Ian Sansom wrote in March 2011 that “merely making sense of the Astor family tree is enough to make a grown genealogist cry. For mere amateurs, it’s like making one’s way through a dark forest, at night, wearing a blindfold.”
So, though William Waldorf Astor was born in 1848, we join him in 1890, when he had inherited his father’s fortune. The following year, he fell into a family feud with his aunt, Caroline Webster “Lina” Schermerhorn, over (among other things) who should be the “official Mrs. Astor” in New York society. After the argument, Astor moved with his wife and children to England. He rented Lansdowne House in London until 1893. That year he purchased a country estate, Cliveden in Taplow, Buckinghamshire, from the Duke of Westminster.
To disappear from public view, in the summer of 1892, Astor faked his own death by having his staff report to American reporters that he had died, apparently from pneumonia. However, the ruse was soon discovered, whereupon Astor was mocked in the press.
In 1895, when he was arguably the richest man in the world, he built a neo-Gothic mansion at Two Temple Place, on London’s Victoria Embankment, overlooking the River Thames. Astor commissioned architect John Loughborough Pearson (see Gavin Stamp’s article of November 2017: The Criminal Genius of John Loughborough Pearson) to design a $1.5 million building, a “crenellated Tudor stronghold”, which he used as an estate office for managing his extensive holdings. Today, the house hosts annual exhibitions showcasing museum and art gallery collections from outside London.
In addition to its opulent interior, the finished building contained the largest strong room in Europe as well as two other enormous fortified safes. At the portico front entrance of Two Temple Place stands a pair of ornamental lamppost-sculptures. The designs for the portico, these sculptures, and other assorted elements of the building decoration, are by William Silver Frith.
On the right hand side (as you approach the entrance) the lamppost, pictured above, is decorated with two putti. One speaks into a telephone, while the other listens through the receiver. On the left hand side, one putto seems to be generating electricity, while the other holds aloft a contemporary light bulb design. The design celebrates the fact that this was one of the first London houses to have a telephone installed.
Frith became one of the most influential teachers of sculpture in the last decades of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century. He was vitally important to the Lambeth Art Schools, being a key player in transferring the teaching of modelling to South London Technical School of Art in 1879. Pleasingly, in this context, his collaborator was John Sparkes.
Astor made several business acquisitions while living in London. In 1892, he purchased the Pall Mall Gazette, and in 1893 established the Pall Mall Magazine. In 1911 he acquired The Observer, a national newspaper. In 1912 he sold the Magazine, and in 1914 made a present of the Gazette and The Observer, with the associated building in Newton Street and its contents, to his son Waldorf Astor.