Intrigue and romance were synonymous with Mayfair long before Bridgerton appeared on our screens, discovers Carla Passino.
If a part of London were ever to be crowned Queen of Romance, Mayfair would be it. The former home of Dame Barbara Cartland and the literary backdrop to Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton (although the Netflix series was mostly filmed in Bath for Regency authenticity), it has witnessed love affairs, romps and liaisons as entrancing as any penned by either author.
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Its very foundation rests on a wedding: the one between heiress Mary Davies and Sir Thomas Grosvenor, whose descendants would become the Dukes of Westminster. Their eldest son, Sir Richard, was the first to embark on a building programme that would turn an unremarkable estate into one London’s most fashionable addresses.
By the 1790s, multiple dukes lived in the area, including a royal one, the Duke of Gloucester, and his daughter, Princess Sophia Matilda, who was born in Mayfair — as was, much later, The Queen (at her grandfather’s house, 17, Bruton Street, now demolished).
Incidentally, Bruton Street also features prominently in Bridgerton: ‘In the books, Violet eventually moves out of Bridgerton House and into her own residence at 5, Bruton Street,’ says the author, Miss Quinn. ‘I should have done my research a little better because No 5 is actually a pub! In fact, the Coach and Horses is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Mayfair and was a coaching inn during Regency times, so there is absolutely no way Violet Bridgerton would have been living there.’
Despite (or perhaps because of) this distinguished population, one corner of Curzon Street — opposite the crossed swords that now emblazon the Saudi-Arabian embassy gates — once sheltered a chapel where an obliging clergyman, Alexander Keith, celebrated clandestine weddings, including the marriage, on St Valentine’s Day, 1752, between the 6th Duke of Hamilton and Elizabeth Gunning, an Irish lady as rich in beauty as she was poor in funds.
The Duke was so smitten with Gunning that he romanced her when playing faro at the Mayfair home of Philip, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, and promptly ‘lost a thousand’, according to Horace Walpole.
Today, Mayfair is an idiosyncratic mix of Georgian elegance, Victorian flourish, Edwardian splendour and contemporary geometry, all spiced up by manicured garden squares, shop-embroidered thoroughfares and oddities such as the (former) St Mark’s Church, which hides behind the extravagant appearance of a Greek temple at 13A, North Audley Street.
Among the few mansions that survived this transformation is 18th-century Burlington House, which found new life as the home of five distinguished societies, including the Royal Academy of Arts (RA).
Covering ‘the past, present and future of art within one building’, according to president Rebecca Salter, the RA has endured many vicissitudes — once the art institution, it was later dismissed as ‘a men’s club and very old-fashioned’, only to return to the fore in the past 20 years.
Thus, although a pandemic was not a crisis the organisation’s first female president thought she’d face, the RA rose to the challenge, offering everything from drawing activities for locked-down children to virtual exhibitions. ‘Last year, applications to our young-artist summer show went up to 15,000, coming from all over the world, because it was done digitally.’
The RA, she adds, ‘is wounded, but we are nursing it back to health, with the loyal support of our Friends, for whom we are very grateful. We exist to exhibit art and invite people to come in and see it, so we are absolutely focused on opening the minute we can’.
A few roads away from the RA, Albemarle Street houses another cornerstone of British culture: the Royal Institution (RI). Founded in 1799 to encourage the public to engage with science, it was so successful that, in the early 19th century, queues formed outside its doors, as people flocked to listen to Sir Humphry Davy’s lectures.
‘There used to be traffic chaos on Albemarle Street, so it was made a one-way street — the first in the UK,’ says the institution’s Robert Davies. One of the attendees was Michael Faraday, who took meticulous notes in beautiful handwriting and presented them to Davy to persuade the chemistry professor to hire him. When Davy’s assistant got sacked, ‘there was an opening and the rest is history’.
Faraday, to whom the RI has devoted a museum, not only did his ground-breaking work there (his research established the concept of electromagnetic fields), but also launched the celebrated Christmas lectures, which continue to this day (past highlights are available on the RI’s hugely successful YouTube channel, together with a large range of other livestream events).
‘This place is dripping in history,’ notes Mr Davies. ‘Even the first hack of public technology happened here: in 1903, Guglielmo Marconi was demonstrating the wireless, which was supposedly secure, but, instead of the planned message, what came in was: “Rats, rats, rats”. He had been hacked.’
Although Mayfair is more closely identified with science and visual arts, it was also a cradle of British music at two very distinct times: in the 18th century, with Frideric Handel, and in the 20th, with Jimi Hendrix. Incredibly, the two lived next to one another, albeit 200 years apart, at 25 and 23, Brook Street.
‘It’s a crazy historical coincidence,’ says Sean Doherty of Handel & Hendrix in London: ‘Here are two people who were not British, came to London because it was the centre of music and left a really strong mark on it. Handel helped invent opera in the British sense and Hendrix helped invent rock.’
The museum honours both, running tours of their lodgings and hosting events inspired by them (now online). ‘Usually we would have concerts every week in the house: they are really intimate and you can see opera singers or chamber musicians in the room where Handel composed much of his music. We have an antique instrument collection, so you’d be hearing an 18th century harpsichord, hearing the music as it would have sounded.
‘On the Hendrix side, we throw house parties four or five times a year. They are amazing events and it really feels like you’re in someone house, they are throwing a party and Jimi Hendrix has just left.’
One of Handel’s great patrons was another Mayfair resident, John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who lived at 10, Hertford Street (where Sheridan House now stands). It’s ironic that, despite his distinguished political career and unwavering support for music and exploration — he approved funding for Capt Cook’s Pacific Ocean expeditions — the poor man went down in history for the mundane idea of having his meat served between two slices of bread.
But perhaps the area’s most extravagant resident was Kitty Fisher, the milliner-apprentice-turned-courtesan who bedded her way up the social ladder, amassing a large fortune that she displayed with abandon.
‘It is no exaggeration to say that she had on diamonds worth five hundred thousand francs,’ wrote Giacomo Casanova in his memoirs, adding that, nonetheless, he wouldn’t consider a liaison with her ‘for, though charming, she could only speak English’.
Or perhaps the Italian adventurer had simply been put off by tales that the lady had ‘eaten a bank-note for a thousand guineas on a slice of bread and butter’.
Today, Fisher’s name is once again common currency in Mayfair, ever since Oliver Milburn, Tom Mullion and Tim Steele christened their celebrated Shepherd Market’s restaurant after her.
History has been rather more forgetful of another local resident, Caroline Norton. The host of a lively social circle that included Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and the 6th Duke of Devonshire, she married Guildford MP George Norton, a drunkard who abused her — she left him in 1836. He retaliated by accusing her of adultery with the then Prime Minister, the 2nd Viscount Melbourne, and preventing her from seeing their children.
The ensuing scandal almost ruined her, but Norton proved her mettle, launching a lawsuit to challenge the iniquities married women faced in divorce proceedings, which led to the 1839 Custody of Infants Act and the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act.
In her quest to see justice done, she even wrote to Queen Victoria, highlighting ‘the grotesque anomaly which ordains that married women shall be “non-existent” in a country governed by a female Sovereign’. Even Bridgerton’s formidable Lady Danbury would not have been a patch on Norton — proving that, in Mayfair, reality can surpass fiction.
Property for sale in Mayfair
Hiding behind this property’s understated Edwardian façade are more than 8,500sq ft of exceptional interiors. The entrance hall, with its grand staircase and fireplace, sets the tone, but every room has special details, whether the ornate marble fireplace in the dining room, the coffered ceiling and wooden panelling of the main reception room or the interior-designed master bedroom. There’s also a wellness suite and three terraces.
This magnificent flat takes up the first floor of a portered, six-unit building behind Berkeley Square. Spanning 1,755sq ft, it has a light-flooded, south-facing reception room with full-height windows, which flows seamlessly into the dining area and contemporary kitchen beyond. There also are three bedrooms, including a large master suite, the bathroom of which is a work of art.
If the late-Georgian architecture and 3,962sq ft of living space weren’t enough to make this property appealing, the clincher would undoubtedly be its history: from 1928 to 1933, it was home to Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele. Then known as John Street, it was the backdrop to the lavish parties in which the duo tap-danced on the first-floor drawing room and down the staircase. Painstakingly renovated, it is now ready to be once again the setting for splendid entertaining.
The places you need to know in Mayfair
Exquisite jewellery by London’s diamond queen (7, Carlos Place)
Possibly London’s best macaroons (71–72, Burlington Arcade)
This experiential fashion store hosts exhibitions, talks and even dinners (5, Carlos Place)
Luxury leather meets unusual finds (10-12 Burlington Gardens)
The ultimate in handcrafted stationery (40 New Bond Street)
Carla Passino takes a look at St James's, the part of London that is truly 'regal by design'.