Argyll House, 211 King’s Road, Chelsea SW3 – English Heritage Listed Grade II* Number 1224631
(Note by Terence Bendixson: August 2018)
Argyll House, an early 18th century dwelling at the corner of King’s Road and Oakley Street, is as fine an example of domestic architecture as any in Chelsea. John Summerson, speaking to the Chelsea Society in 1949, called it, ‘Chelsea’s most Palladian building’. It was built in 1723 shortly after Londoners had successfully petitioned the King to allow them to have access to, and use, his previously private road. Drawings of the building were published by its Venetian architect, Giacomo Leoni, in 1729. According to descriptions in the 1913 Survey of London the interiors are quite as fine as the outside, though that report needs to be verified by up-to-date inspection. The architectural and historical importance of Argyll House is that it is English in plan and Palladian in its elevations. This is rare and interesting and would merit the house being listed Grade I.
Giacomo Leoni, a Venetian architect, came to England under the patronage of Lord Burlington in 1713 and, between 1716 and 1720, was responsible for the translation and publication of Palladio’s Quatro Libri. This was an inspiration to Burlington (and no doubt led to Chiswick House), changed the fortunes of Leoni, and led to his receiving aristocratic commissions. Less notably it also led to a commission in 1723, from John Pierene or Perrin, a successful Huguenot merchant, to design him a villa in Chelsea. (The house got its present name later in the 18th century when it was owned by the Fourth Duke of Argyll). Pierene’s initials, together with those of his wife Anne, can be seen, intertwined, on the front gate (and more plainly, on two rainwater hoppers on the south or garden side of the house).
The land on which Argyll House was built was rented by Pierene from another Huguenot, John Narbonne, who had, in 1719, obtained a lease for a larger parcel of land from Sir Hans Sloane. Narbonne’s deed gave him the right to build on a plot roughly 130 x 50 feet, so long as he and his descendants maintained the buildings at their own cost, and also the ‘Liberty of nailing and fixing any fruit trees or any other trees’ against his neighbours’ existing walls. He was granted too the right to ‘farme’ the rest of the land – all for 99 years at an annual rent of £4.
In 1726 Leoni translated and published a large folio of designs by Leon Battista Alberti (De re aedifatoria). In an appendix were some of his own drawings including those for Argyll House. (See below for the facade.)
In it he observed that Argyll House was suited to a ‘private family’ and that its basement contained a kitchen, buttery and other offices. (This lower floor receives daylight via an area on the garden side of the house.) He praised the front façade, with its Doric doorway and stone window ‘ornaments’ which, he wrote, coupled with grey bricks, ‘in my opinion, sorting extremely well with the white Stone, makes a beautiful Harmony of Colours.’
Leoni added that at the far (southern) end of the garden, beyond a small terrace, were stables, coach-houses and lodgings for servants.
At the present day the ivy makes the frieze hard to see but, with its alternating triglyphs, circular shields and animal skulls (taken directly from Alberti), it is as fine a detail as anything of this period in Chelsea.
If what was built is compared with Leoni’s drawings, two omissions are notable: the urns above the front door (which can just be seen through the ivy) replaced more complicated, and no doubt more expensive, reclining human figures; and a low pitched roof, intended to project above the cornice and parapet, was omitted. (It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this was a serious omission). The façade as designed looks complete, but the house as built looks notably flat-topped and incomplete.
On the garden front on the south side, the pattern of windows which mirrors that on the King’s Road, includes another central door but this time of an unconventional design. The door itself consists of double leaves and its surrounding frame or case is topped by another, stylised, Doric entablature with more triglyphs and, between them, an animal’s skull.
Leoni’s plan for Argyll House is plain and bold. (See below.)
Both the ground and upper floors comprise four symmetrical rooms one of which, to the left of the front door, is largely occupied by a fine wooden staircase. Perhaps the most striking feature of the plan is a central hall which runs from the front door through to the glazed rear door and so leads the eye of an arriving guest into the garden. This is inviting and establishes the house’s proportions.
The Survey of London volume for Chelsea (1913) reports that all the interiors of the ground floor rooms exhibited their original floor-to-ceiling panelling and wooden cornices. The staircase, was said to be a good example of its kind with two balusters per tread and a ring of them on the ground floor where the handrail begins. Upstairs was more panelling and a varied array of fireplaces.
The Survey also reports that thanks to the good offices of the Rector of Chelsea a then recent attempt to replace the house by flats had been thwarted.
Little is known about Pierene. Parish records indicate that, at the time his country villa in Chelsea was being built, he was resident first in St James’s Piccadilly and then in St Martin’s in the Fields where he died. Litigation records suggest that he was an importer of high quality snuff from Virginia while other records show that he was an unsuccessful investor, to the tune of £1,050, in a project called the Charitable Corporation. Its failure led to him being amongst those listed as receiving relief. These indications of wealth, and that of the cost of the villa, points to Pierene being a man of considerable standing and one of a number of well-to-do Huguenot merchants living in Westminster. Spitalfields, better known as a district settled by Huguenots after their expulsion from France by Louis XIV, seems, by contrast, to have housed less well-off weavers and artisans.
Pierene’s choice of Chelsea for his villa appears also to have been related to his Huguenot background. Not only had some refugees from France settled there by the end of the 17th century (it is likely that Narbonne, landlord at Argyll House, was one of them) but by 1718 two Huguenot chapels had been built and were presided over by three French priests. Finally Pierene’s will, which mentions the names of Rocher and Delafontaine, hints at further French, and probably Huguenot, connections.
PALLADIAN ARCHITECTURE IN 18TH CENTURY ENGLAND
Lord Burlington’s interest in the architecture of Palladio, and the Quatro Libri, is well known. Compared to the flashier baroque preferred by Wren and Hawksmoor, Palladio’s plain sobriety was well suited to the taste of established aristocracy. How Pierene got caught up in this fashionable taste is unknown but, by the time Leoni was publishing Alberti’s works in 1726, Pierene’s name was in a list of subscribers that included twenty dukes, two duchesses, two marquises, twenty-four earls and the Prince and Princess of Wales.
However, while Palladianism in England, and indeed the architecture of Palladio himself in the Veneto, are associated with large country houses designed for grand occasions and receptions, as in the case of Chiswick House, Argyll House is clothed in Palladian clothes but laid out like countless Georgian rectories or other substantial village houses. The way in which it thus combines conventions of English domestic architecture in its floor plans with those of Italian, or more precisely, palatial Venetian display in its facades, is its main historical importance. So rare are these qualities that they justify the house being listed Grade I. Other than that, as Benjamin Riley concludes in a scholarly article for The Georgian Group, John Pierene’s ‘stylish and beguiling suburban villa is a fortunate survival in a busy part of London, testifying to his taste, the ambitions of London’s Huguenot community, and to the talent of his architect’.
- Survey of London, Vol 4, Part II, Walter H Godfrey, 1913.
- The Georgian Group Journal Vol. XXVI, Benjamin Riley, pp. 57 – 68. ‘This little house of
my invention’; Argyll House, Chelsea, and its first owner.