As the summer unfolds and COVID-19 seems to ease its ugly grip, time to take a walk in Regent’s Park. Since early 19th century it has been the magnet for the rich and famous, and strolling around the park is tantamount to educating oneself in social history.
Do you know that in the Outer Circle, inside the Park itself, stands Winfield House – the mansion built in 1936 for the American heiress Barbara Hutton? Coincidentally, it was constructed exactly on the site of the Hertford Villa, designed by architect Decimus Burton (he also added extensions to the Apsley House) in 1825 for Tory politician and art-collector Francis Seymour-Conway, the 3rd Marquess of Hertford. He is mostly known to us today as the grandfather of Sir Richard Wallace, the last owner of the Hertford House and founder of the Wallace Collection, which opened for the public on 22 June 1900.
After the death of the Marquess of Hertford, the house changed occupants several times before it badly suffered from fire in 1936. This was when it was purchased by the wealthy American heiress Barbara Hutton, who demolished the old badly damaged building and replaced it with a new mansion. In 1955, she presented it as a gift to the U.S. diplomatic mission and since then it has conveniently been the glamourous official residence of the U.S. Ambassador in the U.K.
Today, with its 12 acres of grounds, it boasts the second-largest private garden in London after Buckingham Palace. Alas, the mansion is protected by armed police guards and completely hidden from sight behind trees and fencing, so it is not easy to spot it while walking around the park. Nevertheless, recently the Winfield House became known for the parties thrown on various memorable state occasions: it welcomed such celebrities as fashion designer Tom Ford, Hollywood director Wes Anderson, the exiled royal Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece, Princess Beatrice and an impromptu late-night performance from Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran and Cara Delevingne – all, apparently for the Independence Day.
Although considered slightly old-fashioned, the Regent’s Park is still the desired destination for London’s ultra-wealthy, like the artist Damien Hirst, property mogul Christian Candy, Sultan of Brunei, the Saudi royal family, Qatar’s former first lady, Sheikha Mozah, who, for instance, owns 1,2 and 3, Cornwall Terrace.
However, I am more interested in a more discreet corner of the Regent’s Park – the Hanover Terrace (do not confuse with the neighbouring Hanover Lodge, former home of Admiral Thomas Cochrane, – the real “Master and Commander” – and later the home of Alice Ava Astor, daughter of Jacob Astor IV, who drowned on Titanic; now, predictably, the house is owned by a Russian oligarch).
The Hanover Terrace consists of 20 something large houses overlooking the Outer Circle of Regent’s Park. It is quiet, dignified and reserved – one of the finest examples of Palladian architecture in London and one of the few surviving houses designed by architect John Nash (who also worked on the Buckingham Palace, Marble Arch and Brighton’s Royal Pavilion). Conveniently, it is just a stone’s throw from the boating lake and a few steps away from LBS (you just need to know the secret passage). What is most delightful about this place, is that it conceals lots of hidden surprises. Initially, you will see at least three blue plaques announcing that writer H.G. Wells died at number 13 in 1946 and the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams died at number 10 in 1958. The other plaque, at number 11, commemorates the architect Anthony Salvin, a pupil of John Nash who designed the house. However, it is just a tiny tip of the iceberg.
For instance, no plague would tell you that number 7 was the house of the playwright Harold Pinter, where he lived for 11 years with his actress wife Vivien Merchant until they separated in 1978 so that he could marry the historian Lady Anthonia Fraser. However, while residing there, he penned some of his most famous works, including The Birthday Party, The Go-Between, The Homecoming and No Man’s Land. In addition, he hosted his famous parties attended by Peter O’Toole, Michael Caine (Vivien Merchant’s co-star in Alfie) and Dirk Bogarde. This is where Pinter also entertained The Beatles, or perhaps, The Beatles entertained him.
Prior to that, between 1959 and 1962, 7, Hanover Terrace became the London home of British-American racing driver Lance Reventlow, the son of heiress Barbara Hutton and her second husband Count Kurt Haugwitz-Hardenberg-Reventlow. Lance was conveniently born in nearby Winfield House in 1936, and took the decision to move from California to London in 1959 so that he could race his Scarab cars in Britain’s Formula One. There, at number 7 he entertained his former stepfather Cary Grant and his uncle Jimmy Donahue.
No less exciting is number 17, with its rich literary and cultural history. Between 1850 and 1937 it acted as home for writer Wilkie Collins, literary critic and poet Sir Edmund Gosse and “the one and only fashion editor” of the U.S. Vogue, Diana Vreeland. Surely, it demands a triple blue plague!
The Collins family lived there between August 1850 and June 1856. The residents were widow Mrs. Collins and her three sons: the novelist William Wilkie (1824–1889), the Pre-Raphaelite artist Charles Allston (1828–1873), and William the younger, also a painter. Even though it was a prestigious address at that time, Wilkie Collins initially had reservations about the move. However, on 3 August 1850, he wrote to his mother: “I resign myself to Hanover Terrace…” Good for him, for while staying at 17, Hanover Terrace, in the tranquillity of the Regent’s Park, he wrote successive Rambles Beyond Railways (1851), Basil (1852), Mr Wray's Cash Box (1852), and Hide and Seek (1854), while also continuing his career as a journalist and regularly contributing to Bentley's Miscellany (March 1851 - August 1852), The Leader (September 1851 - August 1855) and Household Words (24 April 1852 onwards). In 1851 he began his lifelong friendship with Dickens – in other words, this house was the place where Collins’ literary career took off.
The Collins family entertained a great deal, and on one occasion in 1852 it even gave a dance for 70 people. Among the regular visitors to the house were E.M. Ward, Holman Hunt, Dickens, and John Everett Millais. It was probably on summer 1853 that after a similar party the Collin brothers were accompanying Millais home: at that time Millais house in 83 Gower Street stood in a semi-rural area that was slightly dangerous and badly lit. It was during this walk from 17, Hanover Terrace that Wilkie Collins (29 years old at that time) had a dramatic and life-changing encounter. The incident was recounted in The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, published in 1899, shortly after his father's death, by Millais’ son, John Guille Millais:
It was a beautiful moonlight night in the summertime, and as the three friends walked along chatting gaily together, they were suddenly arrested by a piercing scream coming from the garden of a villa close at hand. It was evidently the cry of a woman in distress and while pausing to consider what they should do, the iron gate leading to the garden was dashed open, and from it came the figure of a young and very beautiful woman dressed in flowing white robes that shone in the moonlight. She seemed to float rather than to run in their direction, and, on coming up to the three young men, she paused for a moment in an attitude of supplication and terror. Then, suddenly seeming to recollect herself, she suddenly moved on and vanished in the shadows cast upon the road. "What a lovely woman!" was all Millais could say. "I must see who she is and what’s the matter," said Wilkie Collins as, without another word, he dashed off after her. His two companions waited in vain for his return, and next day, when they met again, he seemed indisposed to talk of his adventure. They gathered from him, however, that he had come up with the lovely fugitive and had heard from her own lips the history of her life and the cause of her sudden flight. She was a young lady of good birth and position, who had accidentally fallen into the hands of a man living in a villa in Regent’s Park. Therefore many months he kept her prisoner under threats and mesmeric influence of so alarming a character that she dared not attempt to escape, until, in sheer desperation, she fled from the brute, who with a poker in his hand, threatened to dash her brains out. Her subsequent history, interesting as it is, is not for these pages.
This incident is believed to have become a catalyst for Wilkie Collins’ novel The Woman in White and served as inspiration for the dramatic meeting between Walter Hartwright and Anne Catherick.
Another resident of the house, Sir Edmund Gosse, poet, writer and literary critic and the first translator of Henrik Ibsen, moved to 17, Hanover Terrace in 1901 (as follows from the records of his daughter Laura Sylvia Gosse, better known as artist Sylvia Gosse) and resided there until his death on 16 May 1928.
Gosse’s wife, née Ellen Epps, was the pupil of painter Ford Madox Brown and her younger sister Laura studied with and later married the painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. As it follows, the family was well-known in literary and artistic circles. Also, according to some sources, when Ellen Epps and Edmund Gosse married in August 1875, the reception was held at Alma-Tadema’s house. In 1904, having settled at 17, Hanover Terrace, Edmund Gosse became the librarian of the House of Lords Library, where he exercised considerable influence till he retired in 1914. He also regularly wrote for the Sunday Times and other magazines.
Gosse was the first English critic to introduce the name of Ibsen to the English readers in a Spectator review in 1870. While residing at 17, Hanover Terrace, Gosse translated into English Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and The Master Builder. He also was an early champion of Tolstoy: in the letter to Bliss Perry he wrote that Tolstoy was “a nodule of pure imaginative genius”. In 1907 he wrote and published his most famous and scandalous memoir Father and Son. His book of verses, The Autumn Garden, was published in 1908 by William Heinemann. Gosse became the literary editor for the 1911 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. In 1917 he completed The Life of Algernon Charles Swinburne.
In 1912 Gosse was named a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) and was knighted in 1925.
Having attained the recognition, being at the height of his creative powers, Gosse worked to promote talented young writers: he is remembered for being instrumental in getting official financial support for two struggling Irishmen WB Yeats (1910) and James Joyce (1915), which enabled them to continue their writing careers. According to S. Rogal’s William Somerset Maugham Encyclopedia, between 1901 and 1903 Maugham was a regular Sunday afternoon visitor at 17, Hanover Terrace. “There he either saw or actually met the likes of Henry James, Thomas Hardy, George Moore, Max Beerbohm, and Edward Marsh; there he listened to Gosse, the ultimate late-Victorian and ‘‘the official man of British letters’’ (according to H.G. Wells) preside over literary discussions”. Later, in Cakes and Ale (1930), the character of Allgood Newton, the best-known critic in England, could have been a playful caricature of Gosse.
The latter also had an extensive correspondence with Mrs. Florence Emily Hardy, widow of novelists Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, poets Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Browning, Algernon Charles Swinburne, playwright Oscar Wilde and many others.
In later life, Gosse exercised a formative influence on writer Siegfried Sassoon, the nephew of his lifelong friend, Hamo Thornycroft. Moreover, his wife Ellen was a friend of Sassoon's mother.
A year following the death of Gosse, his widow sold the house which address was mentioned in “half the memoirs of the period” to a family of Thomas Reed Vreeland, a financier, who was then working in the Guaranty Trust. He came to work and live in London with his young socialite wife Diana Vreeland, the future “High Priestess of Fashion”. Vreeland wrote nostalgically about the house in her famous memoir D.V. published in 1984. She revisited it during the night of 1978 with her friends, photographer David Bailey and actor Jack Nicholson after the dinner at Piccadilly. Wistfully, she wrote that the entrance door was “painted a hideous colour” in 1978, while in her days the front door was "pickled – every surface removed and then polished." The door knocker, a “pathetic little hand” she bought from the owner of a private house while holidaying with her husband in St. Malo, was still in place in 1978. I wonder, if it is still there?
Vreeland also reminisced that during those seven years that she lived at Hanover Terrace with her husband, they had “an extraordinary atmosphere… of light ” and every door inside was an Oriental red – the flamboyant iconic “Vreeland” style must have already been born back then! I wonder, if already at that stage she injected perfume with syringes into the pillows. Perhaps, she also owes to London days her legendary habit of eating for lunch peanut butter and marmalade sandwiches, habitually washed down with Scotch.
I cannot resist, however, quoting the whole passage about the house from her memoir:
The facade was rien, but the house was divine… Of course, we had a topiary garden. Greenery, you know, is as much a part of England as a nose is part of a human face. Inside 17, Hanover Terrace, in front of the long French windows in the drawing room, were orange trees – I went down to Covent Garden at dawn for them – and with pots of cineraria plants in every colour you can think of on the floor. The walls were painted marvellous dull ochre I took from the face of a Chinaman on a Coromandel screen. Then there was Bristol blue chintz – you know what colour Bristol blue is – and on it were bowknots and huge red roses. The windows went right down to the floor, and beyond the windows was Regent's Park with all those wonderful flowers and trees and boxes. Ducks in the morning. Then, as we'd be going to bed, which was invariably late, the lions were being fed – roaring and having their meal. Oh, wonderful to hear a lion roar in the middle of a city.
The description reveals great attention to detail and “her insistence on the most luxurious and the best: Porthault in Paris for linen, glass from Lalique, advice from Connoisseur magazine about where to obtain good-quality prints. Diana’s perfectionism showed everywhere in the house, as the writer Phyllis Lee Levin reported: “Friends who visited never forgot the bowls of bulbs blooming white in midwinter, the perfection of the food, the children in grey flannel shorts and red silk shirts, nor the time their mother sent out to the Ritz for some special soup for them.”
Even before she lived in London, in 1911, at the age of eight, little Diana and her sister were sent from Paris to London to watch the coronation of George V for three days. Later, when she and her husband lived at 17, Hanover Square, Vreeland was running “a little lingerie business” near Berkeley Square, in the “mews, where a friend of mine kept his cars”. The boutique seems to have been very popular, for socialite Mona Williams could spend there “five thousand dollars” only on bedsheets. This way, Vreeland first met the future Duchess of Windsor, Mrs Wallis Simpson, who came and ordered three nightgowns from her. Apparently, she wanted them made for the first weekend alone at Fort Belvedere with Edward, the Prince of Wales (who later abdicated for her sake, as you might know). Undoubtedly, Vreeland’s choice to patronise new designer Madame Vionnet by promoting her creations in London to such clients as Mrs. Simpson or Mrs. Williams was the right move.
Apart from this curious incident, these were the six and a half remarkably intense years when Diana Vreeland mixed with the high society of London. She also met Cecil Beaton. Amanda Mackenzie Stuart humorously relates this encounter in The Empress of Fashion, her biography of Vreeland.
“Their friendship began with a professional commission. She had never met him prior to that, but she telephoned to ask whether he would draw her as a Christmas present for Reed, probably in the autumn of 1929. Beaton came to 17, Hanover Terrace and started work. Ten days later the drawing arrived. Diana was horrified: Beaton had drawn not just her face but her hands, with one hand holding a cigarette, which was reasonable, and the other wearing a wholly imaginary diamond, which was not. The diamond was “the size of an ice-rink” and all the rage at the time. “I was terribly offended by this,” said Diana. “I got him on the phone and I said, 'Look here, Mr. Beaton, I don’t own a diamond. I don’t want a diamond like that. And if you think this is a suggestion for my husband to give me for Christmas—who’s loony now?’” Beaton replied that he had not meant to be offensive, he simply thought it might be amusing. “I said, 'There is nothing amusing about vulgarity, nothing. And it’s the most horrible vulgar fashion, the average hand is hideous—and the average hand is the one who wears those’.” She was, she said later, somewhat stuffy at this stage in her life. Immediately realizing he had misjudged Mrs. Vreeland, Beaton removed the offending diamond, and they became close friends”.
In her London days, Diana danced with the Tiller Girls, had a memorable encounter with Rosa Lewis (the “Duchess of Duke Street”), was on friendly terms with Alice Ava Astor, knew Lord Astor of Hever and his children and the d’Erlanger family. In her own words, Baron Robert d’Erlanger was “the first person to look us up” when she and her husband arrived in London. There they were introduced to the whole family. According to Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, “when the Vreelands appeared at London parties, there was often a member of the d’Erlanger family there too, suggesting that it was probably a d’Erlanger who effected the introduction in the first place.” When it came to educating Diana’s taste, “it was Robin d’Erlanger’s mother, Catherine, and his sister, Baba, who first opened her eyes. Their originality and imaginative panache were quite unlike anything Diana had ever encountered in New York.”
Diana’s social success in England was immediately noticed by the New York press. “Diana has made an enviable niche for herself in top-lofty social, artistic and musical circles,” reported Maury Paul in an article about her in the New York American. He also commented on “the manner in which Diana Dalziel Vreeland dresses up her exotic looks,” and commended her on continuing to entertain visiting Americans, unlike some of her female compatriots. According to Mackenzie, “these visitors included Condé Nast himself, who took to inviting himself for tea at 17, Hanover Terrace when he was in London.” Eventually, Diana was invited by the wife of the American ambassador to join a group of socially prominent Americans – she was one of fifteen American women – in being presented to King George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace on May 18, 1933 – an afternoon of pageantry Vreeland never forgot. Considering that Vreeland went to work as fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar straight on her return from London to the U.S. in 1936, her English connections, must have been of significant help.
It is believed that Vreeland was the inspiration for both the domineering fashion editor in the Audrey Hepburn film Funny Face and Ms Maxwell in 1966 French fashion satire, Who Are You, Polly Magoo? Importantly, she was also the person who later “discovered” Twiggy by featuring her image on the cover of July 1967 Vogue. According to the British photographer David Bailey, she also was the first to put a picture of an unknown 19-year-old Mick Jagger. She was very empowering to young musicians, models, artists and photographers who showed promise. As her grandson confessed in the interview to British Vogue, “without Diana Vreeland, the Met's hugely popular Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty might never have happened”, either.
In other words, British culture owes Diana Vreeland quite a lot. And 17, Hanover Terrace must have been the place where Diana Vreeland’s star career in global fashion industry was launched. Therefore, I am surprised that this place has not yet become a Mecca for fashionistas and lovers of the British literature. Perhaps, the ignorance is to blame!