1815 Lady Caroline Lamb, disguised as a page boy, stole into Byrons
Albany apartment and left a note: Remember me, Byron. Byron
replied with a verse:
Remember thee, aye, doubt it not:
Thy husband too shall think of thee.
By neither shalt thou be forgot
Thou false to him, thou fiend to me.
William Lambs wife was dressed as a boy because it was quite unthinkable
for a lady to be seen entering Albany. Until the end of the
nineteenth century, the place was a paradise for bachelors. Women either
had to visit their men friends in disguise or sneak in through the vaults,
past what is now the window of Peter Coatss subterranean dining-room.
Byron lived in Albany for a year with a bad tempered old maid called Mrs
Mule, a macaw and Fletcher, his truculent manservant. Albany was then
fourteen years old. The noble poet was followed by a long list of distinguished
inmates: Raffles, Bulwer-Lytton, Macaulay, Gladstone, Isiah Berlin (so
called because one eyes igher than the other, -V.), Edward
Heath and many more.
Albany is named after the Duke of York and Albany, who bought the original
house, which can be seen from Piccadilly, in 1798. There are 69 sets in
Albany (apartments there are called sets, like badgers homes, and
it is wrong to say The Albany as it could be confused with
a pub). Thirty-four of these sets are owned by Peterhouse College, Cambridge,
and let on seven-year renewable leases and the rest are owned by individuals.
Seven trustees (all proprietors) run the sets on behalf of the residents.
Anyone wanting a set should apply to the secretary, a charming gentleman
called Lt-Col Gilbert Chetwynd-Talbot. The waiting-list is enormous. Should
your application be success, a delightful experience awaits you in the
paradise of Piccadilly.
There are a few minor inconveniences: children, pets and musical instruments
are banned. However, two uniformed porters are always on duty to guard
your privacy; the place is surprisingly quiet; and something of interest
can always be seen on the rope-walk the long covered passageway
dividing the two blocks of sets which were built onto the original house
such as Rupert Lycett-Green setting out in his track-suit for a
brisk jog; David Hicks, in green blazer and fawn trousers, his features
obscured by a cloud of cigarette smoke, headed for his showroom in Jermyn
Street; Baron Philippe de Rothschild, a shawl over his shoulder, escorting
Joan Plowright; a barrow-load of Cézannes being trundled into the
set of Lord Clark (of Civilisation); or Major Coats tapping the barometer
and giving a word of advice to Mercer, the head gardener, as he strolls
towards the offices of House & Garden (where incidentally Peter Coats
the old poove, as Nic likes to call them, was known as Petticoats!
Albany is a living relic of Londons social history. It is the last
outpost of what was once a flourishing residential community in Mayfair.
No Arab or African has yet penetrated its elegant and very English façade.
Terence Stamp has an almost mystical relationship with Albany. The
whole thing started when young Stamp, then a messenger boy, peeked through
the back entrance in Burlington Street (almost opposite what used to be
the Beatles Apple headquarters at 3 Saville Row) and saw the splendours
of the rope-walk lined with rhododendrons. As the years passed, this fleeting
glance of a vision of an enchanted land symbolised his determination to
succeed and the dream of one day residing there. By a strange coincidence,
the first play in which he acted, Terence Rattigans While
The Sun Shines was set in Albany. In 1963, film audiences were electrified
by his performance as the innocent victim of evil in Billy Budd.
Three years later he acquired a set in Albany.
The idol of the sixties is now an extremely fit and elegant 65-year-old,
with a shock of grey hair, piercing blue eyes and a freshly scrubbed complexion.
The American magazine Town & Country recently included him in a list
of best-dressed Englishmen. He usually wears a suit (the summer ones are
made in Italy) and tie. His territorial habits are usually confined to
a small area of the West End. Morning coffee at Fortnums, tea at
the Ritz, and Wiltons when dining out. Theres a timelessness
here he said. It wouldn't really surprise me to find the streets
crowded with carriages.
The actors small set is austere. There is no television set and
the dining room has been converted into an oriental area with an Eastern
rug on a raised floor. The sitting-room walls are painted white, cork
covers the floor, a huge Balinese gong hangs from one wall, and potted
plants provide a touch of colour. Sitting on a beige leather settee, the
actor explained that he didnt like modern furniture and feels more
at home with antiques. He used to collect eighteenth-century English pieces,
but now most of his furniture is oriental.
Baroness Sharples was made a life peeress after her husband, Sir Richard
Sharples, Governor of Bermuda, was assassinated in 1973 (two other distinguished
members of the House of Lords were elevated to the peerage in similar
circumstances, the Baroness Ewart-Biggs and Airey of Abingdon). This tall
and elegant lady now lives in a large set, recently done up by Dudley
Poplak, who has become well known as the decorator of Highgrove.
Mr Poplak's relaxed and gentle style compares favourably with the more
strident tones of that other interior decorator to Royalty, David Hicks
(pictured). None of his ideas are particularly daring or original, but
everything is extremely well made and practical. Baroness Sharples described
him as a shy, modest man (some would say with a lot to be modest about,
-V.) with an excellent sense of humour, who is easy to work with and never
forces his views on others.
Baroness Sharples second husband (deceased) was a son of the painter de
Laszlo. I counted 40 works by this distinguished Edwardian portraitist
in the apartment. The imposing entrance hall to the flat has a picture
of Lord Byron (everybody in Albany is mad about Byron). The walls are
covered by a paper patterned to imitate beige parchment. The walls of
the vast drawing-room are hung with soft lime silk, with elaborately draped
curtains to match. Several of the upholstered chairs are coral-coloured,
piped with lime, and the carpet is eau-de-nil.
The Baroness's bedroom has been cleverly transformed into an elaborate
tent, using many yards of specially printed cotton which hides the doors
and wardrobe. Concealed fluorescent tubes light the scalloped pelmet.
The walls of the huge downstairs dining-room have also been lined with
fabric. Mr Poplak designed the long fitted sideboard (Gothic, to reflect
the vaulted ceiling) and the circular dining table, made by Jupes in 1810,
can, when expanded, seat 24 people.
Baroness Sharples is extremely energetic. She rises at six, drinks two
cups of tea and writes letters. Twice a week she plays tennis (using one
of those enormous modern rackets like kites) in Vincent Square, on the
courts reserved for Members of Parliament. She is one of the most active
members of the House of Lords, and spends most afternoons there. Small
businesses are her special subject. She has just left the farm which managed
for nine years in Hampshire, and is looking for a small business to buy
in Dorset. She is also a director of Southern Television and Chairman
of their Charity Committee.
Christopher Gibbs has the most interesting antique shop in London.
unlike the highly restored pieces sold by his Bond Street competitors,
his rare and wonderful works of art are all quite genuine. They clutter
a space where Kasmin first showed the paintings of Hockney like possessions
in the lumber-room of some forgotten palace. London's top interior decorators,
David Milinaric, Tom Parr, John Stephanidis and David Hicks, all come
to him for advice and inspiration. Many of the pieces are sold to museums.
As a young man in the Sixties, Christopher Gibbs belonged to that group
of 'beautiful' upper-class people Milinaric, Sir Mark Palmer, the
Knight of Glin, the Ormsby-Gore girls, Lord Reay, Georgia Tennant, Marriane
Faithfull who were so prominent in the social life of that period.
'We were, he remembered, 'serious people in those days, who thought and
talked mainly about religion. We had an iconoclastic, refreshed view with
a pinch of the patrician, which made people listen to what you said.'
The style of Christopher's Albany set could be described as upper-class
post Byronic with a touch of the Middle East. He dislikes 'interior decoration'
where colours or patterns relate or match; instead he prefers to be surrounded
by interestingly arranged objects that have a life and presence of their
own. The walls of his sitting-room and the adjacent bedroom are painted
green. Prints by Thomas Patch of English characters in Florence cover
one wall and the wooden floor is hidden by layers of rugs. The photograph
of a nude boy is by Baron von Gloedon, who was recently attacked by Auberon
Waugh in The Tatler.
Other interesting objects include Lord Tennyson's day bed (the poet wrote
much of his verse while reclining on it); a Moroccan drum used for beating
away evil spirits; a reading lamp made from the stomach of some unfortunate
camel; and a splendid four-poster bed, its canopy supported by China columns.
The bathroom, which leads off the bedroom, is a fine example of English
upper-class taste. Huge Edwardian sanitary fittings, a rare Wemyss-ware
dish decorated with fuchsias, shaving soap in a wooden bowl, ivory-backed
hair-brushes, and an old sponge rack from the Army & Navy spanning
the bath. Only a few favoured friends are entertained in Christopher's
Albany set. He is asked out to dinner at least four times a week, but
prefers intimate occasions to large gatherings.
He reportedly advised on the styling for the film 'Performance' starring
Mick Jagger and James Fox, and his own home is reminiscent of Turner's
(Jagger's), Notting Hill Gate house in the film.
of the above article was written by Nicholas Hill, with a few minor contributions
from Victor Watts.