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Royal Hang-Ups

Four of the city's most enigmatic, and overlooked, house-museums

April 26, 1998|LISA MARLOWE | Marlowe is a freelance writer who lives in Malibu

LONDON — "Thank God the English live in the past," the American woman in the red beret said, standing on tiptoe for a closer look at a medallion of the wine god, Bacchus, engraved in gold on a ceiling in Spencer House. "This is the best museum in London."

There is, of course, no such thing. London is home to a vast variety of collections, with something to suit every taste. Spencer House is just one of the connoisseur museums, idiosyncratic collections housed in the former in-town residences of English nobility. They tend to be overlooked by tourists and locals alike, perhaps because they lack some amenities British museum-goers have come to expect, such as tearooms.

The handful that I prefer are not your duck-into-during-a-downpour places, but neither are they hidden away. All are in the heart of London, each virtually next door to a heavily visited attraction. Spencer House and the Duke of Wellington's Apsley House are just a stroll apart across Green Park. The Wallace Collection is two blocks from Madame Tussaud's, and Sir John Soane's Museum is next to Lincoln's Inn.

Spencer House

It was early last September when I first laid eyes on Spencer House. London was in the throes of Diana mania. Long lines of mourners snaked past Westminster Abbey and Harrod's to sign condolence books. The gates and lawn at Kensington Palace, where Diana lived as Princess of Wales, were awash in floral tributes. Yet only two people waited to tour Spencer House, her ancestral home in St. James's, overlooking Green Park.

One peek inside its neo-Classical, wedding-cake facade and you realize that Diana was hardly a simple lass plucked from obscurity to wear a tiara. Built in 1756-66 for the Earl of Spencer, it is London's finest surviving 18th century townhouse. It also is a showcase of restoration, a tribute to a decade-long conservation effort in the 1980s. Eight of its state rooms are open to the public every Sunday, and it is rented out for private functions.

It was a bitterly cold December afternoon when my husband and I returned to Spencer House for a second look. Outside, the rolling lawns of Green Park were wet with a heavy frost, but all was warmth inside the velvet-covered walls, gleaming with gold-framed paintings and carved-wood moldings.

The Great Room, originally the ballroom, was my favorite, a Faberge egg of a room glittering with crystal teardrop chandeliers. "Diana so loved coming to receptions here," our guide said.

In the Palladian-style Palm Room, the 18th century passion for all things Greek and Roman was evident in the pillars of gold-leaf palm trees and marble goddesses.

Though Diana's family continues to own the land on which Spencer House sits, the Spencers ceased to live here in the 1920s, preferring their country estate of Althorp.

Hertford House, The Wallace Collection

Amassed by four marquesses of Hertford, the Wallace Collection is reputed to be the most valuable single gift ever made by an individual to any nation. It includes major works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Canaletto, Fragonard, Titian, Velazquez, Gainsborough and Reynolds, as well as royal French furniture, including pieces made for Louis XV and Marie-Antoinette, and the world's richest private collection of Sevres porcelain. It was saved from a trashing during upheavals in Paris and brought to London by Sir Richard Wallace, a Hertford heir, whose widow bequeathed it to England after his death in 1890.

Unlike Spencer House, where guides accompany visitors, Hertford House (circa 1776) is more like a museum, and we wandered it freely, agog at the number of masterpieces on display in the many galleries. An expansion is planned to display even more of the 5,470 items in the collection.

My favorite was Fragonard's "The Swing," a saucy courtship scene that somehow manages to be both daring and demure.

Afterward, we walked a few steps to Le Do^me Bar & Brasserie, authentically French and smoky, to sip strong cafe mocha and watch the parade of fashionable shoppers coming and going at Selfridge's across the street.

Apsley House, the Wellington Museum

There's something deeply reassuring about a visit to Apsley House, home to the first Duke of Wellington, who bested Napoleon at Waterloo. Perhaps that's because it's the last great London townhouse with a collection still intact and the original family still in residence. (The current duke has a ground-floor apartment and his heir lives upstairs.)

Until the beginning of the 19th century, London ended and the countryside began at a tollgate at this corner of Hyde Park. The house was built in the 1770s for Lord Apsley, acquired by Wellington in 1817 and given to the nation in 1947. Unfortunately, its site on Hyde Park Corner has become sort of a traffic island, reachable only by pedestrian tunnels. Someone has figured that 200 cars a minute whiz by Apsley House, their occupants unaware of the grandeur inside.

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