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Home House, Portman Square, number 17 (now 20), London, for the Countess of Home, 1775-78 (73)

Elizabeth, Countess of Home, born Elizabeth Gibbons, was the only child of William Gibbons and his wife Deborah. William Gibbons of Vere, Jamaica, held estates and plantations across the Island, estates subsequently inherited by his daughter as his sole heir.

In 1720, aged 16, Elizabeth married the 23 year old James Lawes, the eldest son of Sir Nicholas Lawes, Governor of Jamaica. Nicholas was a child of a royalist family who arrived in Jamaica in 1663, whilst he was still a boy. The Lawes began the cultivation of coffee in Jamaica and established a number of coffee plantations there. Probate records for Nicholas Lawes taken upon his death in 1731 recorded a total of 478 enslaved people across his estates, of whom 279 were listed as male, 199 as female and 86 as children. James Lawes, who was known to be a turbulent character, was eventually offered the position of lieutenant-governor of Jamaica, but he died on 4 January 1733 before he could take up the post. Elizabeth, on finding herself a young widow, employed John Cheere to erect a monument to her ‘most affectionate husband’ at the Church of St Andrew, Halfway Tree, which incorporated a marble bust of Lawes.

A principal beneficiary of her husband’s estates, little is then known of Elizabeth until 25 December 1742 when, aged 38, she married William, 8th Earl of Home, in London. The Homes of Home and Dunglass had held the baronetcy since 1473, and were subsequently raised to an Earldom by James I. William, 8th Earl of Home held a commission in the 3rd regiment of Foot Guards and was notorious for his substantial debts. The marriage, so clearly one of convenience, lasted just over a year with William abandoning his new wife in February 1744. Elizabeth had settled her husband’s debts in 1742 and again in 1747, but after this she seems to have declined further support as he was later declared bankrupt. In 1757 William, 8th Earl of Home was made Governor of Gibraltar, where he died a few years later.

Little is known of Elizabeth, Countess of Home until 1772 when, aged nearly 70, she decided to build her extravagant townhouse in Portman Square. We can perhaps catch glimpses of her character through contemporary accounts. In 1776 Modern Characters from Shakespear, an anthology of Shakespearian quotations applied to well-known persons was published. Interestingly the following lines from The Merry Wives of Windsor were assigned to the ‘Countess of H__e’:

‘She’s a witch, a quean, a Cozening quean; Come down, you witch, you hag, you, come down I say; No doubt the devil will soon have her!’

Infamously, William Beckford records in his correspondence that the ‘extraordinary lady’ was commonly referred to amongst ‘the riffraff of the Metropolis by the name, style, and title of Queen of Hell’.

Harris notes that Elizabeth seemed to establish herself in the ‘somewhat dubious circles with West Indian connexions’ and this is also inferred by the Beckford letter:

‘As her infernal majesty happens to have immense possessions… in the Island of Jamaica… she took it into her extremely eccentric head that as a West Indian potentate I ought to receive distinguished homage’

We can gain further information as to the extent of Lady Home’s Jamaican estates from the Island’s Quit Rent books of 1754. Here she is recorded as the sole owner of a total of 5,287 acres spread across St Andrew, St George, St Elizabeth, Clarendon and Vere. She is also recorded as the joint owner of Snow Hill, Townwell and Temple Hall Estates in St Andrew, totalling 3,370 acres. 423 enslaved people are also recorded in relation to the St Andrew estates.

Significantly the joint owner of the St Andrew plantations was one Simon Luttrell, the Countess’ brother in law by marriage and later 1st Earl of Carhampton. The Luttrells would play a vital part in Lady Home’s London society, a connection it seems born out of loyalty to Elizabeth’s first husband James Lawes. In 1737 James’s half-sister Judith Lawes married Luttrell, and it was their daughter Anne who provided the key to Lady Home’s motivation in building a home of such palatial standards in her advanced years.

In October 1771 Anne Horton, nee Luttrell married H.R.H Henry Frederick, Duke of Cumberland, brother to George III. The marriage took place at the bride’s house in Mayfair and was announced to the King by way of a letter sent from a Calais hotel. The news was not well received, a fact heightened, according to Walpole, by the timing. The Dowager Princess of Wales was thought to be ‘at the point of death’ when the marriage took place. Walpole described Anne as:

‘extremely pretty, not handsome, very well made, with the most amorous eyes in the world and eyelashes a yard long…coquette beyond measure, artful as Cleopatra’

Taking his lead from his brother, the Duke of Gloucester took the opportunity to publically acknowledge his earlier marriage to the Countess Waldegrave, Walpole’s niece. Subsequently, as a result of his siblings’ actions George III introduced the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. It was also made known that anyone who entertained the Cumberlands would no longer be welcome at court.

Lady Home’s decision in 1772 to build herself an extravagant house for purpose of entertainment can be seen as an anti-court statement. Intended for the reception of royalty and as a base for an alternative court, Elizabeth, it seemed, spared no expense. The move simultaneously declared her support for the Cumberlands and established herself at the centre of their society.

Lady Home’s gesture was seemingly well received by the couple, who presented her with their full-length portraits for display at the centre of her opulent new home. It is for these portraits that Adam produced a fine frame design with appropriate ducal motifs.

Elizabeth, Countess of Home died at 20 Portman Square on 15 January 1784, aged 80. She is buried in St. Erasmus Chapel, Westminster Abbey.

Lady Home first took up residence in Portman Square in 1771 with the lease of a house on the south side of the Square. However in June 1772 she decided to take out a ninety-year lease for a plot of land on the north side of the Square. Harris notes that by 1774 the new house appears in the rate books suggesting the exterior was completed at this time. Originally numbered 18, the house was re-numbered 17 in 1777. Its present number 20 arises from a re-ordering of the square in 1859.

The exterior of no. 20 Portman Square is relatively plain with the exception of tablets ornamented with paterae and festoons. Constructed from stock brick, the principal façade extends for 65ft, which is considerably broad for a London townhouse. It remains largely unaltered with the exception of the introduction of an upper storey and balcony. To the rear of the property there remains a square garden along with a stable block, and the rear façade contains an Ionic porch and Coade stone ornamentation.

The only surviving Adam drawing relating to the exterior of the house is for the front porch which remains as built with its balustrades and lanterns; these also match the Adam design. In 1991 King noted that the exterior of the building was uncharacteristically plain for Adam, with the front porch and railings the only elements that corresponded with the Adam style. Since then it has been acknowledged that the first architect to work at 20 Portman Square was in fact James Wyatt and not, as previously thought, Adam.

In 1997 Harris noted five surviving ceiling designs by Wyatt for the Countess of Home, with at least three of these ceilings executed. First employed in 1772, it seems Wyatt fell out of favour with the Countess and he was dismissed in January 1775 ,to be replaced by Adam. Therefore the shell of 20 Portman Square was in fact constructed by Wyatt, along with some interior work which was subsequently drastically altered by Adam.

Interestingly, the accounts for Home House show that Joseph Rose & Co., craftsmen key to the execution of both Wyatt and Adam’s plasterwork interiors, worked under both architects at the site, with Rose receiving £603.10 for the execution of the Wyatt designs.

From January 1775 the Adam office were employed to complete the unfinished rooms at 20 Portman Square. Given free reign by the client, Adam was also able to alter Wyatt’s existing work and adapt the spaces accordingly. It is possible that, in her choice of architect, Lady Home was influenced by her neighbours William Locke and Lord Scarsdale, who were both Adam clients. However, it is more likely the Countess was influenced by her relative Anne, Duchess of Cumberland, as Adam also produced designs for Cumberland House.

The interiors for Home House were meticulously designed and their execution was allocated to some of the finest craftsmen, with Rose & co. undertaking the plasterwork interiors, and Antonio Zucchi and Angelica Kauffman executing much in the way of painted detail. The library overmantel painting bears Zucchi’s signature, and his publication of ‘Subjects of the Pictures painted…at the Countess Dowager of Home’s House in Portman Square’ records his significant contribution to the interiors.

The staircase at no. 20 Portman Square is one of Adam’s most ingenious designs and considered a superb example of the Imperial staircase form. Inserted within a circular well which extends the full height of the house, the well is top-lit by a wrought iron dome, surrounded by fine plasterwork.

Harris notes the radical alterations Adam made to the space, with the earlier stairwell inherited from Wyatt almost square in form. The design is an excellent example of Adam’s ingenious use of light, with visitors filing through from the dark hall space into the top-lit circular well.

Tait highlights the sense of movement created by the double staircase, with the south arm for ascending and the north for descending. Significantly, Tait also compares the space to a 1759 design by Sir William Chambers for a new staircase at Cumberland House.

The music room is another extraordinary example of Adam’s work, and it is considered one of his finest designs. Hussey and Oswald note the ingenious sense of movement created within the space, with the use of a circular theme reflected in the continuous circles applied to the ceiling design, the window and door apses with their semi-domes, and the suggestion of a semi-dome above the chimneypiece.

The use of mirrors within the space is significant, with Tait making comparison to the glass drawing room at Northumberland House. Here we again see the importance of light in a space intended for evening entertainment. The mirrored pilasters were designed with the appliqué candelabra ornaments in order to reflect the candle light. Unfortunately, the mirrors do not survive and the pilasters were altered at a later date, with their pedestals,ormolu ornamentation and candelabra removed.

As 20 Portman Square was never intended as a family home but a place for entertainment, the focus of the scheme is given over to the public rooms and, as Tait highlights, the circuit dominates the overall design.

As there has been little in the way of substantial alteration to 20 Portman Square, its significance as a surviving Adam townhouse is evident.

Following the death of Lady Home the first tenant recorded there, from 1785-87, was a Mrs Welsh. The Countess had bequeathed her Jamaican estates and her house to her relation William Gale, but stated that whilst he was in his minority, Home House and its furniture might be used by Mary Dehaney or her daughter Mrs Lucretia Welch/Welsh.

In 1789 the estate of William Gale let the property to the French Ambassador, with the embassy remaining until the outbreak of war in 1794. From 1798-1808 the house was occupied by the Duke of Atholl, and then from 1808-1820 by Charles, 2nd Earl Grey. Grey, later Prime Minister (1830-34), would prove instrumental to the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832.

From 1820-61 20 Portman Square became the townhouse of the Dukes of Newcastle. Following this Sir Francis Goldsmid took over the residence and it remained in his family until 1919.

From 1927 Samuel Courtauld resided at the house and in 1932 he established his Institute of Art there, in memory to his late wife. For the next sixty years the property was home to the Courtauld Institute, however the premises became too small and it relocated to Somerset House in 1989.

For a time 20 Portman Square remained empty until it was taken over by Brian Clivaz who funded an extensive restoration project reintroducing a number of the interior schemes based on the Adam designs. Home House is now a private club.

Horace Walpole, Letters, ‘To Sir Horace Mann: November 7, 1771, ed. H. Toynbee, 1903, Volume VIII, pp. 102-104; A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume II, pp. 80-90, Index, pp. 48; C. Hussey and A. Oswald, Home House No. 20 Portman Square: An Architectural and Historical Description, County Life, 1934; L. Lewis, ‘Elizabeth, Countess of Home and Her House in Portman Square’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 109, No. 773 (Aug. 1967), pp.443-453; M. Whinney, Home House. No 20 Portman Square. An Architectural and Historical Description of the Notable London House designed by Robert Adam, 1969; A.A. Tait, ‘Home House’, Apollo Magazine, August 1987, pp. 75-80; J. Watt, ‘Comment’, Country Life, April 16, 1992, p. 92; K. Powell, ‘What a waste of a Georgian Wonder’, The Sunday Telegraph, 6 November, 1994, p. 7; E. Harris, ‘Home House: Adam versus Wyatt’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 139, May 1997, pp. 308-321; N. Briggs, ‘John Johnson and the Wyatts in Portman Square’, Westminster History Review, 1997, pp. 19-21; C. Irving, ‘Then and Now: Home House is my kind of club’, House and Garden, October 2000, p. 79; D. King, The complete works of Robert and James Adam & unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume I, pp. 22, 25-28, 197, 264, 285-90, fig. 403- 10, pl. XIV, XXVIII-XXIX, Volume II, pp. 272, 273; I. Scott, ‘Just like the Etruscans’, The Art Newspaper, Jan 2002; ‘Edward Bulmer: a meticulous mind’, The English Home, April 2010, pp. 100-102; M. Dennison, ‘A very British inspiration’, Country Life, February 2, 2011, pp. 60-64; F. Sands, Robert Adam's London, 2016, pp. 59-62; ‘Anne, Duchess of Cumberland (1743-1808) RCIN 405937’, www.rct.uk; ‘Henry Frederick, Duke of Cumberland (1745-90), Thomas Gainsborough c1773-7 RCIN 405936’, www.rct.uk; ‘Elizabeth Home Countess of Home, formerly Lawes (nee Gibbons)’, www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs; ‘Sir Nicholas Lawes’, www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs; ‘James Lawes’, www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs; ‘Simon Luttrell 1st Earl of Carhmpton, formerly Lord Irnham', www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs (accessed December 2020)

Anna McAlaney, 2020
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