TS Eliot at the Royal Academy of Arts, on loan all the way from Durban, South Africa.

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It is part of the 250th anniversary of the Academy’s Summer Exhibition, a retrospective being held concurrently with this year’s show: The Great Spectacle.

This painting caused great controversy when the Academy rejected it for the 1938 Summer Exhibition. Many of Lewis’s peers were incensed, including Augustus John, who resigned his membership of the R.A. over the issue. His resignation letter is also on display.
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Eliot liked the portrait, but a possible reason the work was rejected was that both artist and sitter had a somewhat jaundiced view of the Academy. There are some choice quotes here.

I’ve only mentioned Wyndham Lewis once before on this blog and then only in passing in a piece about David Bowie’s personal collection. Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882 – 1957) was a Canadian-born artist and intellectual, active in the first half of the 20th Century. He served with distinction in WW1 as an artillery officer. Before the conflict he had been a member of the Camden Town Group and was active in the Vorticist movement (who expounded a sort of hybrid of Cubist and Futurist styles), being a contributor to its magazine, BLAST. Lewis was a combative critic of the intellectual Left in the 20s and 30s. In the early 1930s, like many at the time, he became admirer of Hitler, a position which had completely reversed by 1936. For the last years of his life from the early 1950s he was completely blind.

But back to the show. The Great Spectacle is indeed great and an most certainly an excellent spectacle. In the spirit of the Wyndam Lewis controversy, there is an amusing picture by Alfred Munnings (1878 – 1959, surely the best painter of horses ever) which takes the piss out of admirers of modern art.

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The inclusion of this picture is significant in that Munnings, as outgoing President of the Academy, in 1949 famously made a drunken speech attacking modern art and its practitioners. Fortunately for us, it was recorded, but the Academy must have been rightly horrified.

So two of our best painters of the 20th Century attacking the Academy from opposite directions. They couldn’t win, really. But all credit to them for showing us their story, warts and all, through this superbly curated show, necessarily chronological, but paying close attention to genre. All the British greats are there, famous and obscure, men and women: some of your favourites are bound to be there.


The Summer Exhibition 2018 itself is a joy. I hadn’t been for over 25 years, but from my dim recollection of the previous occasion compared with 2018, I’m sure that this year’s show is superior in every way. Brighter, more variety, more imagination, talent. Many pieces are political, many quirky, lots are funny and indeed, some are all three. I particularly enjoyed the humorous homages of Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl, but there is so much more to savour.

A big anniversary year for the Royal Academy, and they’ve played a blinder.

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Yesterday I went along to three exhibitions by City of London institutions which opened recently. All are well worth visiting; all are free.

Guildhall Art Gallery: Sublime Symmetry
This exhibition features the works of William De Morgan, the late 19th century London ceramicist, friend and collaborator of William Morris, GF Watts and many others. We are long-standing fans of De Morgan. The closure of a dedicated gallery in Wandsworth some years ago tragically meant that a huge collection of his work, which is owned by the De Morgan Foundation, has been kept behind closed doors. It’s important therefore to do all you can to get to this show. The theme is De Morgan’s background in mathematics, how that meshed with his interest in Islamic symmetical forms and from there informed his decorative work. The artist’s father and brother were both celebrated mathemeticians. Augustus De Morgan was the founding Professor of Mathematics at UCL, friend and correspondent of Ada Lovelace among others, and clearly a warm and funny character. It felt good to meet him. But of course, the stars of the show are De Morgan’s sumptuous, exquisite works. Vases, bowls, dishes, tiles all beautifully decorated with figures from nature and myth.
This runs until 28 October.

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Guildhall Library: Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers
More a display than a full blown exhibition, this is the latest in the library’ series which features the City’s livery companies. This year celebrates the 450th anniversary of this company’s first Charter, granted by Elizabeth I 1568, although the company can trace its origins back to 1416. We are shown many objects from its collection, well complemented by items from the library as well. This includes probably my favourite, the so-called “Breeches” Bible from 1589, which was used for the administration of oaths. It is, of course, a late generation English bible before the advent of the Authorised Version (1611) and furhermore is the only example of a chained book in the library’s collection.  In addition we have a trowel (of course), ledgers, ordnances and minute books, a loving cup and a portrait miniature of its most famous member, the playwright Ben Jonson who was a bricklayer before he made it big in the London theatre.
Runs until 31 August.

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The ‘Breeches’ Bible, 1598.

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Ben Jonson’s overdue subscription recorded as paid.

London Metropolitan Archives: Picturing Forgotten London
What I love about the LMA exhibitions – and this one is no exception – is that you see historical images that you’ve never seen before. Not one. This is remarkable considering the hundreds of London history books out there, not to mention what’s online. To choose one example, I thought I’d seen everything on frost fairs: not so!

The headline title is a broad topic indeed which features not forgotten London necessarily, but a London which simply no longer exists, whether the obvious things such a buildings, but also professions, animals, forms of government, everyday life, religion, commerce, housing, transport, technology, sport, food and welfare. The images which bring these themes to life – whether maps, engravings or photographs – are clearly heavily researched astutely chosen.

Warmly recommended. Runs until 31 August.

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London’s last frost fair, 1814.

By the time this print was published, just few days later, the ice had melted, and the fair gone forever. London Bridge can be seen in the distance.

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Rural Archway, 1841.

A winding lane with barns and a farmhouse. It is hard to imagine London’s built-up suburbs as open country but the last farms in the area only disappeared in the early twentieth century.

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Commercial warehousing, buildings and shops in front of St Pancras Station, 1871.

St. Pancras station opened in 1868 but the hotel and grand entrance were not completed until 1876. Older buildings were demolished as part of the project, including this row of houses and shops which stood nearby. It’s hard to imagine this picturesque scene on one of the busiest parts of Euston Road today.

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South Bank, 1952. Featuring County Hall and the Skylon.

This seemingly free-floating steel structure stood outside the Dome of Discovery on the main Festival of Britain site on the South Bank. With no particular function or message, ‘Skylon’ was nonetheless much loved. It was removed shortly after the closing of the Festival.

 

 

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This post, first published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter of July 2014, was written by the late Helen Szamuely.


Not far from St John’s Wood underground station there is a street of fine houses, called Woronzow Road with a big plaque at one end of it. Under the portrait of a refined looking eighteenth century gentleman we find the following:

The road was named after Count Simon Woronzow Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1784 to 1806.

He lived in Marylebone and on his death in 1832 left a bequest to the poor of the parish. The money was used to build the St Marylebone Almshouses at the south-west corner of this road.

Though the road was named after the ambassador in 1843 the Russians took longer to erect a memorial to him:

Plaque unveiled 26 November 2002 by H. E. Grigori Karasin [Russian Ambassador to the UK] and the Mayor of Camden, Councillor Judy Pattison.

Gift of Peter the Great Company of St Petersburg to the citizens of Camden.

One can only hope that the citizens of Camden appreciated the gift and took some trouble to find out the story behind the brief summary.

Count Semyon Vorontsov came from a distinguished Russian family who had been involved in Russian politics and government for at least a couple of generations. His brother, Alexander, was ambassador in London from 1762 to 1764 and lived in Clifford Street, as at that time there was no permanent ambassadorial residence. He was merely 21 at the time of his appointment, which he owed partly to his uncle, Mikhail Vorontsov, the Grand Chancellor and partly to the fact that his sister, Elizabeth, was Peter III’s mistress. On his return to Russia he was created a senator and the President of the Board of Trade but he lost Catherine II’s favour and was retired, to return to state office in 1802 when Alexander I appointed him Imperial Chancellor. The Vorontsovs were supporters of Russian alliance with Britain and fervent opponents of Napoleon.

Their other sister, Ekaterina, whose married name was Dashkova, was a close friend of Catherine II’s and is sometimes referred to as Catherine the Little. Dashkova was by her friend’s side throughout the day of her coup in 1762 though her actual role has been disputed both by Catherine and by her various favourites, the Orlovs and, especially, Prince Potemkin whose enmity towards the Vorontsovs prevented the family’s advancement. Dashkova, though consistently loyal to the Empress, found it prudent to go on an extended European journey in 1768. Unlike many educated Russians she had a strong partiality for Britain over France and spent time in various parts of it, including two years in Edinburgh, where her son was educated. Some sort of reconciliation between her and Potemkin was arranged when her son became the prince’s adjutant and Dashkova herself returned to St Petersburg to become the Director of the Imperial Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1782 and the first President of the Russian Academy in 1784 where she initiated the 6-volume dictionary of the Russian language and even wrote part of it. Her subsequent relationship with the Empress remained stormy though not unfriendly but she was much hated (as were all Catherine’s favourites) by the Emperor Paul.

Semyon himself resigned from the elite guards regiment in 1773 because of his dislike of Potemkin, by now a Lieutenant-General, who then ensured his “exile” to London, where he became ambassador in 1784 and remained in the post with brief interruption till 1806, staying in London even after his retirement.

By this time the Russian ambassador had a permanent residence in 36 Harley Street, acquired by the Russian Treasury in 1779 for £6,000 and, it seems, a separate embassy was also functioning at 32 Welbeck Street, which also had a Russian chapel. The staff of the embassy consisted of 6 people, one Counsellor, 2 Titular Counsellors, 1 translator and two students or actuaries, which makes one wonder whether the concept of interns had not been started by the Russian diplomatic service. There were constant arguments about payment. Under Peter, Secretaries had been paid 300 roubles and this was increased under Elizabeth to 400 – 600 roubles, with Catherine keeping to that rate till 1790s when it was increased to 2,500 roubles for Secretary and 1,000 roubles for other employees. (In 1773 the exchange was 4.5 roubles to £1.)

The ambassador also had a country house, though this was rented, in Richmond and various Russian visitors to London, such as the great Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin, described staying there as well as visiting the Harley Street residence. Another man who stayed at the Richmond house was Vasily Malinovsky (1765 – 1814) who had been appointed to the embassy, astonishingly enough, because of his good knowledge of English and who imbibed many English political ideas while here. In the Richmond house he wrote the first part of his book, Thoughts on War and Peace, eventually published in Russia in 1802.

Vorontsov managed to build up a large network of political and social friends and allies. He cultivated journalists and his social skills came in very useful in 1791 when he was instrumental in preventing Pitt from arming a naval squadron to compel Russia to return the Ochakov fortress to Turkey. Vorontsov was close to Fox and the Whigs and, with the help of his Chargé d’Affaires and interpreter, Vasili Lizakevich, rallied support in the City, as ever, not much in favour of a war with Russia. Realizing that even his own people were divided on the subject, Pitt backed down in the House of Commons and Vorontsov could proudly explain that:

“Ink and paper proved mightier than Prussian steel and British gunpowder.”

To be fair, the fact that the navy was not in favour of the proposed expedition helped.

In April of that year Pitt despatched William Fawkener as a secret emissary to St Petersburg but both he and the envoy, Charles Whitworth, had a difficult time with the Empress who preferred to deal with Robert Adair, Fox’s secret emissary who had been recommended by Vorontsov but whose mission could well be interpreted as being near-treasonous.

As countries changed sides during the prolonged war, Vorontsov signed a trading convention between Russia and Britain as well as an alliance against revolutionary France despite which Russia and Britain found themselves at war some years and as allies in others in the space of two decades. In 1800, for example only the priest of the Russian Embassy Church, Jakov Smirnov, was in residence as a chargé d’affaires, as the two countries were nominally at war.

Vorontsov remained ambassador for some of Paul’s reign, was dismissed when Paul drew closer to France, had his estates confiscated as he refused to return and was reappointed by Alexander I. In 1806 he retired but remained in England till his death in 1832. Letters from him in the Lilly Library Manuscript Collection are addressed from Harley Street, Welbeck Street, Berners Street as well as Richmond and Southampton.

Both Vorontsov’s children were brought up in England and his son, Mikhail (1782 – 1856), who went back to Russia to a glittering military and political career, becoming Viceroy of New Russia and the Caucasus, a prince and a field-marshal, was usually described as “a dry phlegmatic milord”. Curiously enough, he married Elisabeth (Lise) Branicka, the daughter of Potemkin’s favourite niece and reported mistress, Sashenka Branicka. Mikhail Vorontsov was also one of the many important men in Russia to be cuckolded by the great poet and ladies’ man, Alexander Pushkin, quite possibly the real father of one of the Vorontsov daughters.

Semyon’s daughter, Catherine (1784 – 1856), stayed in England and became the second wife of George Herbert, 11th Earl of Pembroke, with whom she had six children, including a son, Sidney, who became the Secretary at War during the Crimean War. His mother and uncle died in 1856 but there is no record of their feelings on such a curious turn of affairs.

Vorontsov died in Mansfield Street, leaving in his will £500 to the poor of St Marylebone parish, which was used to build the Almshouses in St John’s Wood Terrace in 1836 (they were rebuilt at the same address in 1965 and are still used for sheltered housing). He was buried in the Pembroke vault in the crypt of St Marylebone Church. The entrance to the crypt was bricked up in 1853 but in 1980 a decision was taken to reuse it. In 1983 all the bodies were removed to Brookwood cemetery as the crypt was turned into a healing centre. The memorial in the cemetery records the date of the removal but not the individual names, which are listed in the parish office of St Marylebone. The Russian topographical historian, Sergei Romanyuk, waxes indignant in his book Russian London about the Pembroke family not removing Vorontsov’s remains before the removal to Brookwood. The likelihood is that they did not know this was going to happen. Others have not forgotten. The road named after him is still there and now there is a memorial presented by the Peter the Great Company to the citizens of Camden and erected jointly by the Russian Ambassador and the Mayor of Camden.


Helen Szamuely, who passed away in April 2017, was a Founder Member of London Historians.

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