A lushly illustrated history of the wealthy and their dwellings since the Great Fire.
Amateur historian (and ex-insurance broker) Thorold employs skills from both his avocation and his profession to produce a chronicle of the rich and their sumptuous retreats. He begins with a brief account of London before the Great Fire; thereafter—without any account of the fire itself—he adheres to strict chronology. The movement of the rich into various areas of the city was often a form of flight from “the irresistible onrush of the poor,” the author describes—sometimes thoroughly, sometimes not—the genesis and development of the posh squares in the city: St. James, Hanover, Grosvenor, Berkeley, Portman, and others. He also illustrates (with excellent maps) London’s accelerating sprawl. Often, Thorold provides engaging details about the construction (and fate) of individual properties—e.g., Eastbury House, which remains “one of the evocative memorials to the old rich in London,” and Holland House, whose ruins are “perhaps the prettiest in London.” Occasionally, he provides illuminating portraits of some of the owners and builders—e.g., John Nash, whom the Prince Regent employed in the early 1820s to redesign Buckingham House (now Palace). The author quotes often and effectively from myriad Londoners and visitors (the latter, he notes, most frequently commented in the 19th century on the city’s “immensity, its materialism, and the extremes of riches and poverty”). And, as he most appropriately observes, “the servants . . . made these houses possible.” When the going tends toward tedious, Thorold inserts the most effective antidote: anecdote. In 1661, for example, one Londoner commented that the fog and smoke in the city were so dense and pervasive that from his pew in church he could not see the minister. It is surprising, also, to learn how short-lived many of these grand houses were: Kensington House, for example, built at great expense, was never occupied and was pulled down six years after its construction.
Like its subject, rarely stylish or flashy—but always sturdy and reliable. (8 pp. color illustrations, 99 b&w illustrations)