Today it’s the rather unprepossessing home of the Department of Health, but Richmond House was once a grand townhouse between Whitehall and the River Thames, owned by the Dukes of Richmond. James Collard traces its history.
OCT 14th 2017
This Old House
The Thames and the City of London from Richmond House, 1747, by Canaletto - from the Goodwood Collection
Given the topsy-turvy nature of political life right now, the notion that the House of Commons might decamp elsewhere while the Palace of Westminster undergoes its multi-billion pound refurbishment has barely raised a national eyebrow. Two potential options have been floated for when the Mother of Parliaments goes hot-desking: a “pop-up Parliament” to be built by Norman Foster on Horse Guards Parade, or a move into Richmond House, over on the other side of Whitehall.
Today, Richmond House is a 1980s office block housing the Department of Health. But several Richmond Houses have been built on or near this spot – between Whitehall and the Thames – on what was formerly the grounds of Whitehall Palace. And all but today’s office block were the London townhouses of the Dukes of Richmond.
Confusingly, the first was built in the reign of James I by Charles Stewart, 3rd Duke of Richmond and Lennox “of the fourth creation” – the last in a line of Scottish grandees who had followed the Scottish king down to his new capital, and no relation to today’s Gordon Lennox family. But when Stewart died without an heir, Charles II awarded his titles to Charles Lennox, the king’s son by Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth – who coincidentally had been Stewart’s next-door-neighbour, as the king’s mistress occupied vast apartments in the corner of Whitehall Palace. Charles Lennox, 1st Duke of Richmond and Lennox (“of the fifth creation”) went on to acquire Goodwood – and build his own Richmond House beside the old one.
A sketch by the artist – from the Goodwood Collection
Two paintings and a sketch by Canaletto now at Goodwood show the vista from Richmond House’s first floor during the mid-18th century, when it enjoyed views of the City and St Paul’s. The house overlooked the Thames – which was much wider before the Victorians built the Embankment. Also in Goodwood House today are many important pieces of furniture and some chimneypieces from the last Richmond House to be occupied by the family – which was destroyed by fire shortly before Christmas of 1791.
The house was uninsured at the time, and a contemporary report describes an anonymous gentleman appearing on the scene and quickly directing the panicked household staff into throwing books from the library through the windows and saving important works of art, while water was pumped from the river in a vain attempt to save the house. When, to his great distress, the 4th Duke spotted his favourite spaniel trapped at an upstairs window, a workman mounted a ladder to rescue the animal – winning a sizeable tip, worth the equivalent of a year’s wages, for his brave actions.
This article is taken from the Goodwood magazine, Autumn 2017 issue