Fiona Duncan, The Daily Telegraph, July 31, 2015
Exclusive: Fiona Duncan gets a first look inside The Lanesborough following an £80m renovation.
I have a close association with this hotel, though until a few days ago, I had never actually entered it. I did once leave it though, in my mother’s arms. Yes, I was born in The Lanesborough, in the days when it was St George’s Hospital. Two long rows of iron beds, my mother remembered. Opposite her was a fierce Salvation Army lady who plonked her hat on whenever she had visitors and admonished mum that she was making a rod for her back by cuddling her squalling daughter.
In 1980 the hospital closed and relocated to Tooting. In 1991 the original Hyde Park Corner site became the five-star Lanesborough Hotel but in my mind I still thought of it as a hospital, where I had also once sat in A&E as a small child with a piece of glass in my foot. But now that The Lanesborough has just reopened after a 19-month renovation, under the new management of the Oetker Collection, with prices that make it the most expensive hotel in London, I have yielded.
Heavens. Forget the shock of the new; this is the shock of the old. An undisclosed sum, but believed to be around £80 million or more, has been lavished on The Lanesborough by its owners, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. The result: an interior that displays astonishing craftsmanship but feels remarkably formal and fussy, just when the trend for hotels is to kick back, pare down and chill.
It’s not easy to chill at The Lanesborough. You sit up straight in the old-fashioned, too yellow Withdrawing Room (what’s with the “With”?), marvelling at the lavish new ceiling, the Wilkinson chandeliers, the trompe-l’oeil marbling, the newly acquired 19th-century artworks, the intricate, authentic paintwork, the gold leaf and the gilding. But you don’t chill.
The sitting room lay queasily between storybook Regency and glam, a bit like Beau Brummell after a visit from Ziggy Stardust.
It certainly doesn’t feel like a hospital, that’s for sure, more a Regency palace harking back to the country mansion that was built here in 1719 by the 2nd Viscount Lanesborough. He had no heirs and in 1733 his private home became St George’s Hospital. In 1827, William Wilkins, architect of the National Gallery, rebuilt it in the Greek Regency style we see today. When it became a hotel, at the staggering cost (in 1991) of £1 million per room, its Regency heritage was honoured and the feel of a private mansion was recreated.
By all accounts it was very dark. For the current top-to-toe refurbishment, designer Alberto Pinto’s brief was to retain the Regency theme, but lighten. Pinto, who completed the designs before he died in 2012, was given an almost reckless free rein. It’s certainly light now, and there are some lovely spots: the mellow, intimate Library Bar; the admirably uncluttered lobby; the divine lemon-yellow fourth-floor hallways; room 224, an immediately engaging corner suite. But overall, it feels fussy and fuddy duddy. And, as Geoffrey Gelardi, general manager since 1991, acknowledges, it has created a maintenance and housekeeping nightmare. Paint chip? Call the Regency paint specialist. As for the acres of hand-painted stencilling on wood in the bedrooms, I can’t bear to think about it.
It’s very early days and there are inevitable glitches, but they will be ironed out. Of one thing I’m certain: the service here is second to none. Gelardi was the first London hotelier to employ butlers (“the cream on my cake”) and every room gets one, not just suites. “I don’t think you want me to unpack your suitcase, Mrs Duncan,” said my butler, Vittorio.
“How do you know?”
“Because I was your butler at Rosewood London and I remember.”
The butlers here are trained to read guests’ body language: Vittorio would have had no trouble in registering my utter amazement at his recall, worthy of Jeeves.
All hoteliers say they care passionately about their guests, but both Gelardi and Oetker, with its small, carefully curated collection of outstanding properties, including Le Bristol in Paris, really do. On paper at least, they seem to be a perfect match. Gelardi is protective of the hotel’s “private” feel – no signs outside, items for sale, tent cards in the rooms. Both want the new Lanesborough to be loved and frequented by Londoners, not just its core customer base of wealthy Americans. I can’t see it myself.
My room, an Executive Junior Suite, costs from £1,050 per night without breakfast. It was luxurious, certainly, and beautifully planned, but too passé and too busy: loud yellow walls, a blue patterned carpet, multicoloured curtains, fusty paintings and those slightly irritating stencils on wood panels all around the sitting room. It lay queasily between storybook Regency and glam, a bit like Beau Brummell after a visit from Ziggy Stardust. The bathroom was of hand-cut marble but surprisingly tight on space, as are all the bathrooms here, even in the Royal Suite.
What I didn’t expect to like was the contrastingly super-modern technology, including hotel information, room service, lighting and curtain controls, delivered on two Sony tablets. But I took to it. Wake in pitch dark and at the touch of foot on floor, night-lights automatically switch on to lead you to the bathroom. Wi-Fi (free) has never been faster.
But still… £1,050 excluding breakfast is a great deal of money and there are so many other less expensive London hotels in which I would prefer to spend time. You can live in those other hotels – I’m thinking of Edition, Brown’s, The Goring, the Firmdale hotels, to name but a few – but it would be hard to live in the Lanesborough. Its one restaurant is now called Celèste (feels like Marie Celèste at the moment, while finding its feet) and though the glass-roofed, powder blue room is stunning, again it’s too formal and too full of Regency overkill – and too brightly lit as well.
There’s nothing wrong with the food though: Florian Favario is the protégée of Eric Frechon, whose restaurant at Le Bristol, Epicure, is one of the hotspots of Paris and Florian is as delightful and focused as his cooking is fresh and lively and full of flavour. I just wish I could eat it somewhere less self-regarding and more entertaining: somewhere that matches the just-right character of the staff that man it.
Indeed, it’s not the staff that are at fault at the Lanesborough, and it’s not the management. It’s the new/old look of the place – and hence the feel – that I don’t get. One thing I do know: turns out I was born in a dead posh place.
Hyde Park Corner, London SW1X 7TA (020 7259 5599; lanesborough.com ). Doubles from £720 per night; breakfast from £28 per person. Adapted rooms for guests using wheelchairs.
This article was written by Fiona Duncan from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.