The Travellers Club in Pall Mall were generous enough to invite members of the Society for a private tour. Jo East was lucky enough to get a ticket and reports.
Our host for the day was Club Secretary David Broadhead. Asked to explain his role he denotes himself as “Headmaster of a Public School for Adults”. Having been in post 10 years he brings with him as a former hotelier all the nous and knowhow to both look after this Grade 1 listed building and its 1300 members.
Assembling in the Outer Morning Room, one of the five major rooms we were to see on our visit, David explained the club's history: Founded in 1819 after the Napoleonic Wars the club was set up as a meeting place for anyone who ventured 500 miles from Trafalgar Square. Undertaking what we would now know today as “networking” tales would be exchanged, the latest maps pored over and anecdotes shared and bested. Obviously today to travel 500 miles is considerably easier than at its founding so the rules have been changed. Now members must have travelled to four countries! This isn’t the end of the process however: There is a waiting list, members can only be proposed, seconded, gain five additional signatures of support and then dine with the Club’s membership committee before being accepted. Although the Foreign Secretary of the time is offered honorary membership – of which the present incumbent has taken full use.
Moving to this present site in 1832 its esteemed founders were able to commission Charles Barry to create the first Italianate building in London on the site of the Louis IV style Carlton House which was pulled down when it fell out of favour with the Prince Regent. David explained that all of the rooms we would be visiting would be as familiar to Barry today as they were when he created them. In part due to a wish for continuity but also down to the strictures of Historical England and English Heritage who have to approve any alterations required with the Club meeting all the costs. The three brass Barry-designed chandeliers reflecting to infinity in the large mirrors at either end of the Outer Morning Room gave a taste of the architect’s predilection for symmetry found around the rest of the club.
Moving on to the Inner Morning Room this perfect cube of a room gave views into the small courtyard –another feature of the Italianate style. As we were shown round David pointed out various pictures the most artistically important being perhaps the Antrobus twins by Sir Thomas Lawrence. My particular favourites though were those that provided a female presence to this all male club: Portraits of Lady Hamilton and Lady Elizabeth Forster in the Outer Morning Room and Boninis copies by Angelica Kaufmann the first woman founder of the Royal Academy in the Smoking Room.
This was where our tour took us next. A long room seemingly running the whole length of the rear of the property giving onto a large shaded garden and views of Carlton Terrace. Although smoking is no longer here allowed the name persists and judging by the plethora of magazine issues – The Church Times nestling up with The Field and Fortune - it was easy to imagine the members finding it a very convivial place to relax particularly after a good lunch with fine drink. The mirror which is a Chinese Chippendale is so delicate that it is only dusted once a year with a goatskin brush.
Moving up the staircase we stopped briefly to hear how the magnificent balustrade was added to allow Prince Talleyrand with his gammy leg to ascend to his games of whist and then into the Coffee Room where members can bring guests to dine. The exceptions to this being a large central communal table reserved purely for members encouraging them to sit and chat with others. Contrarily a few single only tables for those wishing to dine alone. Both traditions dating back to the founding of the club with the singletons being for those wishing to catch up on the newspapers they’d missed out on during their travels.
Unlike many of the London clubs there is no gym and perhaps it is a good indicator of its style that when one prospective candidate expressed disappointment at this one of the members mused “Is he really the chap for us?” Members do however obtain reciprocal use of 140 clubs across the globe and this may be why 65 serving Ambassadors are numbered amongst its members today.
Hung with more traditional crystal chandeliers the Coffee Room has been recently taken back to its original colour scheme of yellow, gold and grey. A small patch being left to show the stripped back wall that provided enough for the architectural paint expert to find and recreate the design.
Our tour concluded in the Library. Consisting of 3 interconnected rooms the inner one had all around a bass relief of a copy of the Bassae frieze. Depicting Greek wars both real and imaginary this white stucco relief on a red background was brought back from Northern Greece and the original resides along with the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. A recent talk by an expert on such things revealed that the Traveller’s version has been put up out of order adding to its uniqueness! Being very much a “live” library with books of travel from all places and ages we were enjoined to browse at our leisure amongst the shelves. Such titles as Lost Luggage by A Pincher and Tragedy on the Cliffs by Eileen Dover were not available to view however numbering amongst other similar humorous titles as spines on a concealed door to the Kitchen. The work of the renowned traveller Patrick Leigh Fermor a secret door just added to the clubs quintessential feel of a “Country House within London” that David fostered with the minimum of signage and diktats.
David concluded by recounting how in the 1970s with the notion of clubs falling out of favour, some of its valuable possessions were sold off for funds. Amongst this was the 19 volume Les Galleries Historique de Versailles and housed in the magnificent Orleans cabinet. This had been presented as a gift in 1848 by a grateful French Royal family who had been given shelter by the club having been exiled from France. When it became known that it was available at an auction in Geneva, David successfully bid and has restored it to its place in the Library – Although at considerable more expense than the paltry £1000 for which it was sold. This tale fittingly encompassed so much of the spirit of the club: A desire to cherish its important historical assets and in a phrase coined by one of its founding patrons Lord Aberdeen the attitude of “entente cordiale” that caused its founding 199 years ago. The warm welcome and fascinating tour certainly reflected this spirit and we gratefully thanked our hosts for the day.
Our sincere thanks to the Travellers Club for enabling this wonderful visit.