Pall Mall Farnese / Visit to the Reform Club / Open House, London – 18 September 2011

21 Sep

This year I managed to not be at work during both days of Open House. So instead of opting for the queuing option we booked a guided tour around The Reform Club on Pall Mall. The reputation of the architectural quality and attention to detail by Charles Barry was a huge draw. It has to be noted the efficiency of the secretary who sent me the application form in 5 minutes after my email inquiry.

We arrived outside this handsome English version of the Palazzo Farnese with it’s wonderful grey honed stone facade adorned by neoclassical torchiere lamps in a dark racing green colour and matching glazed lanterns. A most refined and quiet appearance, yet imposing and characterful.

On arrival the shimmering light from the chandelier at the entrance hall and the natural light from the glazed roof of the Saloon gives a feeling of quiet reflection and yet airiness. The red colour of the walls with Barry’s simulated marble columns creates an interior in the Roman villa idiom but with a coffered bevelled glazed ceiling that glints at the bystander and refracts autumnal sunshine to all corners of this magnificent space.

We were asked to join the rest of our tour group (around twenty people in all) in the Morning Room, a book lined room at the western part of the building, all crimson walls and oxblood club leather chairs and sofas. A bust of Winston Churchill (repatriated from its long loan in the White House’s Oval Office) with in mouth cigar looks on at the proceedings. Here again a main brass light provides the ambient light with the addition of beige velvet shaded reading wall lights adorning every corner around the room and with a signature trio of mirrors at one end reflecting the glamorous surroundings and adding a hint of glamour.

Two members met us and gave us a potted history of the Whig party who built this splendid club house as its HQ. We proceeded to the Saloon with it’s magnificent glazed ceiling still covered with a very fine veil of scaffolding fabric and of course the obligatory full height access scaffold towers and strip lights, there to assist the conservators in their work in renovating the paintwork in this Grade I listed building. This is the beating heart of the Club, in the early days it would have been the location of most fervent debates and discussions, an ancient agora in the middle of the scheme. The mosaic floor, affectionately know as the pavement is featuring a horticulture inspired motif on a white background…surely the findings in Pompei and ancient Crete and Thera must have informed the choice of floor covering.

The most impressive part of the tour was the ascend of the main staircase to the Gallery overlooking the Saloon. The clever use of the mirrors gives the limited amount of light place to bounce and creates a sense of compression, much needed after the openness of the Saloon. The gold light catching all the gilded moldings and the read leather covered handrail adds a sense of occasion and luxury. It may sound silly but staircases for me is where the real genius of architects is evident. This main staircase is stunning and contains the right volume to give one a sense of thrill while walking through but on the other hand in the right scale to not feel vast. After all, good neo-classical architecture is one with human proportions, not the sterile reproduction of Greek temples.

The Gallery is furnished with cabinets for different displays of artifacts from the archive and also tables for reading materials alongside the tables and the obligatory oxblood leather chairs for the serving of afternoon tea (as it was suggested by the member that guided us). That close to the luminous ceiling that Barry provided is a joy in a sunny day as the beveled edges of each rhomboid piece of glass disperses the light to all directions. The beautiful brass table lights with their deep yellow opaque shades add to the luminosity of the space and create a great foil for the abundant guilded details on the ceiling and picture frames.

From there we had a walkabout of the Library with it’s wonderfully in relief gilded ceiling. The whole room painted a very dark ochre with a considerable patina that made it look comfortable and brought out any gilding to more prominence. Again the accent colour of the scheme was red velvet for the furniture and some of Barry’s mahogany side tables scattered across the room. This is used for the special events and when we visited was set up for a Jazz concert the following day. I’d call the atmosphere of the room as comfortable luxury.

We had a look at the Committee Room which is again lined with maple bookcases and a blue colour palette. We also had a peek at the tiny Museum Room that had a white and gold colour scheme and sports a gorgeous flattened domed ceiling almost reminiscent of Soane’s signature motif. Another fun room was the strikingly intimate Writing Room, a smallish room with one end covered in bookcases and four desks for members to correspond from. Painted a bright blue with lovely views of the garden. Apparently a number of authors have used the room as a quiet haven to write and think, amongst them Thackeray.

For me the most beautiful room on the upper floor was the Smoking Room, which had electrical work done, so we only had a quick peek. It looks like an amalgamation of the Morning Room and the Library. Dark brown leather furniture creating striking silhouettes against the dark grey/blue walls. Three brass lights were cascading from the ceiling, those were possibly the most intricate of any fittings in the Club. Barry designed all fixtures and when the Club opened it was lit by oil and then it moved on to gas and finally electrified at the turn of the century. Some of them resemble ancient Greek oil lamps (reflecting their original function) an interesting touch by Barry and a knowing wink at the past and his educated patrons.

The tour concluded with returning to the main floor and visiting the Strangers Dining Room which was originally used as the room for receiving non members and dining with them. As times have changed now is the cheaper, buffet based restaurant for the members. The room is decorated in a bright almost velvety red with wonderful crystal and brass lights, featuring a backlit cut crystal bowl shaped end piece, illuminating the table below with a defused warm glow. One of the notable portraits in this room is of Alexis Soyer the original cook of the Club and the man who co-designed the famous and much imitated kitchens in the basement. He was in a way the original celebrity chef that innovated in techniques and came up with ingenious contraptions to help improve the food offered by soup kitchens for the poor. His ‘magic stove’ was taken up by the army and used for over a century. A posh chef with social conscience, how contemporary to our times and the cult of Jamie Oliver!

It was a shame that we did not have the chance to see the famous kitchens by Soyer, but the tour was wonderful and thanks to the funny, off the cuff delivery of the tour by the two members was hugely enjoyable.  That was my first ever visit to a gentlemen’s club and was terribly impressed by the staff (they greeted me on the way out by name) and the members we met. Everyone surely had a great deal of warmth for the building and its history. The high quality of the architecture and coherence more than justified its reputation as Charles Barry’s masterpiece. If you have the chance do go on a tour (or of course know a member that can invite you) or next year’s Open House go for it!

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