A flash in the pan
Country Life UK|March 04, 2020
One of Britain’s outstanding Baroque houses vanished in 1747, having been sold within three years of its patron’s death. William Aslet looks at the tantalising fragments that survive and what they tell us about this prodigy building
William Aslet
STANDING today in Cannons Park, at almost the very end of the Jubilee Line, it is hard to believe that a house stood here, of which Daniel Defoe could write in 1725 that ‘as the firmament is a glorious mantle filled with, or as it were made up of a concurrence of lesser glories the stars; so every part of this building adds to the beauty of the whole’. But, just over 20 years after the publication of these remarks, the house had been stripped of all salvageable material, its contents sold at auction and the remains pulled down. Today, what was once countryside has become Metroland.

Cannons was the project of one James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos (from 1719), Marlborough’s paymaster general during the War of Spanish Succession. Chandos had made a vast fortune out of the war—some £600,000 at the time of his resignation in 1713. He decided to spend this remodelling the Jacobean house at Cannons, to which he had laid claim following the death of his wife in 1712, in order to transform it into one of the greatest houses of the land (Fig 1).

Chandos employed only the most fashionable architects on the project, whose names read as a veritable roll call of the foremost architects working in early-18th-century London—William Talman, John James, Sir John Vanbrugh and James Gibbs. Lesser figures were similarly barred from the interior, which was decorated with canvases by Louis Laguerre, Antonio Bellucci, Sir James Thornhill and William Kent, as well as stuccowork by Giuseppe Atari and Giovanni Bagutti (this was the first project of the Ticinese stuccatori in England). With Handel serving as Chandos’s Kapellmeister from 1717, the house was a complete expression of the Arts.

Chandos’s standing as a patron, however, and the immense influence of his house, has often been underplayed. This is partly due to the influence of Alexander Pope, who was said to have modelled Timon in his poem Of Taste (published in 1731), with his brash villa, expensive but devoid of taste, on the Duke. Although Pope strenuously denied the allegation, it is perhaps telling that contemporaries identified Chandos so readily with Timon. More important, however, is the fact that his principal achievement as a patron has now disappeared. Chandos’s great fortune began precipitously to decline following the bursting of the South Sea Bubble, in which he was heavily invested, in 1720. As he grew old, he began to worry about money and his legacy, knowing full well that it stood little hope in the hands of his spendthrift son, Henry. It took only three years, in the end, before the 2nd Duke of Chandos was forced to send an invitation to the demolition men in 1747.

Looking at the surviving fragments of the great house—despite their splendour, they can only be said to be fragments—it is possible, nonetheless, to gain a sense of the princely Chandos’s residence. Some elements hide in plain sight in and around the park.

At its northern end, the North London Collegiate School stands on the location of the house itself. At its core is the home that was built for William Hallett, a prosperous cabinetmaker, who bought the site at auction following the demolition of the ducal house, although it has since been much altered. Many of Hallett’s construction materials are likely to have come from Chandos’s house, although, at only three storeys high and three bays across, the Duke might have found the house almost offensively modest.

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