The glitzy, star-studded past of one of the museum’s most glamorous period rooms
The Drawing Room from Lansdowne House has entered a new chapter in its history. For the first time in decades, visitors can step inside the room instead of peering in over barriers at the doorways. Now they can be fully immersed in Robert Adam’s harmonious Neoclassical design, thanks to the addition of a carpet that Adam designed but never manufactured. Many Museum staff members worked to create this reproduction, based on a watercolor housed at the Sir John Soane Museum in London, and we are delighted to finally see it transform the space.
Adam, a Scottish architect and designer whose distinctive style became enormously popular in 18th-century Britain, was known for his coordinated approach to design whereby every element of a room was in dialogue with the others. In the museum’s Lansdowne room, Adam’s patterns and colors now move seamlessly across every surface, creating a liveliness that makes it easy to imagine the space filled with laughter and music. As we worked on developing new interpretative materials for the room, we became curious about the different kinds of parties held at Lansdowne House during different historical moments.
The house was originally built for John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute (1713-1792), an unpopular Prime Minister in the early 1760s. In Adam’s original plans for the house, the drawing room is referred to as the “Organ Drawing Room,” a reference to Bute’s mechanical organ—a clockwork device similar to a player piano—which would have been positioned in the room’s alcove. Though this organ was never installed, we can picture Bute’s dream of sitting in the room with his guests, listening to compositions by Vivaldi and Handel played on a machine that was the embodiment of Enlightenment engineering.
Left: The Lansdowne Room before the addition of the carpet, when visitors could only peer in from the doors; Right: The room after the carpet was installed, inviting visitors to step inside and explore the space
Under its next owner, William Petty Fitzmaurice (1737-1805), 2nd Earl of Shelburne and First Marquess of Lansdowne (as well as Prime Minister from 1782 to 1783), Lansdowne House became a center for liberal, cultivated society. Lord Shelburne’s views were often ahead of his time. He was an ardent supporter of free speech, Adam Smith’s doctrine of free trade, religious equality, and autonomy for the American colonies. He corresponded with numerous esteemed figures, including George Washington, who wrote to express gratitude for Lord Shelburne’s role in negotiating the end of the Revolutionary War.
Lord Shelburne also frequently entertained an international array of eighteenth-century luminaries at Lansdowne House, including Benjamin Franklin, philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham, actor David Garrick, and writer Samuel Johnson, as well as French statesman and early leader of the French Revolution, Honoré de Mirabeau. As guests enjoyed after-dinner drinks, the room would have been filled with lively intellectual debate and witty banter.
Lansdowne House was also a center of British social and political activity in the early 1800s. Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice (1780-1863), 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne, was known as a gracious host who brought together not only members of the aristocracy, but also talented luminaries from a variety of backgrounds, making the house something of a literary salon.
Not everyone had a good time, though. The Romantic poet and celebrated libertine Lord Byron wrote in his diary, “Last night, party at Lansdowne House… deplorable waste of time… Heigho!—and in this way half London pass what is called life.” Clearly the parties at Lansdowne House were not quite wild enough for Byron’s taste.
Many other esteemed politicians, thinkers, and artists came to Lansdowne House in those early decades of the 1800s. When a fire destroyed both Houses of Parliament in the 1830s, the meetings of the Privy Council took place in Lansdowne until 1852 when the Palace of Westminster was partially rebuilt. Notable Victorian celebrities dined at the house, too, including Charles Dickens, the poet Thomas Moore, and the German philosopher Friedrich von Schlegel.
Following a brief stint in the 1890s during which the house was occupied by William Waldorf Astor—the wealthiest man in the United States at the time—Lansdowne’s reputation as a literary hub continued to flourish when it was leased in 1894 to Archibold Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery. He and his wife Hannah de Rothschild regularly entertained celebrated transatlantic writer Henry James. Looking back at his life in politics, the esteemed Prime Minister Winston Churchill fondly remembered Lansdowne house in the 1890s as the scene of “glittering parties” where statesmen could find “a gay and splendid social circle.”
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Lansdowne House showed no signs of relinquishing its storied reputation. As the exuberance and excitement of the Roaring Twenties swept across London, Lansdowne was the site of lavish Jazz Age parties. These were thrown by the American retail tycoon, Harry Gordon Selfridge (1858-1947) , founder of the famed London-based department store Selfridges, who called Lansdowne House home from 1921 to 1929.
Selfridge was a charismatic big spender who loved gambling, glamorous women, and entertaining lavishly. His soirees boasted jazz bands, free-flowing champagne, and such high-profile guests as the dancer Isadora Duncan and the Aga Khan. During these wild years, Selfridge was also squiring the Hungarian cabaret duo the Dolly Sisters around town. As likely visitors to Lansdowne House, it is fun to imagine them dancing the Charleston under the room’s beautiful painted ceiling.
Today, the drawing room is bustling once again, and we hope visitors can feel some of the room’s party spirit as they explore the newly transformed space.
Tara Contractor is an Assistant Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, specializing in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art. She holds a PhD from Yale University and an MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art.
Alisa Chiles is an Assistant Curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture and helps oversee the museum’s collection of decorative arts after 1700. She received an MA from NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts and is completing her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.