I know exactly when I fell in love with history: the moment in my sophomore year in college when the archaeology professor put a Greek “little-master” cup in my hands. Holding something created and used by the Greeks when they were not Ancient … that made history vivid and interesting in a way it never was on a textbook page.
Stepping into the Lansdowne House dining room at the Metropolitan Museum has the same effect.
The Lansdowne House dining room is in an out-of-the-way corner of the Metropolitan Museum, but it’s worth the trek to be able to step back in time. And, besides, even its minor details are jaw-droppingly gorgeous: this doorknob, for example. (NOTE: As of 12/7/16, the MMA’s website says this room is “Not on View.” If you’re visiting to see this room specifically, check before you go.)
The building known as Lansdowne House was begun ca. 1760 and sold in 1765, while still incomplete, to the second Earl of Shelburne, later Marquess of Lansdowne. Inside and out, it was the work of Robert Adam, one of the most noted British architects and interior designers of his (or any other) time. Completed in 1768, the house sprawled across a huge lot next to Berkeley Square in central London.
This is how the main facade looked in the early 20th century.
The dining room
Robert Adam had strong opinions on dining rooms.
The eating rooms are considered as the apartments of conversation, in which we are to pass a great part of our time. This renders it desirable to have them fitted up with elegance and splendor, but in a style different from that of other apartments. Instead of being hung with damask, tapestry & c. they are always finished with stucco, and adorned with statues and paintings, that they may not retain the smell of the victuals. (Quoted in MMA’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History)
Benjamin Franklin ate here
Among British statesmen of the late 18th century, the Earl of Shelburne was the most prominent advocate of free trade. His acquaintances included Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, and David Hume. Franklin was probably a frequent guest at Lansdowne House. Wiggle your toes (the floor is the original oak) and imagine Franklin telling amusing anecdotes to his fellow diners right in this room.
When Lansdowne House was under construction, the severe Neoclassical style was just edging out the charming frivolity of Rococo artists such as Fragonard. The sculptures in the niches of the dining room are plaster copies of Greek and Roman works. The Marquess of Lansdowne, of course, didn’t have plaster copies. He purchased Roman copies recently excavated in Italy. (I first sought out this room when I discovered from the MMA’s site that it contained a copy of the Apoxyomenos by Lysippus, which features prominently in my Innovators in Sculpture tour – although on the walking tour, we don’t hike across the museum to see it.)
In 1930, London’s city council decided to cut another access road to Berkeley Square. Half of Lansdowne House was torn down. You can see which part was left on Google Maps.
The dining room was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum in 1931 and installed in 1954.
The drawing room of Lansdowne House went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Since 1935, what remains of the building (still quite spectacular!) has been the home of the Lansdowne Club. It includes the “Round Room Cocktail Bar,” in which the Earl of Shelburne (at the time the British prime minister) is said to have drafted the document that became the Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War.
In 1727 Benjamin Franklin established the Junto in Philadelphia:
a club of mutual improvement … The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.”
Fittingly, the London branch of the Junto now meets in the Lansdowne Club.