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April 14, 2011 / Leo Hollis

Sunday Telegraph Review for THE STONES OF LONDON

A magisterial study of London’s buildings shows that grand architecture can inflame passions as forcefully as a poet or orator

By Philippa Stockley
 In the closing chapter of this History in Twelve Buildings, from London Bridge to the Gherkin, the author, Leo Hollis, allows himself a rare metaphor. By the 17th century the city, described as a body, had acquired a circulatory system that by the 1850s of Joseph Bazalgette (the engineer responsible for London’s sewers) was sick and collapsing. Today, Hollis continues: “The contemporary capital is a mainframe computer hard-wired with stone, but liberated by information.”

Such inventive metaphysics reflects Hollis’s absorbing ability to conjure and flesh each period he explores. From headings such as “The Royal Exchange”,“Greenwich”, “The Houses of Parliament” and “Regent Street” unroll swathes of information. Stories within stories tumble out like Russian dolls. By the end one has met many interesting characters and almost inadvertently absorbed vast amounts about the creation, buildings and streets of London. A beguiling device; a stalking horse of Palladian proportions.

Take Sir Thomas Gresham, Elizabethan adviser and ambassador, whose financial savvy reduced the national debt from £280,000 to £20,000 in five years. He advised the Queen to borrow from her own merchants rather than from abroad (so beginning merchant banks).

While ambassador to Brussels he sent barrels of munitions to London code-named “Velvet”; and bought the Queen her first pair of silk stockings, which turned her head. That was just a start.

In 1565, following his son’s death, wanting a lasting monument, Gresham conceived and built at his own expense the Royal Exchange on the site it occupies today (though it burned down in the Great Fire).

The four-storey cloistered sides gleamed with stucco and fine carvings, while golden grasshoppers, the Gresham cipher, flew above. The courtyard could take 4,000 merchants. At first, renting out 150 shops was slow, but: “In time it became the most fashionable place to shop, where gallants went from shop to shop like bees from flower to flower.”

Hollis is good with women. Anne of Denmark drank James I under the table and, when she accidentally shot the King’s favourite hound she was, following his subsequent rage, pacified with a £2,000 diamond ring and Greenwich Palace. In this chapter Hollis assesses Inigo Jones’s theory of the power of architecture, which he evidently shares: “In Italy, he [Jones] had been encouraged to consider that architecture could create, inflame and reorder as forcefully as the lines of a poet or a demagogue’s oratory.” Jones designed the Queen’s House at Greenwich, and the Banqueting Hall, Whitehall.

We also meet Elizabeth, Countess of Home, who started out as plain Elizabeth Gibbons in Jamaica before marrying a man who left her a rich widow in London at 18. In a few years she captured the hand of the eighth Earl of Home.

The speculative rush to build London’s great squares (St James’s, Portman, Cavendish, Grosvenor) must have impressed her, as it did all Londoners including, Hollis says, Daniel Defoe, who wrote that in the boom builders only had, “like gardeners, to dig a hole, put in a few bricks, and presently there goes up a house”.

The Countess was 58 when she commanded James Wyatt, fresh from building the Pantheon, to make her a house on Portman Square. But his celebrity dashing-about irritated her, so she fired him. She employed Robert Adam to remodel and decorate the interiors, which he did with panache, ripping out Wyatt’s dull stair to create the dazzling double curved one, decorated by Angelika Kauffman, gracing Home House today.

Hollis’s pith, a symptom of ownership of and immersion in his subject, is most entertaining. Of John Nash, who believed he resembled a monkey, Hollis observes: “Throughout his life he was driven by profit and seemed to stumble across taste by accident.”

If there is to be any caveat with this splendid, generous and engrossing book, and one struggles to find one, it is that one feels that the author relishes the new slightly less than the old. But how could Wembley Stadium, Keeling House or even St Mary Axe ever compete with the phoenix-like saga of the creation of the Houses of Parliament, gilded by Queen Victoria’s verdict: “Perhaps there is a trifle too much brass and gold in the decorations.”

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