Portland Place – London's widest street

As the population of London doubled during the eighteenth century, the city expanded westwards across fields and pastures. Portland Place was planned to run north from the gardens of the now long-gone Foley House. On the insistence of the mansion’s owner, Lord Foley, it was agreed that the new buildings would not obscure his views of the landscape to the north. To this end, Portland Place was laid out to be the same width as Foley House itself, resulting in London’s widest street.

Scottish brothers Robert and James Adam were among the foremost British architects of the eighteenth century. In 1768, at a time when their colleagues were largely preoccupied with designing country houses, the brothers purchased a large plot of land in London and went into business as property developers. Initially, Robert Adam planned Portland Place as a grand thoroughfare lined with palatial homes, but an economic downturn in conjunction with the American Revolutionary War led him to rethink his plans and instead build simpler terraces of houses along each side of the street. Robert lost interest in the project and the designs were completed by his brother James. The new street was lined with luxurious three-story residential townhouses with a regular facade. There were 32 townhouses on the west side of the street and 36 slightly smaller on the east side, divided into four blocks on each side. Construction began in 1776 and was to all intents and purposes completed by 1780.

James Adams design of the row of houses at Portland Place. The entrance of number 27 is located at the left.

The Royal Route

The area was further developed in the early nineteenth century as part of architect John Nash’s commission from the Prince Regent, later King George IV. The open land to the north was transformed into Regent’s Park and Park Crescent was built at the north end of Portland Place. To the south, the street was extended, bending around Foley House and continuing down to Oxford Street. Foley House was demolished not long afterwards. Portland Place was never incorporated into Nash’s planned royal route, which would have connected the Prince Regent’s residence Carlton House with the new Regent’s Park via the newly designed Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circus and Portland Place. It thus retained the verdant views it was intended to provide.

Did you know:

The area where Regents park is located used to be known as Marylebone Park.

The Adam brothers’ understated elegance

James Adam’s drawings for the facades on the terraces on either side of Portland Place clearly show that he intended to create a unified composition. This is less clear today, as the buildings have been altered by their owners and tenants over the course of 200 years. The drawings depict relatively simple, three-story Georgian terraces that showcase the Adam brothers’ elegant classical architectural language, if with some accentuation of the centre and side elements.

No. 27 is situated at the southern end of the west terrace on a plot measuring 10.5 metres in width and 51 metres in depth. The drawings show No. 27 with a round window in an arched niche, extending over two storeys of the facade, although in reality the finished building was considerably simpler. As was the English custom, the building has a basement level with a window well between the street and the facade. This floor contained the kitchen and other utility areas. While the basement received natural light from the window well, the attic floor was illuminated by dormer windows in the slate roof.

At some point during the nineteenth century, the facade was raised and the dormer windows were replaced by windows in the facade. At around the same time, all of the buildings were supplemented with a shallow first-floor balcony overlooking the street. The nineteenth century also saw the installation of rusticated ground-floor facades.

Space to entertain

The ground and first floors were occupied by grand reception rooms. Bedrooms and other private rooms were located on the second floor, while the quarters of the domestic staff employed in the basement kitchen and laundry were in the attic. Behind the house was a small garden with stables and outbuildings at the far end, accessed by a narrow alley running along the rear of the block. The house was intended to host fashionable society. To this end, the ground and first floors are connected by a grand stone staircase with an exquisite wrought iron balustrade. The staircase rises through a three-storey space to an oval roof lantern. This arrangement of a spacious and well-lit staircase highlights the most important rooms at a time before the invention of gas lighting. The other floors are accessed via a separate adjacent staircase that runs through the entire house. The bedroom corridor on the second floor is provided with an appealing sense of theatre as it overlooks the stairwell through a row of pillars.

The Adam style: Pompeian mementos with a personal touch

Robert Adam.

Portrait of James Adam.

All of the state rooms retain the elegant stucco wall and ceiling decorations so typical of the Adam brothers. Among other sources, these draw inspiration from the frescoes documented by Robert Adam in the excavated ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum while studying architecture on the Continent during the Grand Tour.

On returning to Britain in 1758, Adam and his brother James developed a highly personal neoclassical style of architecture, interior design and furniture making so distinctive that it became known as the Adam style. The style was characterised by innovative relief carvings and colourful interiors that would remain dominant for three decades. While most of the motifs, festoons, vases, sphinxes and other ideas he picked up on his travels had been used before, it was the combination that was groundbreaking. The brothers designed everything from facades to door fittings in enormous detail. At 27 Portland Place, for example, the intricate brass door handles appear to be original.

Their elegant classicism quickly spread throughout northern Europe, into Russia and, not least, to the United States. The style was resurrected as the ‘latest thing’ on a number of occasions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and remains popular in both Europe and the United States.

Wedgewood Green

The Adam style introduced delicate and detailed stucco ornamentation with a base of bright colours: pea green, sky blue, lemon yellow, purple, pink and terracotta. In 1769, English ceramicist and industrialist Josiah Wedgewood (1730–95) opened a factory in Stoke-on-Trent, where in 1774 he developed a new type of unglazed matte stoneware called jasperware. He too had been inspired by the excavation of Pompeii and the hundreds of items of Greek pottery discovered there. Almost all Ancient Greek pottery was based on the contrast between light and dark on a scale between beige and dark brown/black. Wedgewood modernised this antique colour scheme: beige figures became white, while the dark backgrounds were replaced with colours inspired by Roman frescoes. The designs were also heavily influenced by the Adam brothers. Wedgewood ceramics are as light and elegant as the brothers’ interiors. Both were groundbreaking, much copied and inspired many successors.

The present-day embassy

Our mission is to represent Sweden and the Swedish government in the United Kingdom and to promote Swedish interests. There are strong links between Sweden and the UK. Politically, we cooperate in many policy areas.

Envoys and ambassadors

Historically, the highest rank of diplomat was ambassador. An envoy, traditionally sent to smaller states, is the diplomatic rank below ambassador. As a general rule, ambassadors were aristocrats and as this work was gradually formalised, so the requirement remained for a residence in which one could hold grand receptions and parties.