Quite near Dover Street, if you only knew it, is the one place where you may read the story of London spread out before you page by page better than anywhere else. But very few people can even tell you how to find it.
I once saw Lancaster House called the Cinderella of London museums-perhaps because it is so charming and so neglected. It is near no bus route nor railway station, yet this London Carnavalet is not so very far from the Dover Street Tube station and either of the two routes by which it is reached from that point are delightful walks. You may enter Green Park and stroll along the Queen’s Walk till you come to a passage-way to the left-not the first little narrow one where two people have to walk Indian file into St. James’s Place, but the second, that leads through a wider gateway, closed at 10 p.m., into Stable Yard.
Or else you can go down St. James’s Street, past the passage leading into the quaint little eighteenth-century courtyard of Pickering Place, towards St. James’s Palace with its beautiful old sixteenth-century brick gateway in Cleveland Row. Skirt the Palace to the right and you will come to Stable Yard, and in Stable Yard is Lancaster House.
It is a stately place. Queen Victoria once said to the Duchess of Sutherland: “I come from my house to your palace,”but shorn of the groups of chairs and tables and the stately company moving up and down the magnificent staircase, the yellow and red marble walls seem cheerless and repellant.
Now and then a little white notice is pasted on the door with the announcement that the museum, which is usually open on summer Fridays and Sundays from 2 to 6, and all other days from 10 to 6 and till 4 o’clock in winter, will be closed to the public for an afternoon or evening. The Government are entertaining distinguished strangers in the spacious salons, and then Lancaster House lives again for a few hours the brilliant existence it had in the nineteenth century, when it was called Stafford House and the Duke of Sutherland dispensed splendid hospitality there.
Amusing tales of these political parties, and of the guests, and of many other things, are told in Mr. Arthur Dasent’s delightful Story of Stafford House, that is sold for a modest sum just inside the door.
In 1913 Lord Leverhulme bought the remainder of the lease that expires in 1940, from the Duke of Sutherland, and handed it over to the trustees of the London Museum to house the collection of London antiquities then exhibited in Kensington Palace.
The name of Stafford House was changed to Lancaster House as a compliment to the King, who is Duke of Lancaster, and in memory of the generosity of a Lancashire man.
It is an entrancing place, where you can trace this great city’s history from the time men used flints to the war that is too near for its souvenirs to be anything but harrowing.
One may walk through the ages, from the Prehistoric room, through Roman, Saxon and Mediaeval rooms, on the ground floor, and, then, going up the grand staircase, see how men lived in London in Tudor, seventeenth-century, Cromwellian and Charles IL’s days, and so on, through the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century rooms, to the costume and Royal rooms, where you pause dumbfounded before the going-away dress of stiff white silk poplin embroidered with gold that Queen Mary wore the day of her wedding, 6th July, 1893.
Down on the ground floor, past the Temple Crusader with the Mestrovic countenance, in the west corridor, is the Gold and Silver Room, with the beautiful jewellery that some bygone Jacobean jeweller buried in Wood Street, perhaps when the menace of the Great Fire was upon him.
Of what happened to him there is no trace, and the lovely chains and rings lay buried for two and a half centuries. They may for all we know have been stolen and buried by thieves who met their end on Tyburn Tree before they could enjoy their booty. Admirers of Lalique’s work in the Place Vendome will see how this unknown Englishman solved the same problems of the great French artist 25o years ago. The delicate enamel chains and lovely cameos and carved chalcedony and glass and onyx are prettier than many a jeweller’s stock today, and they must look disdainfully across at the case of heavy Victorian atrocities which our grandmothers wore so complacently.