Two Temple Place is a gothic-revival mansion built by William Waldorf Astor in 1892. At the time Astor was the richest man in Europe and his architect, John Loughborough Pearson, one of the foremost neo-Gothic architects of the late nineteenth-century, was instructed to spare no expense. It’s only open to the public when there’s a special exhibition on, as there is at the moment – Discoveries, featuring works from ten Cambridge museums and galleries.
Two Temple Place is an extraordinary building. It’s situated on the Victoria Embankment, in that curve of buildings behind Temple tube station, right next to the proposed site for the new garden bridge. The cherubs standing under the lamps celebrate the advance of electricity; one of them holds a telephone and the other a light bulb.
It’s owned by the Bulldog Trust, hence the bulldog outside the building.
But it’s the opulent wood-panelled interiors that are truly amazing, especially the staircase with its carvings of characters from The Three Musketeers, apparently Astor’s favourite book.
This is Porthos:
The painted glass windows in the great hall are stunning. They’re by Clayton and Bell, one of the biggest 19th century stained glass workshops.
This one shows a swiss summer landscape:
The Discoveries exhibition has some real delights in it, not least the reproduction of James Watson and Francis Crick’s 1953 skeletal model of DNA, showing the famous double helix construction.
This is an early cretaceous ammonite from the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. It’s around 120 million years old. Behind it you can see the skeleton of a dodo from the Cambridge Museum of Zoology. The dodo became extinct in the seventeenth century.
But my aim in visiting wasn’t just to see the building. As part of the Discoveries exhibition the Fitzwilliam has lent a folding album of twelve woodblock prints by Utamaro, a parody of the kabuki play Chushingura, the Treasury of Loyal Retainers. In Utamaro’s version the loyal retainers are represented by famous beauties of the age.
The album was sold to the writer Edmond de Goncourt in Paris in1885 by the Japanese dealer Tademasa Hayashi. Goncourt revealed its secrets in his book about the artist Utamaro in 1891.
In the last print, in a parody of the play’s final scene where the villain is discovered hiding in a coal store, Utamaro includes a portrait of himself in a brothel.
The exhibition, which is free, runs until 27 April 2014. It’s open on Mondays and Thursday to Saturday 10 am to 4.30 pm, Wednesdays 10 am to 9 pm, Sundays 11 am to 4:30 pm. Closed on Tuesdays.