Quick Five Questions with Heather Prentice, Board member, Nell Gwynn House Freehold Ltd.9th December 2022
What is the story of Nell Gwynn House?
With its magnificent Art Deco facade, Nell Gwynn House was designed in 1937 as a glamorous London home for those who travelled or lived outside the capital. In addition to the sumptuous apartments, it offered a restaurant-ballroom for 250 people, a cocktail bar, a reception lounge and later hosted a music club. It has been featured in films such as: The Courier (2020) starring Benedict Cumberbatch, the TV series Lucky Man (2016-2018) with James Nesbitt and The Firechasers (1971). A collection of famous people have also used it as their base: Mike Sadler, navigator for the original SAS and now featured in BBC documentary SAS Rogue Heroes; film actress Diana Dors and entertainer Bruce Forsyth, among others. This gives Nell Gwynn House the atmosphere of a grand hotel, a fantastic hub of international people.
Photography: Ray Main
What is the influence of Art Deco?
Art Deco, which first emerged in France prior to World War I, was the last truly sumptuous style, featuring distinctive geometric shapes with clear outlines and bright strong colours. Its influence went beyond architecture, fashion and art, as it also came to represent a lifestyle of timeless luxury and old-world glamour. The redesign by Tim Gosling and Phil Sturdy has beautifully captured the Belle Epoque glamour and heritage of the building’s original style. The design places Nell Gwynn House on the map as one of the more notable Art Deco buildings in London, sharing the decorative style with Claridge’s, The Dorchester and The Savoy. Located on Sloane Avenue, Nell Gwynn is also in good decorative company – down the street from Michelin House and across the river from Battersea Power Station.
What are the special architectural features of the building?
The 10-story building itself is unique, with the footprint forming a giant W shape, in cubist style, to maximise light to the 431 apartments. It was built in 1937 to a design by architect G. Kay Green in Art Deco splendour, Above the main entrance is a back-lit statue of Nell Gwynn standing at the foot of an alcove six storeys high with Art Deco reliefs above. At Nell Gwynn’s feet is a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, in homage to King Charles II. It is believed to be the only statue of a royal mistress in London. A driveway helps guests arrive easily, making the most of the building’s prominent location at the heart of Chelsea. A lit semi-circular driveway with an ornamental garden sweeps guests to the front door, away from the rush of Sloane Avenue.
Could you describe the new design in more detail?
Studio Gosling has beautifully captured the luxury and glamour of the building’s original Art Deco style and the heritage of its fascinating residents. Phil Sturdy has created a magnificent flood-lit frieze running around the building, echoing the 1930s New York skyline – the US city then offered maximum splendour with the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Centre and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel lighting up the sky. At the steps to Nell Gwynn House, bespoke hand-crafted Art Deco balustrades lead you up to a revolving-door main entrance under a lit canopy. There are numerous Art Deco touches throughout the building from bespoke lamps and mirrors, to works of art and gilded motifs. At night, the main piazza in porphyry stone comes alive under the stylised lighting.
Are there stories of intrigue and glamour at Nell Gwynn House?
Like a grand hotel, Nell Gwynn House has hosted many fascinating people. Two English Heritage blue plaques are on the side of the building, commemorating social reformist and slave abolitionist Frederick Douglass and British intelligence officer and secret agent Vera Atkins CBE.
One of the most notable former residents is Mike Sadler, 102, the last surviving founding member of the elite SAS regiment, which launched night-time raids against Italian and German airfields in the Libyan desert. An expert navigator, Mike Sadler was able to guide the SAS raiding groups across large expanses of barren desert to within 100 metres of the airfields. Through these actions, the SAS helped change the course of WWII. In 2018, Sadler was awarded France’s highest honour, Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur.
Another former resident was the stylish, blonde English film star Diana Dors, who starred in more than 12 films in the 1940s and ‘50s, while actress Daisy Burrell of the silent firm era also had a flat in the block. TV entertainer Bruce Forsyth, famous for hosting Strictly Come Dancing and The Generation Game, kept a London flat in Nell Gwynn. American rock singer and songwriter Alan Merrill wrote the song I Love Rock ’n’ Roll, making his fortune, while living in Nell Gwynn House.
Former resident Roy James was the getaway driver for what was referred to as ‘the crime of the century’, the Great Train Robbery in 1963 when his gang stole £2.6 million in used bank notes from a Royal Mail train heading from Glasgow to London. The original plans for the robbery were found taped to the ceiling of his flat.
The British Secret Intelligence Service or MI6, used one of the apartments as a discrete safe house for two decades. Three Scandinavian newspapers used the block as their London office. I’m sure there are many more stories to tell – why not drop by?