Day 23 (part 1) – Mayfair – Royal Academy – Piccadilly

Back in Mayfair today and looking at the south west corner of that district which is a triangle with the Royal Academy, the Dorchester hotel and Hyde Parker Corner as its vertices. And as there’s such a wealth of material in this compact area I’m going to split this into two posts again.

N.B Mayfair, unsurprisingly, gets its name from the annual May fair that was held here from the late 17th century (when this was still largely open ground) until the mid 18th century when it was suppressed due to the increasingly lewd and riotous behaviour that became associated with it.

Day 23 Route

Start out from Piccadilly tube station and head west down Piccadilly towards the Royal Academy. On the way is Albany House more commonly known as just “the Albany”. Set back from the street behind a courtyard this probably goes unnoticed by most passers-by (I certainly hadn’t paid it much attention until now). The house was built for Viscount Melbourne in the 1770’s but in 1802 was converted by the architect Henry Holland into 69 bachelor apartments known as “sets”. These sets have had numerous well-known occupants in their time, Lord Byron and William Gladstone amongst them. Officially, women were not even allowed on the premises until the 1880’s. In these more enlightened times, residents no longer need to be bachelors (though children under the age of 14 are not permitted to live there). They still guard their privacy highly though – read more of that here. Nothing on the exterior of the building indicates that this is private residences – that was only made clear to me, in no uncertain terms, by some uniformed flunkey when I approached the entrance.


Just before we get to the RA pass by the home of the Geological Society and around the courtyard in front of the RA itself, going anti-clockwise, can be found the Royal Astronomical Society, the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Society of Chemistry.

In case you were wondering, the Society of Antiquaries is all about “The encouragement, advancement and furtherance of the study and knowledge of the antiquities and history of this and other countries”. And it’s been doing that since 1707.

The Royal Academy itself was established in 1768 by a founding group of 36 artists and architects. These included Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 -1792) who was its first president and whose statue stands in front of Burlington House where  the RA moved in 1867, having secured an annual rent of £1 for 999 years. The RA is probably best known for its Summer Exhibition which is the largest open submission exhibition in the world and has been running every year since 1769. Any artist can enter and 12,000 submissions are accepted each year (though you’ve missed the deadline for 2016).


Of course the RA also puts on other exhibitions and the current blockbuster, as you can see above, is Painting the Modern Garden. In its final week this has, inevitably, sucked in every pensioner within a 50-mile radius of London so although I got in free as a guest I gave that one a miss. Had a quick scoot round In the Age of Giorgione but that was pretty rammed with golden-oldies as well; some of whom you can see crowding the lift in the selection below. Amongst these are also today’s selfie-of-the-day and several shots of the fantastic giant ferns that inhabit the Keeper’s House garden.

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After leaving the RA next stop is the Burlington Arcade; built to the order of Lord George Cavendish, younger brother of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, and opened in 1819 “for the sale of jewellery and fancy articles of fashionable demand, for the gratification of the public and to give employment to industrious females”. It also had the collateral effect of preventing the hoi-polloi from throwing their rubbish into the garden of Burlington House. (The Dukes of Devonshire inherited Burlington House in the 1750s and sold it to the British Government for £140,000 in 1854). Random pop culture trivium of the day – The Arcade was used as a location in the first episode of the Danish TV drama Borgen.

Emerge at the other end of the arcade on Burlington Gardens and turn left to reach Old Bond Street. Here’s a quick reminder of what that’s all about :


Next door to Tiffany’s we find this appropriately large-scale advert for the Moncler fashion-house (and no it’s not the bloke from Poldark). Still can’t work out what the chap in the suit’s got over shoulder.


At no.44 in a charming shade of lilac is Glyn’s House which dates from 1906 and follows the fashion of that time for reviving the English baroque style of the early 18th century reign of Queen Anne. The naked ladies are perhaps more typically Edwardian though.


Return to Piccadilly then head north again up Albemarle Street. No. 50 was the home (from 1812 to 2002) of the publishers John Murray founded by the first of seven consecutive eponymous owners in 1768. The firm was responsible for putting the likes of Jane Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Darwin into print. The imprint still exists but as part of the Hodder & Stoughton business within the Hachette empire to which it was sold by John Murray VII.

Cut through Stafford Street to Dover Street where Victoria Beckham’s London flagship store occupies no. 36.


Hay Hill links to Berkeley Street where we head south again. On the corner with Stratton Street, site of the Mayfair Hotel, are these rather unstrategically placed old school taxi rank signs and a blue plaque commemorating the bandleader Bert Ambrose (1896 – 1971). A Jewish émigré from Poland, Ambrose enjoyed his greatest success in the thirties and forties and is credited with the discovery of Vera Lynn.


From Stratton Street turn left down Mayfair Place to return to Berkeley Street. At no.1 Mayfair Place sits Devonshire House which was designed by Thomas Hastings and built in 1926. This was named after the building which it replaced on the site, the home of the Dukes of Devonshire (possession of which meant that weren’t that fussed about keeping Burlington House). The original Devonshire House was sold by the 9th Duke, who was the first to be subject to payment of death duties. It went for £750,000 (not an insubstantial sum in 1920). The purchasers were wealthy industrialists, Shurmer Sibthorpe and Lawrence Harrison, who demolished the mansion to build a hotel and block of flats. When accused of an act of vandalism Sibthorpe, echoing the buildings 18th century critics replied: “Archaeologists have gathered round me and say I am a vandal, but personally I think the place is an eyesore”. The current Devonshire House is now an office block. 


Head back to Piccadilly along Berkeley Street then west all the way past Green Park tube station to Bolton Street where we turn northward again until we hit Curzon Street. Where this merges into Fitzmaurice Place lies the Landsdowne Club. This private members’ club was created in 1935 and was unusual in admitting both men and women from the outset. Before its opening, White Allom, the firm who were responsible for the fitting out of the great Cunard liners Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, were commissioned to refurbish the interior of the building in an Art Deco style many of the features of which endured into the present. The building was originally built in 1761 to a design of Robert Adam as a residence for the 18th century Prime Minister, the Marquess of Bute. Just a couple of years later he sold it to another Prime Minister (in waiting), William Petty 1st Marquess of Landsdowne (1737 -1805) who unlike his predecessor is deemed deserving of a blue plaque. As is Gordon Selfridge (1858 – 1947) who leased the house in the 1920’s and made it famous for the dancing parties he hosted starring his protégés, Hungarian cabaret artistes the Dolly Sisters.


Moving on we track back down Landsdowne Row then round the southern end of Berkeley Square before continuing west first on Charles Street then Hays Mews. At the end of the latter turning right onto Waverton Street brings us into South Street. At no.38 is the former home and workplace of J. Arthur Rank (1888 – 1972) founder of the Rank Organisation which dominated British Cinema in the 1940s and 50s both on the production and the distribution side of things. The company was responsible for releasing most of the canon of Powell and Pressburger but subsequently became more determinedly commercial in producing Norman Wisdom comedy vehicles and the Doctor… series. (Like Ruby Murray, J. Arthur also has the (even more) dubious honour of being co-opted into the lexicon of Cockney rhyming slang.)

To end this post on a somewhat more edifying note; the corner of South Street and South Audley Street hosts the premises of T. Goode & Sons purveyors of fine porcelain and china tableware since 1827 and possessors of two royal warrants. South Street also features some impressive cut-brick reliefs on several of its buildings.

To be continued…..