ROSL’s London clubhouse is made up of three buildings, one of which, Rutland House, is now hidden from view behind the Westminster Wing. It is not forgotten, however, as Juliet Learmouth uncovers the history of this building and its unusual gestation in the latest issue of Overseas

On 8 October 1754, a report appeared in the Whitehall Evening Post which read, ‘Yesterday the Corpse of the Duchess Dowager of Norfolk lay in State at her house in Arlington Street, St. James’s, where it will continue for three days’. The 62-year old Duchess had died several days previously in the spa town of Tunbridge Wells, but her London townhouse provided the stage for her final act of self-presentation. Laid out in a room illuminated by candles on sconces, her body was displayed against a backdrop of black mourning cloth, transforming the house’s elegant interior into a space of reverential solemnity. After lying in state for three days, the corpse was transferred to a hearse, drawn by six horses, which waited in the private forecourt before the main entrance to the house. The hearse then proceeded through the great arched gateway (pictured opposite) as it set off on its journey to Lancashire so the Duchess could be buried alongside her ancestors.

This townhouse in Arlington Street was originally built between 1734 and 1740 for Mary Howard, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, by the architect James Gibbs. Now known as Rutland House, part of it has survived in the London clubhouse of ROSL. This article attempts to bring Mary back to life by delving into her personal history and exploring her motivation for building an extravagantly decorated townhouse at the age of 42.

Mary Howard (née Shireburne), the 8th Duchess of Norfolk (1692-1754)

Mary was the only surviving child of the wealthy Catholic landowner, Sir Nicholas Shireburne, whose principal estate was based at Stonyhurst in Lancashire. A devout Catholic, Sir Nicholas was also a staunch Jacobite, meaning he had remained loyal to the Catholic monarch, James II, after the latter had been deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. During her childhood, Mary almost certainly imbibed her father’s unassailable belief that the exiled Stuart King and his descendants were the rightful claimants to the English throne. At the age of 16, she married Thomas Howard, the 8th Duke of Norfolk, propelling her into the highest ranks of the Catholic nobility. The marriage was not blessed with children but the couple enjoyed a lifestyle of extravagant expenditure, dividing their time between Worksop Manor in Derbyshire and London. Although the Duke was barred from taking up his seat in the House of Lords on account of being a Catholic, he and his wife maintained a high profile in the capital during the parliamentary season. At their grand house in St James’s Square, they regularly hosted balls, assemblies, and masquerades. However, it seems that behind this sociable facade, their relationship was far from harmonious. During the final months of 1730, after 21 years of marriage, they made the decision to live apart.

There is a certain degree of mystery surrounding the breakdown of Mary’s marriage, but reports in contemporary newspapers suggest that the Duke’s wavering commitment to the exiled Stuarts may have upset his Jacobite wife. One such report alleged that the Duke was intent on converting to the Anglican faith so that he could proclaim his allegiance to the Hanoverian King, George II, and take his seat in the House of Lords. However, any such plans were cut short when the Duke died ‘of a consumptive illness in December 1732’. The Duke’s death placed the childless Mary in a position of exceptional financial independence. Whilst her estranged husband had continued to lay claim to the income from the Shireburne family estates during their separation, Mary now regained full control over her personal inheritance. 

Mary’s period of mourning was notably brief. In August 1733, only a few months after the Duke’s death, the Daily Journal reported that the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk was soon to enter a treaty of marriage with a certain Peregrine Widdrington, the younger son of a baronet. A loyal Jacobite, Widdrington had undergone two years of imprisonment following his participation in the 1715 uprising in Preston. However, despite cohabiting with Widdrington from 1733 onwards, Mary consistently failed to acknowledge him as her husband. This has led historians to question whether the marriage ever actually took place. It may be that Mary valued her position of financial independence too much to risk marrying again.

Rebuilding a reputation in Arlington Street

The building of Mary’s new townhouse thus coincided with a new phase in her life. She was in an enviable position of economic strength, but her reputation in society was tainted by her scandalous personal life. She therefore required a residence which expressed her wealth and elevated rank, whilst at the same time, protecting her from the public gaze. To help her achieve this, she employed the services of her fellow Catholic, James Gibbs, one of the country’s most prestigious architects. She pledged to give Gibbs £300 for planning and surveying the building work, clearly stipulating that all plans were subject to her approval. Whilst the house was being built, the Duchess lived in a rented property on Pall Mall, allowing her to keep a close eye on the workmen’s progress. She was finally able to move into the property towards the end of 1739.

Although relatively small in scale, this was a house designed for ceremony; to be approached, entered and experienced in a pre-ordained sequence. The layout of the plot also meant that the main house was situated well back from the street, protecting its owner from any inquisitive onlookers. Consequently, the 18th-century visitor would have approached the residence through the high rusticated archway, located in Arlington Street, before proceeding across the courtyard to be greeted by liveried footmen at the entrance to the house itself. Advancing through the vestibule, they would have arrived in the magnificent hallway where ionic columns screened the great staircase, its panels richly decorated with scrolling Rococo ironwork. At the far end of the hall, two doorways guided the eye towards the west-facing reception rooms, offering uninterrupted views over the park. The staircase, illuminated by a tall glazed lantern light, provided access to a series of richly decorated, interconnecting reception rooms.

Gibbs staircase

The ionic columns and great staircase as they appear today.

A surviving list of expenses relating to the house shows that Mary employed some of the most highly skilled craftsmen then working in London, including carvers, gilders, ironmongers, plasterers, and cabinet makers. Some of these (including the carver, John Boson, and the gilder and mirror-maker, Joseph Duffour) were also patronised by Frederick, the Prince of Wales, suggesting that Mary spared no expense on the interior decor. So, what has survived of Mary’s house today? When it was acquired by ROSL in 1934, the property underwent a drastic remodelling. Firstly, it was amalgamated with the neighbouring property, Vernon House. Secondly, its facade and front rooms were demolished to accommodate the Westminster Wing, a new block that extended over the entire courtyard. Whilst this conversion rendered the exterior of the house unrecognisable, a significant part of the original interior still forms part of the current clubhouse. In addition to the magnificent staircase, the top-lit Wrench Room and the park-facing rooms on the first floor, have all survived relatively intact, helping us to picture the house as it appeared during the Duchess’s lifetime.

1934 Demolition

Read more from the latest edition of Overseas here.


Pin It