World of Interiors
Count Manfredi della Gherardesca, former chairman of Sotheby’s Italy, current director of MDG Fine Arts and a regular on Vanity Fair’s International Best-Dressed List, isn’t best pleased. We’re standing in the hall of his offices in a Georgian town house in St James’s, a hop and a skip across the street from the Neoclassical glories of Spencer House. Because the building is undergoing root-and-branch restoration we’re both wearing hi-vis jackets and helmets, as if a pair of George Osborne lookalikes heading out for a photo-op with the nation’s workers.
It’s not, however, the distinctly un-dapper garb that’s bothering Manfredi, but the lack of control he has over which bits of decoration can be consigned to the rubbish bin of history and which must be retained. He grizzles about the idiocy of planning officers, pointing to a particularly offensive Edwardian pediment that must be kept despite being an infelicitous late addition to the decorative scheme: ‘This’ – he gestures at a slice of carving on top of the door frame – ‘does not make sense. All of this is too much.’
Manfredi, a scion of one of Italy’s oldest dynasties (WoI April 2011), has worked in this building for over 15 years, and when it is restored it will become a showcase for his collection of 20th-century art. It’s understandable, therefore, that he should feel strongly about getting things just right.
The ground floor, a cramped suite of yellow-painted chambers, is decoratively rather unremarkable (though, as we shall see, it has a tragic personal story of its own to tell). The first floor, up a dizzying circular open-well staircase, is breathtaking, however: a vast space lit by three banks of windows, its refined Georgian detailing still all present and correct. As we enter his suite, Manfredi’s mood lightens visibly. ‘It’s a pretty nice period room, huh?’ he says. ‘There are not too many like this left. Most of the houses around here have been transformed. The detailing is not really there any more. But this is quite unique.’
The walls are a cool eau de nil. In the centre of one is what at first looks like an opening on to another similarly decorated and equally vast room. In fact, flanked by Corinthian pillars, it’s a door-height mirror, creating an illusion of extra space. It is exuberantly topped by a fan of decorative plasterwork – a rising sun against a sky of deep Empire blue.
In the middle of the ceiling is an oval with festoon detailing against a backdrop of the same deep blue. A door, topped with a broken pediment, leads into a back room, a study, perhaps, for the master of the house to retreat to, or a cosy sitting room for cold winter days. One wall in this hideaway curves sinuously around the stairwell, lending the space a playful air.
When I visit there’s no furniture; it’s just a set of rooms, tout court, taking us back to how the house would probably have looked when it was built in the mid-177Os. Little is known about the first owners except that they were undoubtedly wealthy. In 1793 the Earl of Exeter bought it as a London bolthole for his daughter, but by the mid-19th century it had become a lodging house.
Many of the clients were politicians, among them the colourful Edward Brydges Willyams, Liberal MP for East Cornwall and a master of hounds, who is said to have died calling for a glass of claret ‘and damning the eyes of his tardy servant’.
The most famous inhabitant of all, however, was Oscar Wilde, who occupied the downstairs rooms between October 1893 and April 1894. Wilde’s home was in Tite Street, Chelsea, which he shared with his wife, Constance, and their two young sons, but he found it impossible to write there with the boys crashing around and so took the rooms in St James’s.
At that time, he was at the height of his powers as a writer and composed much of An Ideal Husband here; within months of leaving he would also have finished The Importance of Being Earnest. But he had other reasons for taking lodgings in St James’s. In 1891 Wilde had been introduced to and fallen in love with the Oxford undergraduate Lord Alfred Douglas (‘Bosie’), the beautiful but irascible son of the equally quick-tempered Marquess of Queensberry. By 1893 their relationship, too, was at its height, with Wilde and Bosie frequently sleeping together at the Savoy Hotel. The St James’s rooms offered Wilde another venue for assignations with Bosie and a growing list of young men on whom he lavished gifts in return for sexual favours. Indeed, at this time, both Bosie and Wilde egged each other on to take more and more risks: ‘It was like feasting with panthers,’ Wilde later wrote in De Profandis; ‘the danger was half the excitement.’
Of course, this heady existence could not last, and within the year Wilde was fighting for his reputation, having rashly decided to take the Marquess of Queensberry to court for calling him a ‘posing somdomite [sic] ‘. One of the witnesses against Wilde was Thomas Price, a waiter employed at the house in St James’s. It turned out Price had kept a pretty thorough record of the men who visited, describing them contemptuously to the court as ‘young men of quite inferior station’. This evidence was instrumental in sealing Wilde’s fate, which would cost him his freedom, his family and, ultimately, his life.
As to what the rooms looked like when Wilde lived in them, there is little record. There is a temptation to imagine it as a decadent bachelor’s pad, done out with Oriental rugs, fur throws, silk draperies and Moroccan divans. Wilde certainly had a penchant for this style, as records of the decoration of his Tite Street house show. But those same records also reveal a taste for the simple and unadorned, for ice-cream colours and, pride of place in his library, buttercup yellow. Looking at his rooms in St James’s today, faded yellow walls peeking through the workmen’s dust, one concludes they may not be all that different from over a century ago.
As for Manfredi, he can’t wait to bring his modern works of art into this setting. ‘Think of the Courtauld and new hangings in Georgian rooms. I’m very much for contrast and the friendship of different things.’ He nods to a niche on the staircase. ‘I’ve already bought a Hepworth just for that space,’ he says with a smile.