One of the things that has been lost in the bluster, political sniping and hot-air Tweets about Donald Trump’s visit to Britain is the magnificence of the home in which he has (briefly) been staying. It is a small matter, admittedly, and Trump has allowed for such a short window of time in London that his head can barely have touched the pillow in the place in question. But Winfield House, where he slept last night, deserves closer inspection. It, and the patch of the city which flanks it, is the UK capital at its grandest.
Not, of course, that you can inspect this glamorous early 20th century mansion too closely. Not at the moment - it has been trapped behind a wall of barriers and metal fences, designed to repel protesters. And not on any normal day either. Said palatial property, completed by the British architect Leonard Rome Guthrie in 1936, has been the residence of the United States ambassador to the UK since 1955. It looks the part too. With its 12 acres of grounds, it can claim the second largest private garden in central London. The largest, as a reference point, is the one which frames Buckingham Palace.
You can admire Winfield House from a relative distance if you stroll through Regent’s Park - it occupies the west corner of said green lung, sitting a short onward amble from the polite rituals of Lord’s cricket ground. But a more interesting route of footfall, perhaps, is one which meanders just beyond the property, along the towpath of the Regent's Canal, where the majesty of Guthrie's creation is placed into a clearer context.
It is easy to assume that any building in London that displays a stately virtuosity must be the work of centuries long disappeared. But if Winfield House is a mere child in terms of the city's double-millennium history - a stripling yet to hit its 100th birthday - then the structures which line the canal behind it are babies, barely out of the architectural womb.
You would not guess this from a glance at the Regent’s Park Villas. They resemble the sort of romantic addresses in which Lord Byron might have conducted a soiree, or Shelley held effusive court. And yet the date stamp on the brickwork is not 18-something, but, most remarkably, a range of years between 1988 and 2004. Curiouser and curiouser.
True, their roots go back to the 19th century, and the blueprint for Regent’s Park laid out in 1811 by John Nash. Here, at the very start of the Regency period, the feted architect drew up a scheme to transform what had been a hunting area and agricultural land into a giant grassy playground for the extravagant future George IV. The design included an enormous palace for the Prince Regent, and 48 villas for his friends. Only eight of them would be built. In 1818, when the park was being shaped, the idea was largely dropped.
Still the proposition did not go away. It lived on in a suspended state - and would be reanimated 17 decades later, in 1987, when the Regent Park’s Crown Estate Commissioners effectively asked the Neo-Classical revivalist Quinlan Terry to pick up Nash’s baton. Terry would later tell this newspaper that he was told to “step into Nash's shoes and carry on walking”. He did so, creating six villas along the park’s Outer Circle. Each was slightly different to its neighbour; each bore a different name in tribute to the relevant style of classical architecture - the Corinthian Villa, the Doric Villa, the Gothick Villa, the Ionic Villa, the Regency Villa and the Veneto Villa. Unsurprisingly, they were snapped up for considerable sums. The Gothick Villa alone (pictured top) sold for £6.5million in 1994.
Speaking to the Telegraph in 2002, Terry revealed his doubts and fears about the project. “There were times when I thought we would never finish them all,” he explained. A committed opponent of modernism, he added that: “It would have been a disaster if someone had decided to abandon the last three and given them to modernists to design.”
A further 16 years on, the villas blend into their setting. And while they can be seen from the Outer Circle, the best snapshot is arguably from the towpath, their gardens sloping down to the canal, their white walls and right angles offset by the dark green of the water.
It has proved a fool’s errand to second-guess the 45th US President, but it seems a fair assumption that, when he woke up this morning in Winfield House, he did not peer out of the window and wonder about the precise architectural roots of the properties directly to the west. Those who have a chance to walk in London later this week, when the hubbub about the presidential visit has died down, might do well to look a little more carefully.