Argyll House, 211 King’s Road, Chelsea SW3 – English Heritage Listed Grade II* Number 1224631
Argyll House, which owes its name to John, fourth Duke of Argyll, who lived there during the last two years of his life (1769–70) is an early 18th century house at the corner of King’s Road and Oakley Street, designed by Leoni. It is as fine an example of domestic architecture as any in Chelsea, and 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 use his previously private road. The architectural and historical importance of Argyll House is that it is English in plan and Palladian in its elevations.
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. It also led to a commission in 1723, from John Pierene or Perrin, a successful Huguenot merchant, to design for him a villa in Chelsea. Perrin’s name appears in the rate-books for the house from 1724 to 1740, and his 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 together with the date, thus:— [JAP 1723]. Drawings of the building were published by Leoni in 1729.
Lord Burlington’s interest in the architecture of Palladio, and the Quatro Libri, is well known. Compared to the 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 dressed in Palladian clothes but is 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’.
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.
Leoni practised in England until his death in 1746, and is known chiefly for his designs for Moor Park, Hertfordshire (1720); the Duke of Queensberry’s house in Burlington Gardens (since destroyed); and for the Great House at Carshalton, which was never completed. He published, in 1726, a large folio volume on the architecture of Alberti, and with it an appendix illustrating some of his own designs “both publick and private.” On page 5 under title of “A little, country house,” is the following description of Argyll House:—
“Upon the King’s Road between Chelsea and London this little House of my Invention was built for Mr. John Pierene. The Kitchen, Buttery and other offices are within the Basement. The Apartments are of a size, suitable to a private Family. The Door in Front is Doric, with two columns and two half Pilasters. The ornaments of the Windows are all of Stone, as is also the great Cornice; the rest is gray Brick, which in my opinion sorting extremely well with white Stone, makes a beautiful Harmony of Colours. At the further End of the Garden behind the House, into which you descend from a small Terrass, are the Stables and Coach-houses, with Lodgings for Servants. The Front towards the Road has a Courtyard, enclosed with an Iron Palisade.”
1913 DESCRIPTION (From the Survey of London: Volume 4, Chelsea, Pt II. Originally published by London County Council).
The building is of two storeys, divided on the street front by a stone band beneath the windows of the first floor and a projecting brick band lower down. A parapet and stone cornice crown the wall and hide the roof. Five sash windows, symmetrically spaced, light the first floor, the centre one having a broad architrave and a pediment on brackets, while the two each side have a small cornice also supported by brackets. The frames of the windows, like the four on the ground floor, which are without cornices, are hidden in plain reveals. The main doorway, which occupies the centre of the front, is a vigorous composition, having two three-quarter columns, flanking pilasters and entablature of the Roman Doric order. The cornice is surmounted by a stone balustrade between pedestals which bear two vases. The wrought-iron gate is of excellent design, evidently dating from 1723, with side panels and a good overthrow of scroll-work, the latter bearing John Perrin’s initials, interlaced backwards and forwards like other monograms of the period.
The garden or south front is arranged similarly to the north elevation. The cornice and band are here, however, of plain projecting courses of brick. The windows are without any added feature, the two to the south-west room having been converted at some time into French casements. The doorway is a good example of a somewhat unconventional treatment, with Doric entablature, and has its original double pair of glazed doors. A low wall, with stone coping, screens the area that lights the basement, and finishes in two piers each side of the doorway, bearing stone vases. The lead rain-water heads, with the initials and date referred to above, are at each extremity of this front, and a lead figure of a winged cherub stands on a pedestal in the garden.
There is also in the garden a lead tank which was formerly fixed in the house. It bears the date 1715, and in two panels of the usual type, a repetition of the initials: [FMR] Although these letters do not tally with those on the rain-water heads, it is quite possible that this is the original cistern brought to the house, for its date shows that it was made for another place eight years before Argyll House was built. To the east of the main block are modern domestic offices, built apparently upon the foundations of original outbuildings.
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 ground floor internally is panelled throughout from floor to ceiling and appeared in 1913 to have been left untouched since the building of the house. The moulding used is the simple ovolo. The staircase hall is panelled on both floors, and has a dado moulding following the section and slope of the handrail. The stair is a fine Georgian example with stepped string, good 2½ in. columnar balusters (two to each tread) and moulded handrail with ramps over newels. The newels are designed as columns, the lowest one being replaced in the usual way by a ring of balusters.
From the staircase hall, on both floors, a semi-circular panelled arch, with key block, leads into a passage, which on the ground floor continues to the garden door in the south wall. The remainder of the plan is divided between two sitting rooms and a dining room, the last named being south of the staircase, at the back of which is a small ante-room (or servery) which effects a communication between the dining room and the stair to kitchen in basement.
The cornices throughout are in wood and of the bold design common in the early 18th century. The chimney-pieces differ in form. That in the dining room has a marble surround with console brackets supporting the shelf. In the back sitting-room is a stone surround with wood dentil cornice to shelf. The front room has an enriched cornice shelf supported on consoles, while the surround and interior has at some time been arranged with tiles.
The bedrooms are all of interest. The front room has a panelled dado with a 4 in. moulded top. The fireplace is arranged with plain stone slips and an enriched architrave surrounding them. Two cupboards, one on each side of the fireplace, have moulded semi-circular arches over. There are three bedrooms at the back, the centre one (over the passage below) being now used as a bath room; these three rooms, together with the little ante-room (over the servery), are all completely panelled. The fireplaces are of a uniform pattern,—plain stone surrounds with moulded outer and inner edge, which appear to be the usual pattern in Chelsea at this date.
The principal room in the basement is the kitchen, which has many of its original fittings left. An old charcoal stove is still in position in a room leading off the kitchen.
This and the adjoining houses were recently threatened (1913) with removal to make way for modern flats, but the public spirit of the Rector, the Ven. Archdeacon Bevan, who refused his consent, has saved these important monuments for Chelsea.
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.
The following were the residents in Argyll House until the year 1800:
1724–1740. John Perrin.
1741–1751. Henry Villiers.
1754–1768. Mrs. Mary Villiers.
1769–1770 The Fourth Duke of Argyll.
1771. Executors of the Fourth Duke.
1772–1781. Mrs. Ann Sharpe.
1782. Executors of Mrs. Sharpe
1783. William Hollord.
1790–1791. Mary Butler.
1793–1800. Colonel Charles Hopkins.
The house was the centre of London society in the early 20th century, when it was owned by Lady (Sybil) Colefax. Sybil’s husband was Sir Arthur Colefax, a patent lawyer and an MP, and she became a very successful interior decorator after they lost their money in the Wall Street crash of 1929. She bought the decorating division of Stair & Andrew, the antique dealers of Bruton Street, and founded Sybil Colefax Ltd. Nine years later she took into the business the 22-year-old John Fowler, which later became Colefax & Fowler Ltd.
Her parties here were renowned and her guests included Fred Astaire, George Gershwin, Hilair Belloc, Virginia Woolf and Winston Churchill. It is thought that Ernest and Wallace Simpson were introduced to the Prince of Wales here in 1935. Her last dinner party at Argyll House in 1936 included King Edward VIII, Wallis Simpson, Artur Rubenstein, Noel Coward, the Duff-Coopers, Kenneth Clark, and Winston and Clementine Churchill.
Photographer Cecil Beaton wrote after a visit “From the moment one arrived in the small panelled hall and savoured the aroma of dried rosemary burnt on a saucer, one knew one had arrived in a completely different atmosphere, refreshing as a sea change.”
In 1936 Sir Arthur died and Sybil moved to 19 Lord North St., in Westminster. She died in 1956 at the age of 76
From 1949-1959 the house was occupied by Maria Harrison, who died on 7th March 2004 aged 101. She was a London hostess renowned in the 1950s for the way she presided over Argyll House. She was born Baroness Maria Madleine Koskull on December 15 1902 at Livonia, and educated at home with her three elder sisters and brother. As well as Latvian, she learned Russian, French and German. As a girl she had escaped from Latvia after the Bolshevik revolution.
Alex Abel-Smith, the banker, helped her to move to England in 1929, where she found work at Chez Beth, the fashionable dress shop in Knightsbridge, and lived nearby with the Grenfell family, fellow Christian Scientists; and she remained a lifelong friend of Joyce Grenfell. Meanwhile her beauty, and charming Eastern European accent won her many influential friends. Her naturalisation papers were witnessed by Harold Macmillan and the Duke of Devonshire.
In 1939 she married Michael Harrison, a stockbroker, and in 1949, they bought Argyll House. Maria Harrison had superb intuitive taste, and the house lent itself to entertaining. Augustus John, a close friend, painted Maria’s portrait, and his daughter, Poppet, was married to the Dutch artist Pol from Argyll House.
The Harrisons’ friends were bohemian rather than establishment figures, and the arrival of the film director Carol Reed next door, along with Peter Ustinov in the same row, created the nucleus of a slightly raffish social life. In 1959 the Harrisons sold Argyll House to the Marquis of Normanby, and moved to Netherhampton House on the Wilton estate near Salisbury.
THE MARQUIS OF NORMANBY
As at September 2018 the house is still owned by the family of the Fifth Marquis of Normanby.
Survey of London, Vol 4, Part II, Walter H Godfrey, 1913. https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol4/pt2
The Georgian Group Journal Vol. XXVI, Benjamin Riley, pp. 57 – 68. ‘This little house of my invention” Argyll House, Chelsea, and its first owner.