Fit For A Royal Feast
Country Life UK|September 25, 2019
A banqueting house built to welcome George I miraculously escaped destruction in the early 20th century and has been splendidly restored. William Aslet reports Photographs by Will Pryce
ON August 13, 1729, George I and his daughter-in-law, Caroline, came to dine with the former Secretary of State for Scotland, James Johnston, and his wife, Catherine, at their house in Twickenham. They were accompanied by the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole; several leading nobles; Caroline’s youngest children by her husband George Augustus (later George II); their own servants, who came bearing the royal plate; and even their personal confectioner.

The house itself, however, was not large enough to seat the whole party. Instead, while the gentlemen sat in the main hall, the ladies dined in the octagonal room roughly opposite, which had been newly built to designs by the Scottish-born architect James Gibbs, perhaps the most fashionable designer then working in London.

A plan drawn up by the Johnstons’ butler records that guests in the Octagon feasted in a grand style. The main course saw the table piled with delicacies, including game birds, fish, oysters and chicken served with peaches. Queen Caroline sat at the head of a U-shaped table and, charmingly, the children served the food.

The focal point of the evening was when, as the plan records, between the main course and the desert ‘Mr Johnston Come in & Paide his Honers to the Queene all was very merrie & highlie pleased’.

This was not the Hanoverians’ first visit to the Octagon. This had come at least as early as 1724; Daniel Defoe noted that ‘the King was pleased to dine in… a pleasant Room which Mr Johnston built, joyning to the Green House; from whence is a Prospect every way into the most delicious Gardens’ (Fig 1). Writing later, Gibbs noted that ‘he designed it for an entertaining Room, the house being too small for that Purpose’.

However, the pro-Hanoverian iconography in the interior suggests that it was built with the visit of the newly arrived German royals in mind. Facing each other above the doors are two roundel busts in Classical profile— the work of Ticinese stuccatori Giuseppe Atari and Giovanni Baguti—one depicting Prince George Augustus, later George II and the other his wife, Caroline; above them, occupying the central position over the veined marble fireplace with overmantle mirror (an original feature), is another of George I.

Johnston had been instrumental in securing the Hanoverian succession and, in the years preceding the death of Queen Anne in 1714, had made a number of visits to Hanover. There, in the words of one contemporary, he ‘often conversed with [George] very familiarly’.

It is something of an irony, therefore, that a Jacobite, John Erskine, 11th Earl of Mar, may have been responsible for the Octagon’s genesis. In happier days—before his exile following his defeat at the 1715 Battle of Sheriffmuir—Mar had been Johnston’s neighbour in Twickenham, then a fashionable spot for out-of-London retreats and probably first suggested to him the idea of the Octagon (later, Mar also put forward suggestions for re-facing Johnston’s house).

In a letter of 1716 written to Gibbs from his exile, Mar, an amateur architect and garden designer, describes ‘a sketch with a round room in the middle and that I believe you are executing with some improvements of your own’. The plan of the Octagon seems to bear the hallmarks of Mar’s hand in that it was situated at the corner of two service wings—whose exact function remains unclear—an arrangement that is something of a calling card in the Earl’s designs.

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