You could say it all started with Michelangelo. His magnificent Farnese Palace in Rome was the inspiration for architect Charles Barry’s stunning interpretation of Renaissance style and while the Farnese Palace has since been transformed into the French Embassy, the Reform Club is still housed in the splendid building – completed in 1841 – which it commissioned from Barry.
Like the Renaissance palazzos on which it was modelled, 104 Pall Mall looks austere from the outside. Enter those unmarked doors, however, and you’re transported to an environment of exquisite refinement and aesthetic stimulation. Everything about this wonderful interior is designed to soothe the soul and excite the senses.
The job of the main atrium is like that of any grand palace – to create a sense of awe and grandeur. Walking into its full-height space and gazing up to the sky glistening through a thousand lead-crystal lozenges of the roof high above definitely delivers the wow factor. As befits a palace, the interior is flamboyant, with walls and columns in marble and scagliola interspersed with huge portraits and massive mirrors all adding to the impression of light and scale and space.
It’s a statement building – just as important in its day as the Shard today. It speaks of power and confidence.
More than a magnificent building
The Reform Club is one of the longest established institutions on Pall Mall. From the very beginning it was revolutionary in concept and radical in execution. It was founded in 1836 by Edward Ellice, the Whig Whip who secured the successful progress through Parliament of the Reform Act of 1832 – after which the Club is named. His fortune was based on the Hudson’s Bay Company which was at that time at its zenith and he had the wealth and influence to inspire the ‘new men’ of the era. This was the time of the changing of the guard between the Old Whig aristocracy and the new liberal thinkers – the coming men. In effect they were not really welcome at London’s more traditional Brooks’s Club, so Ellice and his colleagues resolved to create a new and much bigger club for themselves.
The mission was to promote liberal and progressive thought and enable the ‘social intercourse of the reformers’. Like all such clubs, the Reform was founded for the benefit of its members and is run for that purpose today. Membership now is not specific to any party or political persuasion (the liberals moved out and on to the National Liberal Club in 1882).
The Reform is open to those who want to escape from the constraints of any particular political adherence. Paradoxically enough, the Reform was born at a time of coalition between the Whigs (later to be overtaken by the Liberals) and the Tories. That relationship had much the same unease about it as the UK’s current coalition between Conservatives and Liberals. Plus ça change…
The Reform was originally housed in Ellice’s own house while its purpose-built new premises were being created on Pall Mall. From the start it had one straightforward objective – to make the members feel instantly at home and the Reform Club – to this day – has the mission statement of being ‘a home from home’ for its members.
It was all about the food
We tend to think celebrity chefs were invented in the current tv era – but the Reform Club got there first!
From the very beginning the club had a strong focus on food. Long before Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal were feted as celebrity chefs or enfants terribles there was Alexis Benoist Soyer. This French chef fled the terror of revolutionary France and settled in London to become the most celebrated cook in the land.
He was a revolutionary thinker about food – and a technical innovator. Together with Charles Barry, he designed the Reform Club kitchens with so many new features (refrigerators, gas cooking, adjustable ovens) that public tours of the facilities had to be arranged. On the date of Queen Victoria’s Coronation in 1838, the club served breakfast for 2,000 guests.
He used the theatrical stage of the Reform Club to perfect his talents and to offer a style of dining as revolutionary in its day as Blumenthal’s cooking is today. One signature dish – Lamb Cutlets Reform – survives on the menu to this day and is one of the few recipes from club land that has achieved worldwide recognition.
He had the same understanding of PR as many celebrities today, even opening an art gallery with all proceeds being donated to feed the poor.
Still open to radical ideas
In recent years, of course, clubs have changed from the weekday city refuge of country gentlemen into an environment much more connected with the contemporary world. The Reform has always been at the forefront of change and was one of the earliest clubs to welcome women as full members 27 years ago. Today, of the total membership of 2,500, 461 are women.
It has an eclectic membership and hosts a range of guests as diverse as modern society itself. Princess Diana lunched several times, The Iron Lady hosted Gorbachev here and Tina Turner chose it for her birthday party. Famous as a venue for films (particularly Spy Films like Die Another Day) it was the real life haunt of Burgess and Blunt and their co-conspirators.
Home from home for the members
The two upper stories of the palace are reserved for ‘chambers’; these delightful rooms are furnished in a traditional style but with all the conveniences expected of a modern establishment. What is distinctly un-modern, however, is the price, which is roughly a third to a quarter of that charged by comparable hotels in London’s West End.
Deputy secretary, Ian Kenworthy, has been at the forefront of trying to move forward bedroom occupancy at the weekend when clubs are traditionally either closed or quiet. The latest initiative offers a discount of approximately 50 per cent on the weekday rate for occupancy on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and this has led to a big increase in the number of weekend events which the club now hosts. There’s a range of entertaining facilities stretching from the top secret Cabinet Room, which is accessed through a hidden door in the panelling off the main dining room, to the grandeur of the Library, which covers one whole side of the building on the first floor and comfortably seats 120 for dinner.
One of the most surprising aspects of the club is the fact that it has large private gardens (which are shared with the Travellers’ Club next door) in the heart of Carlton Gardens, so Reform Club members can enjoy alfresco dining under some of the finest London plane trees still standing.
A palace of all the pleasures
An organisation like the Reform Club is not just about hospitality. It provides sustenance of other kinds and the twin glories of the Reform are its magnificent collection of books and its unrivalled range of societies.
The Library was established by Panizzi who became principal librarian to the British Museum. From the start it was designed to be a world-class collection with a focus on 19th century literature, politics and political reform. Today it houses 75,000 volumes.
The societies range from bridge and drawing through economics to Cryptos – which specialises in military history. It’s a club which offers scope and stimulation for all interests and the company of like-minded ‘seekers after truth’.
Embracing the future
In an uncertain and rapidly changing world, how does an organisation as seemingly traditional and rooted in history as the Reform face up to the challenge of the future?
In a word, vision.
Ask deputy secretary Ian Kenworthy what is the biggest change in the club this century and he volunteers, “It is totally transformed. The relationship between the staff and the members is completely different today from the way it was when I started working here 22 years ago.
“There’s much more of a sense of egalitarianism and a feeling that we’re all part of one community. The staff value the members and the members value the staff because they’re both working to keep something special alive and vigorous.”
The social values and customs of the wider world have changed hugely and the Reform has kept pace with them. Some specific developments envisaged over the coming years include the greater use of the club at weekends, and a strategy to ensure it’s used more for family celebrations (rules are relaxed and children are also welcomed at weekends).
Along with the entire London market, the Reform Club is also sensitive to the downward shift in demand for lunch which the capital is experiencing. This is being countered by the rapid growth in demand for afternoon tea and specific plans are now in place to take advantage of this trend.
The Reform will always be focused on its members and their lifestyle choices. At the same time, it’s sensitive to the demands of new market groups and is catering for a younger and more eclectic clientele. The club – in short – is committed to keeping up with social and commercial trends.
And it has also kept a firm hold on its magnificent palace on Pall Mall.