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 (pictured below) 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.
Nell Gwynn House has the atmosphere of a 1930s Grand Hotel, a fantastic hub of international people. Enjoy the history of Nell Gwynn House.
What is the Influence of Art Deco?
Art Deco, which emerged in France prior to WWI, 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 history of Nell Gwynn House.
A magnificent redesign in 2022 by renowned British designers Tim Gosling and Phil Sturdy has beautifully captured the Belle Epoque glamour and heritage of Nell Gwynn House.
The design celebrates the building's original Art Deco features with an elegant canopy, flood-lit frieze highlighting the statue of Nell Gwynn and a stylish entrance with revolving doors. A gilded motif above the main door adds to the glamour.
The design places Nell Gwynn House on the map as one of the more notable Art Deco buildings in London, sharing the style with Claridge’s, The Dorchester and The Savoy.
Art Deco Splendour
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.
Kay Green took his architectural inspiration from the fashionable art movement of the day - Cubism. He also introduced themes, patterns, materials and colours from exotic lands, drawing on influences from the Egyptians, Aztecs and the Mayans. The W-shaped design of the building itself reflects the fashion for geometric designs and symmetry so beloved of the movement of the day.
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.
Eleanor Gwynn (1650-1687) was a celebrated comedy actress during the Restoration period and one of the first professional women on stage. Praised by diarist Samuel Pepys who called her "pretty, witty Nell", her rags-to-riches tale, from orange seller to mistress of King Charles II, is the original Cinderella story. Beloved by the public, she founded the Chelsea Hospital nearby.
A Wonderful Redesign by Studio Gosling
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, worked into history of Nell Gwynn House, 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.
Stories of Intrigue and Glamour
Like a Grand Hotel, Nell Gwynn House has hosted many fascinating people. Two memorial plaques are on the side of the building, commemorating social reformist and slave abolitionist Frederick Douglass and British intelligence officer and spymaster Vera Atkins CBE.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was an African American social reformer, writer and statesman and a key figure in the abolition of slavery. Born into slavery in Maryland, he escaped aged 20 and made his way to New York, becoming an abolitionist orator and social reformer. He lived in Britain from 1845 to 1847, lecturing on slavery. It was here in Britain that £150 was raised by abolitionists for Douglass to buy his freedom. He was the first African American to receive a nomination for the US presidency and eventually became the US government minister to Haiti. The plaque commemorates where Douglass stayed with the British abolitionist George Thompson in 1846, while lecturing in London on the horrors of the slave trade.
Vera Atkins (1908–2000) A Romanian-born British Intelligence Officer who worked in the French Section of Britain's covert Special Operations Executive during World War II. The SOE was set up in 1940 to “set Europe ablaze” through sabotage, in the words of Sir Winston Churchill. Atkins recruited and trained more than 400 secret agents to fight the Nazis. She took great care of her agents and personally went to find the ones that were missing when WWII ended. Writer Ian Fleming worked along the corridor from Vera Atkins and there is speculation he based the character 'M' in the James Bond series on her. The above plaque (at Nell Gwynn House) shows she was highly decorated by both Britain and France for her brave service during World War II.
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 32 films in the 1940s and ‘50s and even up to the 1970s. She made many famous films such as Yield to the Night (1956) and Deep End (1970) and From Beyond the Grave (1974), appearing with famous actors such as Michael Caine, Joan Crawford, Alec Guinness and Donald Pleasence, among others.
Former resident Roy James (1935-1997) 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 robbery took place in the early hours of August 8, 1963 at Bridego Railway Bridge, Ledburn, near Mentmore in Buckinghamshire, England. The original plans for the robbery were found taped to the ceiling of flat 907 where he was living at the time of the robbery.
A music club was set up in 1948, with Sir Adrian Boult as its President and with Patrons including English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sir Arnold Bax (master of the Kings Music) and John Ireland. Sunday concerts were arranged for the benefit of the flat owners and guests and formed part of the Chelsea scene.
Oil on canvas (1958-61) by Sir Gerald Kelly.