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Bri­tish Em­bassies James Stour­ton (Frances Lin­coln, £40)

Sir John Van­brugh once wrote of how build­ings ‘move the more lively and pleas­ing re­flec­tions (than his­tory with­out their aid can do) on the Per­sons who have in­hab­ited them; [and] on the re­mark­able things which have been trans­acted in them.’ his words came to mind when read­ing this ex­cel­lent new book.

James Stour­ton is an eru­dite and flu­ent guide to 26 em­bassies, beau­ti­fully il­lus­trated here with new pho­tog­ra­phy by Luke White. From Moscow, buenos aires, Cairo and Paris to Wash­ing­ton, rome (right), Kabul and ran­goon, he gives de­li­cious in­sight into why they were built—or bought— and what ‘re­mark­able things’ have been trans­acted in them.

Early am­bas­sado­rial res­i­dences were gen­er­ally pri­vately rented prop­er­ties. The first pur­pose­built bri­tish em­bassy was in Con­stantino­ple (now is­tan­bul), be­gun at the in­sti­ga­tion of Lord El­gin (of mar­bles fame) on land given by the Sul­tan. Dat­ing from 1802–08, it was de­stroyed by fire in 1831, but its suc­ces­sor (now the con­sulate) ap­pears here—a glo­ri­ous ital­ianate build­ing of­ten re­ferred to as ‘the English Palace’, com­pleted to de­signs by Wil­liam James Smith in 1885.

The most palace-like of em­bassies, how­ever, is an older build­ing in Paris, ac­quired for the pur­pose by the re­doubtable Duke of Welling­ton in 1814. De­signed by an­toine Mazin, the hô­tel de Charost was built in the 1720s and later up­dated by ni­cholas bé­nard for napoleon’s sis­ter, Princess Pauline borgh­ese, from whom the Duke ac­quired it. Some em­bassies in­cluded chancery of­fices, such as at Cairo, built at the di­rec­tion of Lord Cromer and de­signed by robert boyce, again in a loosely ital­ianate spirit. Com­pleted in 1892, it later had a vast ball­room added by Lord Kitch­ener.

of­ten the style of mid-20th­cen­tury em­bassies and res­i­dences is a kind of fu­sion of bri­tish taste with lo­cal tra­di­tion, such as the pleas­antly sit­u­ated Stock­holm em­bassy by richard al­li­son of the of­fice of Works, a sub­tle play on the Swedish manor­house ver­nac­u­lar dat­ing from 1915. Lu­tyens’s Em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton, com­pleted in 1930, is an ac­knowl­edged mas­ter­piece: ‘a town man­sion, con­ceived as an English coun­try house that pays trib­ute to amer­i­can ar­chi­tec­tural tra­di­tion.’

Mr Stour­ton’s well-re­searched ac­counts give an en­joy­able run­ning com­men­tary on world po­lit­i­cal his­tory and the com­plex process of bri­tish power-break­ing and diplo­macy. in­deed, his text is quite as lively and smart as the diplo­matic cock­tail party of my imag­i­na­tion. Jeremy Mus­son

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