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Reform Club ~ Architecture

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The Reform Club in Pall Mall is one of the finest Victorian buildings in the country, a palatial masterpiece by Sir Charles Barry that has remained largely unchanged since it was completed in 1841.

In his design, Barry was inspired by the Italian Renaissance architecture that he absorbed as a young student in Rome, departing markedly from the gothic style he used for the new Houses of Parliament.  The Reform Club externally bears a distinct resemblance to the Palazzo Farnese, which Michelangelo completed in 1589, and which Barry had studied closely.  But Barry brought his own genius to bear in adapting and even improving on the Italian model.

The clubhouse is faced with Portland stone.  It has nine bays on three floors; the windows on the two main floors are each enclosed in their own aedicule, a sort of mini building made up of two columns and a pediment across the top like a roof.  The building is held down, as it were, by a deep projecting cornice, bearing at intervals along its length the emblems of the United Kingdom - the rose, the shamrock and the thistle - and dolphin heads, suggesting perhaps an island kingdom.  And the whole is dramatically framed with heavy projecting stones, or quoins, at the corners.  The entrance, at the centre of the building, is enclosed by an Italianate door case, which provides the whole with a focus and a centre of symmetry.

On entering from the street by a steep staircase, another set of steps brings the visitor to a vast square atrium that rises the full height of the building, reminiscent of an Italian courtyard, but adapted to the London weather by a glass roof constructed from a thousand lead crystal lozenges, each finely faceted to diffuse and refract the light in every direction.  In the centre is a multi-coloured mosaic pavement bearing an Etruscan design.

A number of rooms lead off from the ground floor, including the Coffee Room (the traditional name for the restaurant), which runs the entire length of the building overlooking the garden at the back.  20 Ionic columns support an upper gallery, from which a corresponding range of Corinthian columns rise.  The gallery is reached by a remarkable tunnel-vaulted staircase, again inspired by Italian models. The Library, the Smoking Room and the Card Room lead off the Gallery.

While the Club presents a chaste and stately appearance on the outside, inside it is richly flamboyant.  Large portraits of Whig and Radical leaders of the nineteenth century reform movement are set in panels in the upper and lower floors of the atrium.  The walls and columns are faced with marble and scagliola, an artificial marble, the secrets of whose manufacture have only been rediscovered in recent years.  The colours are deep red and green, white, sienna, black and gold.  The principal Club rooms have richly ornamented and gilded ceilings incorporating elaborate versions of the letter R.  The grandeur of the effect is magnified throughout the Club by the use of huge mirrors.