Quite why at the age of 70 Elizabeth Gibbons decided to build an enormous house on the north side of Portman Square when she had a second home opposite remains a mystery.
She could certainly afford the luxury of two London houses. Having inherited her father’s Jamaican plantations as his sole surviving child, then to marry one of the Island’s richest men at the age of 16 to become a widow
13 years later.
[N]ine years after her first husband’s death on Christmas Day 1742 she remarried William the Eighth Earl of Home (pronounced Hume). Within eight weeks he left her to pursue men of a similar persuasion and his military career with the Dragoon Guards, later to die in Gibraltar in 1761.
With her inherited wealth from the Jamaican estates and the title of Countess of Home, she lived in a large house on the south side of Portman Square. Described as ’flamboyant, eccentric, given to swearing like a trooper’ with her gambling and drinking she was well known to the Irish chairmen.
These were the predecessors of today’s modern cabbies and were themselves a pretty rough bunch but, even they gave the moniker of ’Queen of Hell’.
She didn’t restrict her rough demeanour to the poor working classes, for she had engaged 26-year-old James Wyatt to design for her a large house on the north side of Portman Square.
Soon they fell out and she replaced Wyatt with his great rival Robert Adams to finish the job.
He produced one of London’s finest houses designed, it was said, to hang two very large full height portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland painted by Gainsborough – they now reside within the Royal Collection.
In Home House Adam produced a series of grand reception rooms leading to the Imperial Staircase which rises through the entire height of the house to a glass dome.
Built at the time when the abolitionist movement to the sugar industry and the slavery needed to produce it was on the rise amongst London intellectuals.
Her neighbour Elizabeth Montagu would hold abolitionist tea parties for up to 700 guests designed to raise the public’s awareness of how their daily sweet fix had been grown – ’As he sweetens his tea, let him consider the bitterness at the bottom of the cup’.
Home House might have been built on the proceeds of slavery but the Queen of Hell has given London one of its finest houses.
The house has recently been restored, having for some years housed the Courtauld Institute, and is now an exclusive Club.