CHAPTER 16: JOHN STREET, ADELPHI
The southern side of John Street between Adam and Robert Streets
was recently demolished with the remainder of the island block. The plans
of the houses generally conformed to type, as will be seen by referring to the
plan (Plate 66). Nos. 1–4 at the eastern end were united as the Adelphi
Hotel. The corner house had the characteristic ornamental pilaster treatment
to the exterior, while the entrance which was in Adam Street had a decorative
door-case with side lights divided by pilasters and an ornamental frieze and
dentilled cornice (Plate 91a). The ceilings of the principal rooms were
adorned with painted or plaster panels—similar to those in other houses in
the street—and the mantelpieces were carved wood or marble. A charming
wall treatment to the stair landing in No. 9 is shown on Plate 88a. It consisted
of a semicircular niche within a frame of fluted Ionic pilasters with a panelled
frieze containing modelled figures.
Nos. 13 and 14, west of Robert Street, remain. The entrance doorway
to No. 13 with its tasteful cast-iron lamp brackets is shown on Plate 100a.
Plates 103a and 103b illustrate the ceilings to the principal rooms of No. 13.
The most important building on the north side of the street is that
of the Royal Society of Arts. It was especially designed for the Society by
Robert Adam. The charming front (Plate 93), in brick with stone dressings,
represents an architectural composition of three vertical bays, formed by the
application of attached Ionic columns the height of the first and second floors,
with the ground storey acting as a podium. The decorative frieze to the
main entablature has a broad central panel inscribed "Arts and commerce
promoted." Relief is afforded to the plain tympanum of the pediment by a
circular window with radiating bars. The main entrance has double doors in
a wood casing with side lights divided by Doric columns and pilasters which
support a decorative frieze and cornice. To the middle bay of the first floor in a
large semicircular arched recess is a three-light window, divided by small Ionic
columns with the centre light arched and the spandrel between the two arches
occupied with plaster decoration in the shape of a fan. A further decorative
feature is an ornamental band at the second-floor sill level between the columns.
The chief room on the ground floor, now the library, has handsome
twin marble mantelpieces on opposite sides (Plates 95 and 96a). (fn. a) These,
according to the original specification, cost £80 each. Four fluted columns
with block entablatures divide the room and support the floor of the lecture
room over. The main staircase is in stone with iron balustrading. It originally
continued to the upper floors, but alterations have been recently carried out at
the first-floor level and the wall has been pierced and columns inserted, forming
a screen to the landing (Plate 96b). Similar work has been carried out on
the ground floor and the entrance lobby has been increased on either side
(Plate 99b). The lecture hall, formerly the meeting-room, with its famous
paintings, is approached from the first floor, and as the seating has been turned
round to face eastwards, steps have had to be inserted to the annexe (see the
plan on Plate 94). Plates 98a and 98b illustrate two mantelpieces in No. 19,
and their contemporary iron grates. No. 20 has a wood door casing (Plate
100b), and an ornamental ceiling with radiating ribs and plaster medallions
in light relief (Plate 102).
The portion of Durham House Street leading into John Street was
originally called James
Street. Isaac D'Israeli
lived at No. 2, James
Street before his marriage in 1803, as did
Caleb Whitefoord, the
diplomatist, in 1803–4.
At the corner house
(formerly No. 1, James
Street, now No. 16,
John Street) lived
the artist and caricaturist, from 1803 until
his death there on 22nd
April, 1827. Behind this house was a chapel which was used for a time by
a body of dissenters but which was afterwards absorbed into Coutts' Bank.
Plan showing Coutts' premises in James Street and John Street
The Little Theatre on the north side of John Street stands partly on
the site of the open space which was kept clear in the original Adelphi scheme
in order to suit the convenience of Thomas Coutts and partly on the site of the
chapel in James Street. A banking hall and offices were built on the open
space early in the nineteenth century, the buildings being kept low so that the
view from the windows in Coutts' premises in the Strand should still be
unimpeded. Early in the present century the chapel and banking hall were
gutted but the external walls were utilised for the theatre and the upper tier
of the old bank vaults adapted to form cloakrooms and dressing-rooms. The
lower tiers or "great vaults" were cut off and let as wine cellars. The Little
Theatre was first opened in 1910 by Miss Gertrude Kingston. On 4th
September, 1917, it was wrecked by a German bomb, though fortunately no
lives were lost and the vaults and main walls were uninjured. The theatre
was reopened in 1920. (ref. 323) At the north-west end of James Street were Coutts'
Condition of Repair.
The houses remaining are in good condition.
Nos. 13 and 14, Mr. G. H. Drummond; Nos. 20 and 21, Messrs. E. Foster & Co. The
Royal Society of Arts building is the property of the Society.
Nos. 1–4, The Adelphi Hotel.—These four houses were originally in separate occupations. (fn. b)
Antonio Zucchi, who lived at No. 3, had in 1754 accompanied Robert Adam in his tour through
Italy and Dalmatia, sketching architectural remains. In 1766 Adam invited him to England and
they collaborated on the interior decoration of a number of houses, including several in the Adelphi.
Zucchi and Angelica Kauffmann between them were responsible for the painted panels in many of
the ceilings there. The two artists were married in July, 1781, when they left England for Italy. (ref. 119)
John Reynolds, the first occupant of No. 4, was a Whig attorney who acted for Chatham,
Wilkes and other prominent politicians of the day. His son, Frederic, who afterwards attained some
fame as a dramatist, was a lively boy at the time, and in his reminiscences records many anecdotes
of Garrick and his circle, and of other residents in the Adelphi. In particular young Reynolds
and his friends were the plague of Dr. Graham, the back of whose house on the Terrace was opposite
that of No. 4, John Street. From the first-floor window they indulged themselves in discharging
paper pellets "with all the force of fingers, thumbs and arms, full against the eager visages of the
Doctor's patients." (ref. 324) It was perhaps with feelings of relief that in 1782 the neighbours learnt that by
a sudden reverse of fortune, John Reynolds had been forced to give up his town house and flee
William Osborn, the owner of the Adelphi Tavern on the opposite corner of John Street,
gradually bought up these houses and founded Osborn's, later the Adelphi Hotel. Osborn took a
personal pride in his kitchen, which he described as his "elaboratory," and his hotel became world
famous. Among many notable visitors there may be mentioned Edward Gibbon (in 1787, after
the completion of The Decline and Fall); the Queen of the Sandwich Islands (in 1825, see p. 110);
and the immortal Snodgrass (Pickwick Papers).
Nos. 6 and 7.—These two houses were from 1834 onwards known as Adelphi Chambers.
They had during the term of their existence a large number of residents, among whom journalists
and artists predominated. Edward Du Bois, wit and miscellaneous writer, was at No. 6 in 1834–44.
John Douglas Cook, editor of the Saturday Review, was at No. 7 in 1844, and Robert Ormsby,
classical scholar and biographer, lived there in 1850.
Nos. 8 and 9.—John D'Aigremont, who held the lease of both these houses, let them out in
tenements. During the nineteenth century they were mostly occupied as offices. The Index Society
was housed in No. 8 in 1885, when H. B. Wheatley, the compiler of many books on London and
the editor of what was until recently the standard edition of Pepys' Diary, was its secretary.
Lord Snell, in his Men, Movements and Myself, records that the London School of Economics
"began its career in the year 1895 in three small rooms on the ground floor of No. 9, John Street
in the Adelphi. It had at the beginning no library, and no place where students could work: the
rooms were dark and depressing, but they were conveniently situated and close to the lecture room
of the Society of Arts where some of the more popular lectures were given."
No. 17.—The original numbering of John Street was very irregular, and, until 1907, this
house was numbered 11. The architect, Owen Jones, who was appointed superintendent of the
works of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and who was responsible for much of the interior decoration
of the Crystal Palace, had rooms here in 1841. Six years later William Pare, a disciple of Robert
Owen, and one of the founders of the Co-operative Movement, occupied chambers here. John
Scott Russell, civil engineer, was here for a short time in 1847, when he was appointed secretary of
the Society of Arts. In more recent times Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, the creator of "Old Bill,"
Granville Barker and Cedric Hardwicke have had chambers here.
Nos. 13 and 14.—These two houses, which are on the south side of John Street between
Robert Street and York Buildings, have always been let out as chambers or offices. The Royal
National Lifeboat Institution had its headquarters in No. 14 in the middle years of the nineteenth
century. More recently the house has contained the office of the surveyor of the Adelphi Estate.
William (afterwards Sir William) Lawrence lived at No. 13 in 1806–8, when he was a young
practitioner. He became professor of anatomy and surgery to the College of Surgeons in 1815, and
later was for 33 years lecturer on surgery at St. Bartholomew's Hospital. In 1847–50 John D.
Bishop, a professor of a very different sort, lived at No. 14. His subject was "phalacromiasy" and he
dealt, presumably, in hair restoratives. Kate Bishop and her daughter, Marie Lohr, formerly lived
at No. 14, and Edmund Gwenn has for many years occupied chambers here. From 1868 until
his death in 1902 John Francis Bentley had his office in No. 13, and it was here that he designed
Nos. 18 and 19, John Street—The Royal Society of Arts.— In 1770 the Society of Arts,
which had been formed in 1754 by William Shipley, found its premises in the Strand inadequate
for its needs, and advertised in the daily papers for suitable accommodation. The brothers Adam
thereupon offered to include a house for the Society in their Adelphi scheme, and, after much
discussion, an agreement was reached by which the Adams were to have a premium of £1,170 and
a rent of £200 a year for the house. The foundation stone was laid in 1772 by Lord Romney, and
in 1774 the Society entered into possession.
The building, which except for some minor internal alterations has remained practically
undisturbed till the present day, consists of two houses, one of which was intended for the private
residence of the secretary. There has, however, always been a communication between the houses
on the ground and first floors, and in recent times one has been made on the second floor also. Arthur
Aikin, the chemist and scientific writer, was secretary from 1817 until 1840, and in that capacity
occupied No. 19. The last secretary to live on the premises was Sir George Grove, the author of the
standard Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
When the Society first took over its new premises it decided to invite a number of artists
to paint historical and allegorical pictures for the decoration of the meeting-room. This scheme fell
through owing to the refusals of the artists, led by Sir Joshua Reynolds, to participate in it, but in
1777 James Barry, then a young and little-known painter, offered to undertake the whole work
himself, provided that the Society paid for the materials. This offer was accepted, and Barry was
given a free hand to carry out his ideas. By 1783 his six enormous pictures were completed. The
series was intended to illustrate the maxim "that the obtaining happiness, as well individual as public,
depends on cultivating the human faculties. To prove the truth of this doctrine, the first picture
exhibits mankind in a savage state, full of imperfection, inconvenience and misery. The second
represents a Harvest Home, or Thanksgiving to Ceres and Bacchus. The third, The Victors at
Olympia. The fourth, Navigation, or the Triumph of the Thames. The fifth, the Distribution of
Rewards by the Society, and the sixth, Elysium, or the State of Final Retribution." Barry received
the proceeds (£503 12s.) of a public exhibition of these pictures, but no other payment. The pictures
have always been carefully treated and regularly cleaned, and they are still in good condition (Plates
97a and 97b). In 1846 the room was redecorated by D. R. Hay, though the pictures remained in situ.
The Society of Arts building was one of the first in London to be fitted with electric light.
At its first installation in 1882 the current was obtained from a dynamo driven by a gas engine.
The Royal Society of Arts was formed "for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures
and Commerce." In the list of its early members are to be found most of the famous names of the
second half of the eighteenth century (fn. c) and through their instrumentality and through the incentive
of prizes offered for good work and invention it secured the promotion of its objects. In many fields
in which the Society was the pioneer its work is now carried on by independent associations, e.g.,
the Royal Academy of Arts was founded as a result of the success of a public exhibition held by
the Society in 1760; the Colonial and Imperial Institutes have taken over the Society's work of
developing industry and agriculture in the colonies; and the Royal Agricultural Society, which was
founded in 1838, continued the development of agriculture in which the Society, with the help of
Arthur Young, had until then been the prime mover. (fn. d)
Plan of Nos. 20 and 21, John Street and No. 18, Adam Street