One of the lesser well known architectural gems in London’s vast and varied cultural landscape is Two Temple Place. A whisper away from Temple tube station, Two Temple Place is a grand historical beautifully preserved neo-Gothic mansion that has been converted into a museum hosting rotating exhibitions.
Two Temple Place first caught my eye with its inaugural exhibition in late 2011. At the time, I was attending many art events and writing a few reviews for various online magazines and I was surprised to come across a venue that I hadn’t visited before. As it turns out, I was lucky enough to visit the museum’s very first exhibition in late 2011 showcasing the life and work of William Morris – a personal favourite artist of mine. The exhibition itself was wonderful, including a variety of sketches, artworks, and textiles by Morris.
But what truly blew me away at the time was the house itself. Wherever you look, there are beautiful details that make the house truly sing. From intricate mosaic floors, to fantastic wood panels, ornate wood carving, and stained glass windows, the house itself is truly a work of art. And yet, it feels small and intimate. It is not a castle or a big grand dame institution. It is a house that used to be owned by a private individual, which is part of what gives its intimate charm.
Two Temple place is a late Victorian mansion built by William Waldorf Astor. Astor was a wealthy American-born attorney, politician, businessman, and newspaper publisher in the late nineteenth century. For various personal reasons, he moved to England (ultimately becoming a British citizen) and in the process bought Two Temple Place renovating it extensively. Renovations started in 1892 and lasted three years, during which no expense was spared to create an opulent and astonishingly detailed interior. The house was redesigned to be used primarily as Astor’s estate office by one of the foremost neo-Gothic architects at the time - John Loughborough Pearson.
In early February 2016, just over four years after my initial visit, I went back to Two Temple Place to visit the current exhibition - Beyond Beauty, Transforming the Body in Ancient Egypt. Before I delve into the specifics, let me just say one thing. Two Temple Place is the type of building in which I would go to watch grass grow. Or paint dry. You get the picture – to me, the building itself is just so beautiful that having something else to explore, such as a temporary exhibition is a bonus and by no means the only reason to visit. So even if ancient Egyptian objects are not particularly interesting for you, this building is still worth a visit.
Having said that, if you have even a passing interest in ancient studies, and particularly Egypt, then this (free) exhibition could really peak your interest. The exhibition is laid out over two floors starting with various smaller artefacts and ancient objects on the bottom floor. This display includes jewellery, which always fascinates to me see as it really highlights how even in thousands of years, jewellery really hasn’t changed all that much and our innate human desire to decorate our bodies. However, to get to the real showstoppers, you have to walk up an ornate staircase complete with a fantastic mosaic floor on the ground floor, a wonderfully cosy yet grand fireplace, and wooden carvings up the stairs.
Upstairs is where the drama continues within a large hall that houses several mummies (yes, not one mummy, but several genuine mummies), including one of the most beautifully intricately and colourfully decorated mummies I have ever seen. Included in the exhibit are fantastic masks which really catch your eye, particularly the gold gilded cartonnage mask of Titus Flavius Demetrius. The large hall itself is also quite spectacular and provides a dramatic backdrop to these ancient Egyptian treasures. The hall boasts two large panels of wildly colourful stained glass windows, ornate carving throughout, including the doors and on the upper part of the walls, and gorgeously geometric and rich wood panels throughout the entire hall. All in all, it is a feast for the eyes.
Two Temple Place reminds me of a time when it truly seems that more was more. The more ornate, the more opulent, the more intricate, the more skilled and more time intensive the better. A time when craftsmanship was valued, and when creating a smorgasbord of beauty in the home was a worthy ideal to aspire to.
What also makes Two Temple Place truly special is its impermanence. For most of the year, the building is closed to visitors and is used to hold various private functions and events. Only for three months every year in the late winter / early spring, it is open to general visitors when a special exhibition is also showcased. This year’s exhibition ends April 24th, when the building will once again be closed to the general public until next winter. And for the photography lovers out there, you can take photos of the entire house and the exhibitions (no flash).