Esquire's Big Black Book
Almost no one talks about the Albany. Those that do always mention the silence. On hearing this I thought of the silence 'like a thin rain’ that Graham Greene, a former resident, described during his sojourns into the fictional landscape of ‘Greeneland’. It has seeped into the very being of those that live here and those that have left. And so, for centuries this Grade 1 Georgian apartment block on Piccadilly has kept its mystique. Bombs, scandal and the 1960s left few scars and brought little change. In 1969 The Beatles gave their last public performance, on the roof of the Apple Corps building at No 3 Saville Row. At the 69 apartments of the Albany, concealed behind its shuttered rear entrance on Vigo Street, at the foot of Savile Row, windows didn’t open and curtains didn’t twitch. Not even‘Don’t Let Me Down’ echoing through its cloistered Rope Walk, through its hallowed corridors punctuated by marble busts of revered inhabitants from the past - Lord Byron among them - could stir the Albany. Aristocrats, historians, writers, actors and several prime ministers have occupied its ‘sets’, as the apartments are known. The day the Beatles played Edward Heath - he became the British premier the following year - was a resident. In his novel 'The Bachelor of the Albany’ (1848), Marmion Wilard Savage reveals that it’s' the retreat of superannuated fops, the hospital for incurable oddities’. In recent years the designer Christopher Gibbs, a long-standing resident, gave the New York Times a thumbnail sketch of life on the inside. He cast it as a monastery in which the customary Trinity has been replaced by 'secular devotions of exacting taste, the pleasures of life and a romantic nostalgia for England’s past’.
The current cost of a ‘set’ begins in the early millions; weekly rental in the early thousands. The interiors lack the opulent staples of new residences nearby, and the ‘penthouse perfection’ formeryresident Bryan Ferry sang about on ‘In Every Dream Home a Heartache’. The forthcoming The Clarges development, along with The Mellier on Albemarle Street have increased the desirability of 'southern Mayfair’, as Piccadilly is now referred to. But the exclusivity of the Albany is synonymous with class, pedigree, and old money in a rarefied world. One in which insiders never mention money, or discuss the Albany, because it would be bad form. And believe me, I’ve asked.
It begins with the definite article. Purists omit the definite article as the early settlers did at Albany. Was this where I went wrong? Tucking it in the emails and letters to past and present residents in an effort to gain access. 'Albany, and virtually all its residents, place great weight on shying away from any form of publicity', was the prompt response from the committee secretary Commander Wellesley-Harding, 'and whilst the odd snippet emerges from time to time from a resident who doesn't quite see things that way, I cannot as a 'hired hand' breach the policy’.
I’d written and presented documentaries on housing for BBC 4. One on the history of council housing (The Great Estate) and the other on the suburbs (Everyday Eden). I’d covered the working class and rising, the final piece of the triptych was the upper classes and the Albany, well - perfect. Its story has stayed with me for an age, as the building came to represent both that Masonic-like world of an establishment elite defined by public schools, Oxbridge and the aristocracy, and the refuge of the donnish bachelor that devotes himself to the life of the mind. If there was once glamour in the Albany I suspectedit had now succumbed to a jaded elegance. I think it was Peter York who told me the Albany was a kind of ‘Westenders’. A toff Trumpton. The view chimes with the idyllic tableaux offered by Christoper Gibbs: ‘old-timers sitting in the little ivy-lined garden, sunning themselves by the little bronze statue of Antinous'. I mailed Gibbs at his antique emporium in Pimlico. He wasn’t talking. He’d said enough. Maybe too much: 'Residents who are deemed indiscreet risk a ritual scourging by the trustees. So ingrained is the sense of decorum that even to utter a friendly hello to a neighbour as we pass on the stone stairs or the covered outdoor canopy, might be violating a taboo'.
I spotted the Albany as a teenager in the 1970s, passing through Savile Row, pausing to decipher the graffiti coating the door to The Beatles HQ. Then later traipsing this stretch while training to be a tailor. The Albany often came up. The gold letters of its name fading in the sun on Vigo Street: the password to England’s romantic past, and to an elitist English present that the rest of us would never gain entry. It was a similar experience for the actor Terence Stamp, before Billy Budd propelled him into the national consciousness in 1962. In his autobiography Double Feature, he recalls telling the interior designer Christopher Bennison: ‘I saw this place when I was a messenger boy. Had a feeling about it….don’t actually know what it is, often comes to mind though. It’s called the Albany…For years I had fantasies about entering the place’. Bennison was friends with the art historian John Richardson who had a set on the Rope Walk. Stamp went for tea (Dundee cake from Fortnum & Mason, which Richardson referred to as the local ‘tuck shop’). Within weeks a neighbour headed to New York to work at Sotheby’s and the actor took over the apartment. When Richardson moved to New York, Bryan Ferry moved into his chambers. The humble origins of Stamp and Ferry make them rarities in the history of the Albany. Something that may soon change.
One afternoon last Autumn I was at the tailor Huntsman on Savile Row, researching an essay. Established in 1849 it remains upper echelon English. The heads of pursed-lipped stags punctuate the walls in its showroom. Suspended from the rafters the patterns cut for esteemed figures from antiquity. Yet it’s owned by a a Belgian hedge fund manager. While Hardy Amies, Kilgour, Gieves & Hawkes have been colonised by the empire building of Chinese billionaires. Was the Albany about to surrender to the ch-ching, ch-ching of new money from super rich foreigners? ( Swiss bankers and new york art dealers are rumoured to have entered the premises in the last decade). They will have a battle on their hands. More than half of the sets are owned by Peterhouse college at Cambridge university. These were bequeathed by one the Albany’s longest serving residents William Stone (he died in 1958 at 101).
'We have a list of purchasers specifically looking to purchase in Albany’, says Jenna Buck at Mayfair estate agent Knight Frank. ‘They understand that Sets are so rare that it might take a good number of years until a new Set presents itself. Most residents have been in Albany for many years’. A rental apartment appeared last year. Bereft of furniture. Stripped walls. All cracks and shadows. Momentarily, when looking at the images of the interior, the Albany of the nineteenth century namechecked by Dickens and Oscar Wilde materialised. Even more so the tenure of the historian Thomas Macaulay, who left in 1865 after fifteen years: ‘The books are gone, and the shelves look like a skeleton….. It is the corpse of what it was on Sunday….To-day, even while I climbed the endless steps, panting and weary, I thought it was for the last time, and the tears would come into my eyes.’ It was here that the former Whig politician applied himself to his mammoth legacy 'The History of England' (1848). Macaulay was writing of a period in England that ended a century before the Albany came into being. The 18th century three-storey mansion of Viscount Melbourne was converted into bachelor apartments in 1802, by the architect Henry Holland. Two rows of buildings were added, and between them the covered Rope Walk that connects the main entrance on Piccadilly with the north gate on Vigo Street. The covenant that was in place from the beginning resonates in the present, and explains the absence of infants, pets, whistling and anyone without the required credentials.
The American author and academic Philip Bobbitt lives here. He’s almost American aristocracy; the nephew of former US president ‘LBJ’ with Princeton, Yale and Havard on his resumé. He’s in Texas for half of the year and returns to the Albany in summer; he finds it easier to write here. A mutual friend attempts to put us in touch. Still no word. John Richardson was worth a try. He exemplifies a particular moment in the history of the building with his upper-crust English accent and a Britishness that has become more pronounced the longer he’s lived in the US. Still no word. Anyway, I can fill in the blanks. He moved here in 1960, returning from Provence following the break-up of his lengthy relationship with the art collector Douglas Cooper. The multi-volumed A Life Of Picasso (1991) is the work with which Richardson has become synonymous. Picassos were hung in his apartment on the Rope Walk, along with the bleached shell of a giant turtle. The playwright Terence Rattigan lived here between 1945-1951, and for a short time shared his chambers with a young actor. It was from this building The Albany Trust took its name. Founded in 1958 to campaign for the decriminilisation of homosexuality its first meetings occurred in the rooms of J.B Priestley. The writer and broadcaster was representative of that new post-war mood, with the arrival of a Labour government. A fellow traveller, Patrick Hamilton, author of Hangover Square wrote of the working classes that inhabited the pubs that he frequented and then crossed London to his Albany home in those years. Priestley, Hamilton, and later Graham Greene were men of the left. They championed socialism, communism even, yet clung to the cornerstones of the old order: the public school, Oxbridge, the Albany. Priestley was a snob about the suburbs. Hamilton loathed the working class for choosing consumerism over revolution. Greene evacuated the Albany and England in 1966, partly because of the ‘braying of the English middle classes'. During his residency he often walked to Belgravia for ‘shepherd’s pie evenings’ with friends, sending around two bottles of 1950 Cheval Blanc the day before so the sediment could settle.
If these figures championed the demise of the class system other ‘Albanians’ generated towards the aristocracy. The US-born socialite Fleur Cowls editor of Flair magazine ( 'the best things, the first things, uniting its readers in an aristocracy of taste’), occupied fives sets with her third husband from the 1960s. The interior designer Ashley Hicks currently lives here, long after his parents arrived in 1969. He has said of his father David Hicks: ‘He was the greatest snob who ever lived’, who once bragged that his 'one great achievement’ was marrying the daughter of Lord Mountbatten. David Hicks, perhaps the most fêted interior designer of the 1960s and 1970s, broke with traditional notions of good taste with clashing colours, patterned carpets, abstract painting, in his commissions for English country houses and the White House. In his last refurbishment of the Albany apartment, three years before his death in 1998, Hicks opted for the silky chocolate brown walls that become his signature, when cherry-red sofas and purple carpets were deemed passé. His wife, Lady Pamela Hicks, who finally left the Albany in 2013, claimed this was inspired by her throwing glasses of Coke at her husband during domestics. ‘Wish I could help’, Ashley Hicks says in of a series of courteous emails, when I ask about the Albany. ‘I’d love it to be better known and documented, personally, but I am rather in the position of being back at school and having to obey (most of) the rules’. One who broke them was the artist Keith Coventry.
In 2009 at the Haunch of Venision gallery in the eyeline of the Albany on Piccadilly Coventry exhibited his ‘Echoes of the Albany’ pictures, inspired by his brief spell there in the 2000s. The 40 figurative paintings featured some of the characters from Albany’s past, in reds, whites and pinks. A superficial rose-tinted world - literally - with seedy undertones. The writer Michael Bracewell mentioned ‘the dirt beneath the finger nails of status and super wealth’, when writing about the works. The images of crack-smoking seemed a stretch, but scandalous rumours about the Albany's inner sanctum have bubbled to the surface over time. Tales of call girls and rent boys clattering along the Rope Walk in the early hours. Condoms floating in the Albany pond. These, along with the shenanigans of Tory grandee Alan Clarke, were overlooked by the discreet porters. Another Tory MP, Jacob Rees Mogg was here in the early 1990s. He tells me he lived in D6, but little else: ‘This had been Isaiah Berlin’s set’. Perhaps the greatest scandal, or rather tragedy, came in 2000. The style writer John Morgan, author of Debrett’s Guide To Etiquette & Modern Manners fell to his death at 41. His origins, like those of Coventry, Ferry, Stamp were at odds with the backgrounds of most Albany residents. He’d jettisoned the provinces for the capital, stuffing another accent in his mouth and taking on the mantle of the archetypal Albany bachelor in Saville Row suits and handmade shoes. But he soon lacked the funds to maintain his lifestyle, rather like Byron centuries before. He was thought to have committed suicide, leaping from the bathroom window of his fourth floor set. But the coroner ruled on accidental death. Pointing out that if it was suicide there would have been a note - and on Smythson’s notepaper..
Is this where he fell? I wonder, crossing the courtyard ahead of the palladian entrance. Did windows open? Did curtains twitch? Spotting me, the porter steps from his lodge and attempts to fill the main doorway. The top hat has gone but the uniform remains. I think of Terence Stamp when he first visited: ‘ I had actual butterflies in my gut, as bad as first night’; of the porter putting Keith Coventry to bed when he came back drunk. There is a ’set' up for sale on the open market, in the main house of the former mansion. Who will buy at £6.95 million? Are Russian oligarchs, Chinese billionaires, Americans and Europeans circling the wagons, keen to invest in history and heritage? The set belongs to Peterhouse College, and so whoever puts in a bid is likely to be vetted by both the college and the Albany committee. They don’t want wide boys and Ferraris. While many a rich foreigner is likely to opt for the modern Mayfair apartments where everything is operated by the touch of an ipad. This set has no central heating and is in need of a makeover at the hands of a contemporary Hicks or Bennison. There are scars left from floor to ceiling bookcases. The remaining furniture brings to mind the day bed at Christopher Gibbs place, once owned by Tennyson. This was the home of the academic philosopher Lord Quinton for the last ten years of his life, and that of his widow for the last five. The small kitchen upstairs is a hangover from the days when staff occupied the box room next to it. Today, the rooms house the remnants of the lives lived here, ready for the removal van: sculptures on plinths and gilt-framed paintings, alongside a puzzle, a beer mat, and among the books, Plato’s Symposium - a clue to the career of the former tenant. I’m not sure the Eton-educated estate agent is convinced I can afford this. I’m probably poorer than the porters, and no where near as posh. I’ve been told that discretion is key; shoes and watches are the clues to the wealth of the residents. I’m wearingbrogues by Loake, no watch, and my vowels are getting flatter by the minute. I use the bathroom, like a dog spraying its scent. I’ve finally entered the Albany. The small bathroom is a nod to the Sixties, or earlier, and themes that I’ve seen emulated in homes in Kent, Essex and elsewhere, in the pursuit of high-end class, style and glamour. Except here the marble tops and chandeliers are real. But why a small square mirror on the ceiling, directly above the toilet? Oh, what stories the rooms at the Albany could tell.
Earlier this year at Sotheby’s in New York, furniture and objets d'art belonging to Terence Stamp was auctioned off. Much of it from his Albany days. He left in January 1969 via the rear entrance, looking skyward and stepping into a cab as The Beatles were playing ‘Don’t Let Me Down’. Regretting that he never asked his former girlfriend, the model Jean Shrimpton, to share his Albany rooms. 'When I moved into the Albany, Piccadilly’, he told Sotheby’s, ‘one of Britain’s great interior decorators, Geoffrey Bennison, advised me to furnish the chambers in the Georgian and corresponding French period styles in which they were built. John Richardson, the Picasso expert, steered me initially to Picasso ceramics…. There was an Empire daybed that Geoffrey had widened in order to accommodate two people comfortably. A large polar bear skin, complete with gaping jaw, lay across bare floorboards’.
I share the same agent as Stamp. I hope this might swing it. I want him to tell me all that the Albany symbolises to him. In 1967, he appeared in the Ken Loach film Poor Cow. Filming took place at The Palatinate, a condemned building in south east London, around the corner from where I lived. The name suggested the grandeur of the Albany, but here were two tenement blocks built a century before. Each five storeys high with a courtyard to the rear; a cracked concrete margin blotted with potholes, across which rope lines were suspended and from which washing was hung as though noosed, in all seasons. It was demolished as part of the regeneration of the neighbourhood. The Palatinate represented the working class world that Stamp left; the Albany the one he arrived at. He was one of those rare creatures that made the leap from east end boy to west end boy in the mythical social revolution of the 1960s. 'That first afternoon’, he writes in his autobiography, ‘I rolled around in front of the fireplace, hugging myself in reassurance it was true’. His story mattered more than anyone's. I wanted him to talk more than anyone. But he too is muted by the ancient oath of omertà.
Much has been made of the sepulchral tranquility between these walls. Standing here, staring into the the Rope Walk and the tiny patios with statues of griffins (those mythical creatures that guard wealth and treasure), I’m reminded of the silence that the dissidents refer to. The sounds that pierce that silence are the sounds that always have: birdsong, the chimes of St James church, the hourly tinkle of the Eton Boating Song from the Fortnum & Mason clock. Christopher Gibbs has written of a drunken baronet who drowned in his bath, and whose spirit was lodged in a dumb waiter here. But there must be other ghosts from its history accounting for the odd click and creak. Macaulay mounting the attic stairs at night. The swish of Lady Caroline Lamb’s cape when dressed a pageboy, she sneaked into Byron’s rooms and scratched two words on his desk : Remember me. The upper class, cut glass laugh at a Fleur Cowles dinner party. The thud of a falling man. Outside the Albany, a London that belongs entirely to the present. A city dominated by the rich and poor immigrant, from the oligarch to the asylum seeker and the refugee. But in here another city, another country. The last of England - all be it an England most of us never knew. Where the outsider is omitted along with the definite article. Albion. Arcady. Albany. An England that will one day be, like the London we natives once knew, like ‘Greeneland' itself, ‘a region of the mind’.