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