We’re tucked away by Temple tube behind the Embankment, which was reclaimed in the 1870s from the river and marshland by Bazalgette’s historic sewage initiative that changed London forever – changing again today under the Tideway initiative.
So Two Temple Place sits literally and ideologically on the cusp of modern ambitions for health and for a better society – and at the same time it’s a building that looks back to the idea of a golden age of art and architecture, mired in potent personal histories.
Today, Two Temple Place is inspiration, home and provocation to artists, cultural organisations and community groups. It takes nerves of steel to place art in this entirely unconventional space – and it’s enormous fun. The challenge to us and to the artists we work with is to use the space to help tell the story of the work on display.
The house takes artists and visitors in all sorts of directions, and we invite visitors to play with that.
So in summer ’22, Ben and Max Ringham – two astonishing composers and sound designers – are working with us to create a unique and site-specific binaural installation that uses the sound inherent in the different timbers around the building to explore a different aspect of the building’s raw loveliness. Intermission Youth Theatre brought a healthy teenage rage to a week-long residency, taking over the house to tell their own stories of social injustice and wealth inequality. During the pandemic, we worked with Chinese Arts Now to create a digital Two Temple Place, putting digitised artworks into a reimagined building for visitors to ‘walk’ through. Our 2022 exhibition, Body Vessel Clay: Black Women, Ceramics & Contemporary Art placed incredible work from African artists and contemporary makers alongside each other and the peculiarities of the building, juxtaposing the tactile qualities of the ceramic forms alongside the house’s glorious woodwork.
Gloriously, there’s nothing about Two Temple Place that makes much sense. It was commissioned by William Waldorf Astor (1848-1919), then the richest man in the world, and completed in 1895 by some of the greatest craftsmen of the day. It was a wildly eccentric, money-no-object project, comprising an office downstairs to house a phalanx of clerks who administrated Astor’s estate, and Astor’s private apartment upstairs, all in a fortress built to wow.
The freedom and the irresistible budget that Astor allowed his craftsmen persuaded architect John Loughborough Pearson out of retirement to design the building. He was joined by the best of a generation of extraordinary specialists: Robert Davison who created the entrance hall’s elaborate semi-precious stone and marble floor; Clayton and Bell, whose incredible stained glass layers colour in delicate designs that filter the London light; George Frampton, a relative youngster, whose melancholy silver-gilt Arthurian ladies adorn the Great Hall door. The sadly unknown workmen who also carved and crafted appear also to have had a free rein – resolutely pagan Green Men, mermaids, sea serpents abound.
A state of the art Chubb safe in the basement below attests to the building’s functionality, thoroughly at odds with the architecture’s wild neo-Gothic Romanticism and Tudoresque aspirations… The safe’s function now is as the education room for our schools’ programme. The fat putti on the lamp standards at the bottom of the steps wield on high an electric light bulb, and two of them are on the phone to each other – impressively contemporary innovations in a humorously retrospective style.
Inside, the cacophony of voices in the house’s décor echo most deafeningly in the characters carved into the walls by Nathaniel Hitch: Pocahontas rubs shoulders with Cardinal Richelieu, Ericsson stares down King Alfred, Bismarck eyes Ophelia from across the Great Hall. The works defy logic – in fact, some were installed wrongly by craftsmen in the 1890s: but to whose plan? Certainly the wonderful carved Musketeers on the stairs (by Thomas Nicholls) are from Astor’s favourite book, while above them characters from American classics sit under oak friezes from Shakespeare plays. At the point of building Two Temple Place, many of these craftsmen were also working simultaneously at Astor’s other renovations – Cliveden’s staircase echoes ours. Indeed, shortly before the war, a truly magnificent and gravity-defying marble fireplace upstairs in Astor’s private library was presciently moved to Cliveden (where it can still be seen), and in 1944, a huge bomb took out one side of the house. We’re lucky that the restoration of Two Temple Place was done with such sensitivity.
The Astor family story reads like a Netflix series about the super-rich, and there’s much that was dark and downright morally corrupt to animate the history and disquiet us about the nature of wealth as represented in the house. Four generations into their time in America, the Astors had clawed their way to the top of the social tree. In the early 1800s this was at the expense of the indigenous Americans with whom Astor’s great-grandfather traded. From humble roots in rural Germany, John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) approached his emigration to America with a single-minded determination and a willingness to bulldoze obstructions in establishing the Astor dynasty. He set the tone for the next four generations. Later, it was immigrant poor who were in turn oppressed by the family’s opportunism; slum landlords, the Astors famously built much of New York city, but did nothing to improve conditions for the less fortunate. By the mid-19th century, H G Wells could say of the William Waldorf Astor who commissioned Two Temple Place,
“…[he] draws gold from New York as effectually as a ferret draws blood from a rabbit… The enormous surplus value vested in their property did not belong to the Astors, it could be said by single taxers, socialists, and other reform-minded thinkers of the era: it belonged to the sweated wage earners whose labour had turned a low-lying village on Manhattan Island into the de facto commercial capital of the United States…”
The Astor of Two Temple Place made his life in England, after a series of abortive experiments at defining himself in America – a training in law, a posting to Italy, a short-lived political career. In England, newspapers were one of many purchases, with the family going on to own The Observer for 70 years; and yet he harboured a lifelong hostility, enthusiastically reciprocated, to the press. His ownerships were often fraught: faced with opposition from his Editor at the Pall Mall Gazette, Astor wasn’t ashamed to deploy the lordly, “Pray, Sir, who pays the bill?”.
William Waldorf Astor was unequalled when it came both to wealth and eccentricity, defined by capital, driven to collect beautiful things and surround himself with a history he manufactured. A “serial developer”, other homes included Cliveden House and Anne Boleyn’s Hever Castle, as well an astonishing seafront villa in Sorrento. Triply alienated – from the Germany of his heritage, by the America of his birth and fortune, and the England of his emigration – despite his many homes, Astor was never quite at home anywhere, and the repeated creation of a place to belong in speaks of a nostalgia that makes some sense of the peculiarly hybrid Two Temple Place.
Astor wanted to be not only a patron of the arts he loved so much, but a creator of them. A stone sculpture attributed to him at Cliveden is remarkably adept. Less so his self-published romantic writings: “almost comically bad, Yoda meets Monty Python’s Holy Grail…” William Waldorf Astor is an enigmatic and unlovable personality, but he gave Two Temple Place its uniquely strange character.
In spring ’23 we’ll be presenting two brilliant exhibitions that will surprise and challenge visitors again, working with contemporary artists who are letting the building work its particular magic on them, reacting, rejecting, exploring whatever it evokes in them. And an incredible team of Volunteers make opening to the public possible, celebrating Two Temple Place and its curious history with us. When we open for visitors we believe we’re sharing something special of the past for the future, and we’d love to welcome you to visit us soon.
 Launches 11 September https://twotempleplace.org/whats-on/
 H.G. Wells interviewed Astor at Two Temple Place for his 1906 book, The Future in America.
 Altern, ibid
 Materialising History: William Waldorf Astor and the Nostalgia of the Immigrant, Paddy Altern, 2021