In a 1997 edition of Overseas, Terry Freidmann looked back at the history of world-renowned architect James Gibbs, who is responsible for the beautiful staircase in the Central Lounge of the London clubhouse.
The great reputation James Gibbs enjoyed in London during his lifetime (1682-1754) centred on his achievement as a church designer (St Mary-le-Strand, St Martin-in-the-Fields, the Oxford Chapel, Marylebone, and the steeple of St Clement Danes). Yet this work was all done early in his career, between 1714 and 1727. Thereafter, his most lucrative metropolitan commissions concentrated above all on fasionable town houses for wealthy aristocrats. Alas, all these residences are now demolished except for 16 Arlington Street (now Over-Seas House), built for Maria Shireburn, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk between 1734 and 1740.
The Duchess agreed to pay Gibbs £300 for supplying a design for a new house of brick with stone dressings in Arlington Street, and to supervise and inspect the work during construction until its completion.
This was an important, for the residence was, according to contemporary description, located in 'one of the most beautiful situations in Europe, for health, convenience and beauty', with the front of the house (now covered by a 1937 extension), 'in the midst of the hurry and splendour of town' and the back overlooking Green Park 'in the quiet and simplicity of the country'. A centrally-placed, pedimented door led into the vestibule beyond which, screened by Ionic columns, is the imposing staircase rising through two storeys to a deeply-coved ceiling crowned by a glazed skylight. The stair panels are stunningly wrought ironwork, a technique involving hammering pig iron in 'chafery' forges, here used to create delicate, lace-like, interlocking rococco C's and S's, painted almost entirely in black with leafy motifs picked-out in gilt.
This was an expensive production and the Norfolk House balustrade was an early, pioneer use of wrought-iron in Britain. The beautifully moulded mahogany handrail is perhaps the work of renowned London carpenter, Thomas Phillips, who name appears in the building accounts. The ensemble is a delightful foil to the sate Palladian architecture.
Gibbs' preparatory drawings for the interiors include the ornamental plasterwork and marble chimneypieces, and while indicating the position and structure of the staircase, he gives no hint of its decorative detailing. Since Gibbs was not a member of HM Office of Works (he was a Roman Catholic - a rather precarious position for an aspiring architect in Georgian England) he was unable to call on its craftsmen. He therefore gathered around him a team of highly experienced and exceptionally talented craftsmen, whom he was happy to leave to get on with the demanding, specialised jobs of designing and executing the internal decoration. This is probably what happened with the Norfolk House balustrade.
In both composition and detailing it is quite different from anything in Gibbs' oeuvre and was almost certainly the creation of the whitesmith, Thomas Wagg, who, like Gibbs, lived in Marylebone and collaborated with him elsewhere. According to Wagg's 'Daybooks and Ledgers', he received £179.10.0 in 1737 for 'making Ironwork to the Great Stairs & fixings', as well as 10 shilling 4 pence for 'Iron work to 12 chimneys with: Grates and railing with lamps for the entrance front', between November 1736 and July 1740.
Gibbs was evidently pleased with the results because in 1746 Wagg was invited to execute the sumptuous wrought and cast iron balustrades of the elliptical staircase in the Radcliffe Library in Oxford, Gibbs' late masterpiece. But in this case, because it was was a major public building, the architect decided to control all the detailing, including the balustrade design, which is more symmetrical, quieter and geometric than that a Norfolk House.