An artist, an architect, and a baboon in north London

THE PAINTER GEORGE ROMNEY (1734-1802) moved to Hampstead in north London for health reasons near the end of the 18th century. His home on Holly Hill, originally named ‘Prospect House’ because of the views over London that could be seen from it, still stands today, even thouh it has been altered since Romney occupied it. During 1792, he made frequent visits to Hampstead and the following year he decided to move to the suburbs north of London. In June of that year, he took lodgings at a place he called ‘Pineapple Place’ near Kilburn. Dissatisfied with his Kilburn abode, and having been persuaded that it would be better to buy an existing building rather than to build from scratch, he bought the house on Holly Hill, an old house and its stables, in 1796. It is this building that bears a plaque commemorating his residence there. The Holly Hill house contained his studio, which was completed after the artist had spent £500 on alterations to his new home. While the alterations were being carried out, Romney lived in a building called The Mount on Heath Street, so the informative historian Barratt reveals in Volume 2 of his encyclopaedic history of Hampstead.

Romney’s house in Hampstead, London

The works that Romney had paid for resulted in the creation of:

“…strange new studio and dwelling-house … an odd and whimsical structure in which there was nothing like domestic arrangements. It had a very extensive picture and statue gallery …”

Barratt continues:

“At last Romney got rid of the builders and decorators, and all his town treasures —paintings, casts, statues, canvases, and what not—scores of cart-loads of them—were deposited in the new house and gallery, and the painter began to think that his higher aims were about to be attained.”

But this was not to be. His health failed and in January 1799, he shut up his Hampstead abode and travelled to Kendal. He returned to Holly Hill briefly but returned to Kendal after the 28th of April. He died in Kendal. His house in Hampstead was sold and by 1808, it contained ‘Assembly Rooms’ and three years later it became home to ‘The Constitutional Club’. Barratt revealed that the rooms in Romney’s house were:

“…For sixty years these rooms were practically the Town Hall of Hampstead and the centre of the town’s municipal life. The Hampstead Literary and Scientific Society, formed about 1833, met here, and many learned men at its invitation gave lectures in the rooms …”

In 1807, soon after Romney left Hampstead, the stables attached to his house became part of the nearby Hollybush Pub, after having been used as the catering wing for the Assembly Rooms (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1379069).

Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower, author of “George Romney” published in 1904, wrote of FRomney’s Hampstead dwelling:

“…externally the building, which is covered over with a kind of wooden boarding, has the appearance of a large stable; but within are some remains of the great gallery in which the artist placed his collection of casts, and handsome columns decorate this room; it is now a Conservative Club, and appears to be well attended by the residents of that portion of Hampstead. As a living house it must have been supremely uncomfortable; and one no longer has the advantage of the view over London from the upper windows from which Romney loved to look out and watch the distant dome of St. Paul’s lying in the Thames Valley below; the great city has crept up and around Holly Bush Hill, and crowded out the prospect which gave the great painter almost the last solace in his melancholy decline of life.”

Recently, I wrote an essay (see https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2021/04/29/artists-in-hampstead-londons-montmartre/) about some artists who lived in Hampstead and mentioned George Romney. Someone who read it wrote to me and reminded me that Romney’s former home was also the abode of another artist, the Welsh born architect Sir Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis (1883-1978), most famous for his creation of Portmeiron in western Wales. At about the same time as my correspondent mentioned Williams-Ellis, I found a copy of the architect’s autobiography, “The Architect Errant”, in a disused telephone box, now being used as a book exchange, in Madingley, Cambridgeshire. Although I have not yet read the whole book, I have found what he wrote about his time living in Romney’s former home in Holly Hill. He bought this building in 1929 and redesigned it considerably.

Clough left Chelsea for Hampstead.  He wrote of Hampstead and its proximity to the Heath:“It was this love of spaciousness that had propelled me first from South Eaton Place … to Hampstead where the desire for bracing air, a garden, and good schools for the children, were factors determining our choice.

From the edge of a plateau high above the dome of St Pauls we looked southwards from George Romney’s old house across the maze of London …”

The autobiography provided a description of Romney’s house as it was when Clough lived there:

“The fine old house, much altered and adapted to our curious habits, being far too large either for our needs or means, was proportionately delightful to inhabit, and with two ex-billiard rooms (it was once a club) at the disposal of the children, its size had compensations.”

Referring to Romney’s picture gallery, Clough added:

“For myself I had taken the immense old picture gallery as my studio, and I did not hesitate to play up to the magnanimity of its proportions in my embellishments … my wife was surprised and a little shocked at my choosing to work in what she not unjustly called my ‘ballroom’…”

He noted that Romney’s former home was “… splendid for large parties…”, and he held many of them. For example, Clough hosted:

“… dances every so often, a show by Ballet Rambert, David Low drawing large cartoons and selling them for charity. We also gave a party to meet the Russian Ambassador, M Maisky, who made a speech from the gallery balcony …”

The balcony can be seen clearly in a photograph on the RIBA website (www.architecture.com/image-library/RIBApix/image-information/poster/romneys-house-hollybush-hill-hampstead-london-romneys-studio/posterid/RIBA71050.html).

Ivan Mikhailovich Maisky (1884-1975) was the Soviet Ambassador to the Court of St James from 1932 until 1943. Unfortunately, the party referred to above does not get a mention in Maisky’s diary (as edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky), which is perhaps not surprising in view of the huge number of events an ambassador is obliged to attend. A year before Maisky became the ambassador:

“… Clough Williams-Ellis, went to the Soviet Union. His wife, Amabel, a children’s author with strong Communist sympathies, had been an earlier visitor and she contrived an invitation for her husband …” (https://radar.brookes.ac.uk/radar/file/dcce31a4-4cef-4e89-a90c-9dd76c950c42/1/fulltext.pdf).

Rather oddly, Clough does not mention this trip in his autobiography.

Clough wrote that the South African-born scientist Sir Solly Zuckerman (1904-1993), who was studying primate behaviour:

“… wished one of his research baboons on us, as he wanted to study its reactions to ‘bright, intelligent young society’. He was then writing his rather ambiguously entitled book “The Sexual Life of Primates” – so Betsy had quarters on the flat roof at the top of the house for several months.”

The book referred to above was probably “The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes”, published in 1932. Betsy’s stay in Romney’s old house was not entirely successful. It was not:

“… the social success that we had hoped, unresponsive and dirty, we bade our little lodger farewell without regrets. The experience may have been good for Betsy, but I don’t think our children benefitted markedly from the association.”

Clough and his family left Hampstead for Wales at the outset of WW2, keeping a London ‘pied-a-terre’ in Carlton Mews, now demolished. His and Romney’s house in Holly Hill, an edifice altered for Romney by Samuel Bunce (died 1802), has since been used as the studio for an architect’s firm, Hancock Associates, in the 1970s (information from Beth Portwood) and other purposes. In 2012, the architect’s firm ‘6a’ worked on the building to modernise its interior and restore it to a single family dwelling as it had been when Romney acquired it (www.6a.co.uk/projects/more/romneys-house).

The house stands amongst a small cluster of buildings near Fenton House and this charming ensemble makes me think that externally little has changed since these houses were built in the 18th century.

2 thoughts on “An artist, an architect, and a baboon in north London

  1. I’ve been curious about George Romney ever since I went to the Holly Bush with a VirtualTourist group in 2015.

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