Mayfair: A place of timeless beauty & rich history
London is a wonderful conurbation of villages, each with its own distinct character, history and attractions. Some are fast changing, some are up and coming, and some – like Mayfair – seem defined by their timelessness and exist almost in a league of their own.
Elizabeth FitzGerald, our historical and horticultural Insider, who spent much of her later career working in the area and who knows it like the back of her hand, sat down for a chat with us about what gives this most prestigious neighbourhood its unique character.
It always seems extraordinary that you can cross from one side of a street in London to another and feel like you’re in a completely different world, but this seems to be particularly true in Mayfair. Why do you think that is?
I would agree with that: I worked in Mayfair for many years (and lived nearby) and in the course of working and meandering around the area, I have stumbled upon all manner of hidden corners, shops and places of interest.
I am sure that part of that special feeling of it being a different world is down to the history of its development. Grosvenor Square, for example, was only ever designed to be an area for the very wealthy and right from the outset, the houses there were intended to be occupied by those from the highest echelons of society. Indeed, in the first quarter century or so after Grosvenor Square was built, it housed about twenty-five percent of the members of the House of Lords. It is not an area that has ever really seen ebbs and flows in its cachet: proximity to St James’ Palace was part of the reason for this, as it was the centre of court life in the 18th century. Anyone who was anyone wanted to be as close to the centre of gravity as possible and that meant being close to the reigning monarch and the Court.
If you compare 18th century Mayfair to certain parts of 18th century Chelsea for example, they were very different. At that time certain parts of Chelsea were really quite down at heel, especially properties close to the river which had not yet been ‘embankmentised’, and so from time to time flooded. Chelsea has, of course, become an exceptionally sought after area since then, and has seen a marked change in its fortunes as a result. Numbers of areas in London are like that: they’ve fallen in and out of grace, but Mayfair remains as it has always been since it was first developed in the early to mid 18th century.
Given that it was built for a specific purpose and market, all within a given period, is the area particularly rich in that era’s design?
Oh certainly. In my opinion, it is the ultimate place in central London to view excellent early to mid-Georgian design. When I was working in Mayfair, from time to time I used to take myself out to get some air and I would go on these little architectural adventures. I would pick something of interest, some little architectural feature such as the external ironmongery that dresses many of the beautiful houses, including lanterns, snuffers, grills and foot scrapers – innocuous things – and I would cover different streets in Mayfair looking at examples of this particular feature. I also love Georgian fanlights over doors, so on other occasions, I would potter out and have a ‘fanlight experience’. After doing this year after year and having read quite widely on the subject, I’ve built up a real understanding of this period of architectural history in Mayfair.
So the area is really quite well preserved in that regard, then?
On one occasion I managed to talk myself into a very famous private members club in the area: I think it’s probably the best example of an 18th-century house interior in London bar none, at least that is what Nikolaus Pevsner thought, and I am content to be guided by him! This property is extraordinary, but because it is not a public building – it is not well known, which is a great shame. I was fortunate to be shown around this house and was permitted to take photographs of the interiors, which I carry with me when I’m doing my SideStory experience to illustrate the interiors.
Do you think the exquisite preservation of that building – and doubtless countless others – is down to the exclusivity of the area?
I think so, yes. There’s almost a sense of it being a gated community: I suspect it does not get anywhere near the footfall of Oxford Street. Perhaps people think that it has little to offer as it is not full of the usual high street brand shops and eating places.
Oxford Street seems almost beyond redemption to me, as it is always teeming. The beauty of Mayfair is that you only have to come one block inside it and suddenly you’ve left the hurly-burly behind. Yes, some parts, such as Berkeley Square, can be busy – but if you go there early on a Saturday or Sunday morning and stand at the junction of Hill Street and Berkeley Square, you can almost scroll back two hundred years: little has changed.
Is that the case for some of the stores and shops in the area? A lot of them might not be particularly well-known to the population at large, but there are countless venerable institutions situated in Mayfair, aren’t there?
Many of the shops in the area have a long-standing, loyal clientele and a wonderful back story. For example, Thomas Goode’s of Mayfair has been on South Audley Street for nearly 200 years and is a delightful place with wonderful displays of china and glassware, some of which has been made for various royal families down through the centuries. You are welcome to have a look around, but it would not necessarily occur to a lot of people to do so.
There must be a wealth of knowledge in places like that…
Yes, and old world glamour as well – while this area is high-end, it is entirely possible to get a taste of it. When I worked in Grosvenor Street, Claridge’s was just a hop and a skip via the mews onto Brook Street. Occasionally, I used to pop in there for morning coffee which sounds grand, but is actually a lovely way to experience some of that Mayfair style, without breaking the bank. If you go into somewhere like Claridge’s for coffee in the morning, they’ll still serve it on a lovely tray, with linen tablecloths, proper service and a wonderful selection of biscuits and at a fraction of the price of a full afternoon tea. I think it’s a lovely thing to experience.
Elizabeth leads the Made for Mayfair Experience with SideStory. Join her to delve into the stories and history of this most fascinating and exclusive area of London.