Orleans House Gallery

Nestled amongst the riverside woodland in Twickenham is Orleans House Gallery.

Orleans House Gallery | Look Up London

Today it’s a free public gallery space, but I was drawn to visit because of the last surviving piece of a grand, 18th century country house.

The riverside home – although that word doesn’t really do it justice – was first built for James Johnston, Secretary of State for Scotland.

James Johnston (c.1655 – 1737)

Johnston had retired from politics by the time he moved to Twickenham. His career had been eventful, his own father executed for treason in 1663 resulting in the family fleeing to Holland. It was here that he forged ties with William of Orange, eventually helping his invasion in 1688 which became known to history as ‘The Glorious Revolution’. He fell out of favour with the new King William III but seems to have had a knack of sniffing out future royalty and became close with the future King George I in Hanover.

Johnston commissioned John James in 1710. James had worked under Christopher Wren on Hampton Court Palace, in Chelsea and Greenwich but this was his first solo project.

It might not seem that was for us today, but this was a study in restraint, exemplifying James’ belief that “The beautys of architecture may consist with the greatest plainness of structure” 

You can see the influence of Wren in the red brick with white stone details. The same style is seen in his renovation of St Mary’s Church close by. 

(Though, personally I’m not sure I’m totally convinced by the above juxtaposition with the 15th century stone tower.)

In 1718, the austere mood must have changed because Johnston commissioned James Gibbs to create the spectacular Octagon Room, completed in 1720.

Orleans House Gallery | Look Up London

It’s ornate from the outside but positively bubbling with plaster detail inside, all purpose-built for lavish entertainment of aristocrat and even royalty. 

Orleans House Gallery, Octagon Room | Look Up London

Further details support this function and convey Johnston’s loyalty to the monarchy. One can admire the busts of Hanoverian royalty including King George I, the Prince of Wales (later King George II) and his wife Caroline of Ansbach.

Orleans House Gallery, Octagon Room | Look Up London

King George I indeed visited in 1724 and in 1729 Mrs Johnston hosted a magnificent dinner for Queen Caroline and her children (the Queen bringing her own cook and gold plate!)

Orleans House Gallery, Octagon Room | Look Up London

Johnston died in 1737 and the home was bought by George Morton Pill, a Governor for an Indian province within the East India Company. 

It then passed to Sir George Pocock, a Naval Officer, in 1764 and it stayed in their family until 1837 but from the early 1800s they often let out the property to tenants.

In 1815 one of the tenants was Louis Philippe, Duc D’Orleans who lived in exile in England until 1817. It’s from him that the house gets its name today.

Evidently he enjoyed the peace and quiet, writing “I bless heaven, morning, noon and night that I am in my peaceful house in old Twick.”

In 1830 the Duc was made King of the French but never forgot his London retreat and visited in 1844, bringing Queen Victoria with him.

The Duc’s son Henri lived here from 1852 and then it briefly became a members club in the later 1800s.

Site of the Duc’s lost library, built in the 19th century

By the 20th century the house was in a sorry state and mostly demolished in 1926. Thankfully a next door neighbour and art collector, Nellie Ionides stepped in to save the Octagon Room.

Born Nellie Samuel in 1883, she grew up in a wealthy family and at 19, because her father (Marcus Samuel) was Lord Mayor she got married in 1903 at Mansion House in the City, the first Jewish wedding to be held there.

Hon. Nellie Ionides by Bassano Ltd © National Portrait Gallery, London

Her husband died in 1923 and she then married Basil Ionides, most famous for his interiors of The Savoy and Claridges.

When Nellie died in 1962 she left the buildings and her collection to Twickenham and the gallery opened in 1972.

Orleans House Gallery | Look Up London

Visit Orleans House Gallery

Orleans House Gallery is free to visit and throughout the year they run a series of events and exhibitions. Find out more on their website here.

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Related Blog: A Visit to Ham House

Just across the River Thames (accessible via the wonderful Hammerton Ferry!) is Ham House, a marvellous Jacobean mansion that’s packed with history. Read more in the blog here.

Ham House | Look Up London

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