The New Statesman Profile - Albany

Since Byron's days, the great and the wicked have chosen to call this place home

"You know Albany - the haunt of bachelors, or of married men who try to lead bachelors' lives - the dread of suspicious wives, the retreat of superannuated fops, the hospital for incurable oddities, a cluster of solitudes for social hermits, the home of homeless gentlemen, the diner-out and diner-in, the place for the fashionable thrifty, the luxurious lonely, and lovers of mutton-chops."

When Marmion Savage published The Bachelor of Albany in 1848, the Georgian townhouse in Piccadilly was already famous. Converted into sets of independent apartments in 1802, it had become a byword for the celebration of a kind of ostentatious privacy peculiar to the English. One hundred and fifty years on, the mystique of a collegiate life lived in the heart of London's West End remains.

It takes a peculiar kind of English institution to attract the loyalties of Terence Stamp and Gladstone, of Isaiah Berlin and Lord Byron, of Alan Clark and Macaulay, of Roger Scruton and Edward Heath. But Albany was special from the start. It is still a place best suited to the bachelor and those with semi-detached families. Children under 13 and pets are forbidden and, at £750 a week for an average set and some £7,000 a year estate charges, the "fashionable thrifty" need deep pockets these days in order to penetrate the stillness of Albany.

The original building was the ambition of Elisabeth Lamb, Lady Melbourne, who wanted a house where she could entertain the London society of her day. The tolerant and unsentimental mother of the future prime minister was valued for her discretion and good sense: "No man," she opined, "is safe with another's secrets, no woman is safe with her own."

With a rich and complaisant husband, Lady Melbourne's ambitions were realised when the house, designed by William Chambers, was finished in 1775. Melbourne House stood 100 feet back from Piccadilly, behind a high wall with a spacious courtyard where footmen would lounge waiting for their masters.

This was a Whig establishment and Charles James Fox, dressed in the blue and buff colours made fashionable by Washington's army, was an habitue. The views circulated were those of a Voltairean enlightenment. As Lord Egremont, Lady Melbourne's admirer (and probable father of her son), wrote: "Everything in fashionable life, dress, food, amusement, morals and manners, all must be French." Chambers was unpaid for his work nine years after the building's completion. Indebtedness probably dictated Lord Melbourne's agreement to exchange houses with the Duke of York, whose own finances proved to be quite as shaky. "York House" ended up mortgaged to Coutts, the Whigs' favourite bank, for £22,000. The 1802 conversion to "Albany" (by Henry Holland - the Whigs' favoured architect) was a way of recovering the loan.

Holland remodelled the buildings round the courtyard and replaced them with four houses attached to the main house. He demolished the wall on Piccadilly and converted the house into apartments. Behind the house he added two long blocks in cream-painted stucco, three storeys high with a paved and covered walk between them. Chambers 1 and 2 on each staircase were on either side on the ground floor. First and second floor chambers had their kitchens in the attics. In each case, a high-ceilinged hall and living-room with double-doors led to a bedroom with a dressing room behind.

Personalities began to flourish within this bachelor paradise. Henry Angelo established his fencing academy in the courtyard's second house. Next door, Henry Austen, Jane's favourite brother ("He cannot help being amusing"), ran his business as a banker. "Gentleman" Jackson, the prize-fighter, hired a room in order to give lessons. But the most individual of early occupants was surely Mat Lewis - better known to his contemporaries as "Monk" Lewis. Lewis was rich - the son of a slave plantation owner - but also clever. He published The Monk when he was 20. Calls that he be prosecuted for this tale of the macabre and "horrid" inflated the Christ Church undergraduate's sales and he was launched on a short, intense and fluent literary career. The Captive, his monodrama at the Covent Garden Theatre, starred Mrs Litchfield as a madwoman and threw the audience into fits. Two people had hysterics during the first performance and two more succumbed after the curtain dropped.

"He had queer-ish eyes," said Walter Scott, his collaborator on Tales of Wonder. "They projected like those of some insects." Byron, who had uneasy relations with Lewis, thought him "prolix and paradoxical and personal".

The death was as curious as the life. The Monk had advanced views on the treatment of slaves and, after his father's death, Lewis travelled to the West Indies to enforce a new code of law for his possessions. He contracted yellow fever on the boat back from Jamaica and died at sea. The weights escaped from the coffin which then refused to sink beneath the waves. The tarpaulin broke loose and, raised by the wind, became a sail which lifted the coffin above the deep and bore the Monk's body to the distant horizon.

It was Lewis who introduced Byron to Albany and by 1814 the sixth Baron (and his macaw) had moved into A2 at the far left-hand side of the mansion. He saw Henry Angelo for his fencing lessons most days at 12, boxed with Jackson daily and tried to avoid Caroline Lamb. Although a radical, he enjoyed that year of reactionary revelry - 1814. Louis XVIII had been restored and there were state visits by the king of Prussia and the Tsar. "I have been drinking," he wrote of one evening, "from 6 till 4, yea unto 5 in the morning. We clareted and champagned till 2 - then supped, and finished with a kind of regency punch composed of madeira, brandy and green tea."

But the shadows were closing around Byron who, on his marriage, left Albany after only a year's occupation. By 1816 he was an exile - pursued by that implacable and fickle beast, English public opinion. One Albany relic, however, would always remain with him - Tita, the Venetian manservant whom he inherited from the Monk.

The young Gladstone was a more sober presence in Albany from 1832. He stayed there for six years, learning German and reading Plato. The People's William was not yet even a gleam in those falcon's eyes. Rich and high church, he was a vigorous defender of his father's rights as a slave-owner. Wordsworth, bereft of his Muse and declining into Toryism, found Gladstone congenial company and would breakfast with him in Albany - once even joining him for early morning prayers with the manservant.

Macaulay was 41 when he arrived in Albany, rejoicing in an establishment which cost him just 90 guineas a year - "and this in a situation which no younger son of a duke need be ashamed to put on his card". Macaulay lived here for 15 years. He had returned from India a man of independent means and could now set to work on his History of England. Every day he would produce six pages of foolscap notes - the equivalent of two pages of print. By 1855 his work was done and 25,000 copies of the greatest work to emerge from Albany were being printed by Longman's.

Macaulay had been "happy at the top of this toilsome stair" and rejoiced in the over-flow of a hyper-Protestant work ethic that impelled three hours' work before breakfast: "A man may feel his conscience so light during the day when he has done a good piece of work before leaving his bedroom."

Literary associations survived Macaulay's departure. John Lane's Bodley Head bookshop appeared in Vigo Street, behind Albany, in 1887. As a publisher, Lane was part of the world of Rossetti and Burne-Jones, of Japanese prints and Liberty's designs. But he was also an ambitious literary entrepreneur. He took the lease of G1, the ground-floor set of chambers on the east side of the north entrance leading into Vigo Street. He got the Albany trustees' permission to convert the bay window of the dining room into a street entrance, transferred his business there and created a literary salon. Aubrey Beardsley came to breakfast, George Moore and H G Wells would drop in after dinner.

Henry Harland was the consummate literary editor who persuaded Max Beerbohm and Arthur Symons to contribute to the new Yellow Book (yellow being the colour of the 1890s). Lane - more cautious - insisted on the inclusion of established figures such as Henry James, Arthur Waugh (father of Evelyn), and A C Benson. But it was Beardsley's drawings that established the reputation of the Yellow Book and its association with "decadence". The Albany shop window was soon a blaze of yellow and Oscar Wilde would set the first act of The Importance of Being Earnest in B1 ("earnest" being contemporary society slang for gay). It was the last time that England was to produce a true avant-garde in the arts.

Compton Mackenzie, who was offered but refused a set of chambers, refers in Sinister Street to "Albany's atmosphere of passion squeezed into the mould of contemporary decorum". The ghosts that hover there are now sanitised and Albany is a rich and respectable business recycling its past. It is a very English heritage tale of paradise lost and parasites found.

Nineteenth-century England saw the masculine privacy of the gentleman's club replacing the openness of the coffee-house and the femininity of the salon. Albany is a chapter in that history of reclusiveness and withdrawal. The spirit of Lady Melbourne's salon survived in Regency Albany much as Chambers' original design persisted behind Holland's conversion. Secluded antiquarianism, however, has been the tone of 20th-century Albany. It's a safe bet that today's Byron redivivus would be happier in a Soho lofthouse than cloistered behind that chaste facade with its - strictly metaphorical - twitching net curtains.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition