The Connaught London: 200 Years of History that Enchanted Gwyneth Paltrow

Writer and cleric Charles Caleb Colton published his book “Lacon: or Many things in few words” in 1820. His observation that imitation is just a form of flattery is perhaps its most famous line and one which remains often quoted two centuries on. In that case, London’s Connaught Hotel should be delighted. A celebrity crowd that has included Gwyneth Paltrow, Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, Taylor Swift and Cameron Diaz rub shoulders with sheikhs, politicians and the biggest names in the business world. But such celebrities don’t just stay there, some of them even copy its design for their own homes and businesses.

In 2010, Paltrow and her then husband, Coldplay front man Chris Martin, were having work done on their Holland Park mansion. To escape the noise and dirt of the builders, they decamped to The Connaught, where they rented The Apartment, the hotel’s luxury penthouse. The Mayfair establishment hired renowned Irish architect and interior designer David Collins the previous year to fit out this, their most expensive suite. With a vaulted ceiling and muted palette of whites, greys and blues, it was a triumph of contemporary design, just as Collins had intended. Amongst the furnishings he chose for this light and airy space was a bespoke dressing table. Reputedly, Paltrow was so enamoured with the piece, she insisted on one for her own property. At the time, she was quoted in the British tabloids as saying:

 “I was stunned by the dressing room. I ordered the David Collins designed white lacquered dressing table for my own home.”

At a price of well over $15,000 per night, you’ll have to be as successful as Paltrow to look for yourself, though for that you’ll get your own on-call personal butler, valet and chauffeur as well as a wraparound terrace overlooking one of Mayfair’s most prestigious streets and clever touches like original artwork and marble feature fireplace.

You’ll find a replica of its staircase on New York’s Madison Avenue

Gwyneth Paltrow wasn’t the only one to imitate The Connaught. Almost fifty years ago, Ralph Lauren clapped eyes on the impressive staircase that leads upstairs from the lobby. Rich dark teak inlaid with gold leaf, it has a timeless feel that oozes history from every tread and every banister. Lauren returned to New York to install a replica of the staircase in his flagship Madison Avenue store. It lacks the golden lustre of the original, but with gilt framed paintings hung beside it and an enviable shine on the grain of the wood, the staircase bears more than a passing resemblance to its London counterpart. The carpets are different, however. Interestingly, the red border of the hotel’s stair carpet resembles that found on the stairs of Buckingham Palace, proving that they themselves aren’t averse to a spot of flattery.

A garden to rival the Queen’s?

While The Apartment is undoubtedly the star of the suites, others are also captivating. A private elevator takes guests to the Terrace Suite. It has, as its name suggests, a wonderful terrace, complete with garden landscaped by Tom Stuart-Smith. He’s won gold at the Chelsea Flower Show no less than eight times, and best in show three times – no mean feat given the calibre of entries at this prestigious event.

Stuart-Smith read Zoology at Cambridge before studying for a post-grad at Manchester in Landscape Design. He set up his own practice in 1998 and since then has been awarded a number of high profile contracts in addition to The Connaught. Stuart-Smith is the brains behind the Queen’s Jubilee Garden at Windsor, the Bicentenary Glasshouse Garden at Wisley for the Royal Horticultural Society and several projects at Chatsworth. Overseas, projects have included Le Jardin Secret deep within the medina in Marrakesh and a garden on Kerala’s famed waterways in southern India. Those sufficiently privileged to stay at the Connaught’s Terrace Suite are in for a treat when they step outside.

A two hundred year history

The hotel’s two hundred year history began back in 1815. It started life as The Prince of Saxe Coburg Hotel, an offshoot of the nearby Grillon’s Hotel, located in Albemarle Street. Royalty had often frequented the latter. Queen Victoria’s uncle, who she would succeed to the throne in 1837, met his wife there in 1818. Four years previously, in 1814, the gout-ridden Louis XVIII of France had stayed there as he made his way to Paris to reclaim the French throne.

Two townhouses in Charles Street, the property of the wealthy Duke of Westminster, were combined to form the new hotel, known to Londoners as The Coburg. By the end of the 19th century, the Duke of Westminster was keen to redevelop the area. At the hotel, more space was required and so the owners of The Coburg closed up to rebuild the place into something bigger and better than before. In 1897, five years on, it opened to become the jewel of Carlos Place, a few minutes’ walk from Albemarle Street. One of the initial terms that was agreed was that there shouldn’t be a bar, for fear that the Coburg might “become a large public house instead of a quiet hotel”. Fortunately, such conditions don’t affect the hotel in its present incarnation. The hotel’s exterior was relatively simple, brick built structure, but it was, and still is, the interior that has the wow factor. A series of lavish reception rooms and spacious suites ensured that this was to be a luxury hotel from the outset.

The Coburg becomes the Connaught

In 1898, an iron and glass shelter was erected outside the front entrance. London County Council were none too pleased about it. Fortunately, they didn’t put up too much of a fight and the porch stayed. The Coburg cemented its reputation as an eminent hotel as the 19th century became the 20th. But war would soon break out, and by 1917, the owners were uneasy about running an establishment which bore a German name. Appeasing popular opinion, they ditched the Coburg moniker and rebranded as The Connaught. The name was chosen as a nod to Queen Victoria’s third son and seventh child, Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught, widely held to be her favourite.

Like many of London’s luxury hotels, The Connaught became a refuge for those exiled as a result of the Nazi march across Europe. In the case of The Connaught, history repeated itself as it played host to another French leader, this time in the form of President General Charles de Gaulle. He made the hotel his base, frequently commenting on his taste for what he called “island cuisine”. Roast beef became a regular part of his life. A couple of decades later, Gourmet magazine praised the hotel’s food, saying it had:

“… the best cooking in England.”

Ironically, the chef at the time was a Frenchman, Daniel Dunas, which would have pleased General de Gaulle no end. While he was unable to return to his beloved France, he used his London base as a convenient place to meet with other Allied politicians, among them General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who incidentally preferred The Dorchester on Park Lane to this historic Mayfair hotel. Conversations took place about the D-Day landings, with Churchill joining the two expats to plan how to defeat Hitler’s regime.

A reputation for hospitality

One thing the Connaught has always been good at is hospitality. That’s its business, of course, but this is a hotel which goes the extra mile to ensure that guests feel special. The late Peter Mayle, author of the book Expensive Habits (later re-released as Acquired Tastes) enjoyed staying at The Connaught. He devoted a whole chapter of his book to his favourite London hotel, praising it for a level of service that, he said, “all the marble lobbies in the world can’t compete with”. He went on:

 “To hell with stream-lined and faceless modernity: give me the pleasure of being looked after by polite, well-trained smiling people. In other words, give me a room at The Connaught.”

Exceptional food and drink

For many, what made The Connaught stand out was its food and drink. The Grill Room opened in 1955 to great acclaim. Twenty years later, Michel Bourdin was appointed as head chef, remaining in post for a remarkable 26 years. During his tenure, he oversaw the development of a new kitchen, which was opened in 1992 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, no less.

A cascade of Michelin stars followed. Angela Hartnett launched Angela Hartnett’s Menu at The Connaught in 2002. The delectable Italian dishes that she prepared caught the eye of the team at Michelin, who awarded her a star for her efforts two years later. After the 2007 refurbishment, Hélène Darroze arrived, and a new era commenced. She too brought Michelin-starred cuisine – this time two – to the hotel’s dining room, creating a feast for the senses that guests can enjoy today. Seasonal produce is crafted into exquisite and innovative dishes, as impressive as the sophisticated India Mahdavi interiors and the Damien Hirst artwork which graces the walls. What arrives to the table is a thing of beauty, and one which tastes as good as it looks. In 2017, Jean-Georges Vongerichten joined the team. He opened his new restaurant, Jean-Georges at the Connaught, this time bringing gourmet dining in a more informal setting – the tables occupy a contemporary space overlooking Mount Street. Stained glass panels on the windows mirror the colourful food.

Bar flies are equally well catered for. The Connaught Bar has long drawn an admiring crowd. David Collins designed the space, effortlessly blending English and Irish Cubist art from the 1920s with a timeless elegance few can pull off. Talented mixologists create decadent cocktails; under the tutelage of resident expert Agostino Perrone, guests can participate in an exclusive masterclass. Even better, The Connaught distils its own gin, blended and bottled in house, which you can buy to take home. It’s no surprise to learn that this fabled bar has won a clutch of international awards, including the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards “World’s Best Cocktail Bar” not once, but twice. That’s something no other bar can claim to have done, though New York’s PDT and The Dead Rabbit are trying their best. Traditionalists will relish ordering from the Martini trolley which adds a touch of theatre to the proceedings. Wingback armchairs upholstered in jewel-toned velvet, wood panelling and a fireplace give the hotel’s other drinking space, the Coburg Bar, a clubbier feel, perfect for a late nightcap. It’s most definitely not the place to rock up with a briefcase in your hand and a mobile phone clamped to your ear.

It’s this ability to marry heritage with 21st century mod-cons that sets The Connaught apart from many of its competitors. The £70 million 2007 refit didn’t lose sight of the tradition and history that this hotel has in spades. More, it added some modern touches to update the technology and décor, while retaining some very upper-class British touches such as offering the facility for guests to utilise the hotel’s gun cabinet. The Aman Spa was a welcome addition for its discerning clientele and the very Zen Japanese garden out front, added four years later, makes a fantastic first impression. Japanese architect Tadao Ando knew what he was doing when he installed “Silence”, a shimmering water feature that catches the eye of both guests and passers-by. And it takes a certain amount of confidence to add a ballroom, particularly when it’s the first in Mayfair for 80 years, but in 2009, The Connaught did just that. Guy Oliver designed a glamorous look which took its inspiration from 1930s Art Deco yet was fitted to ensure it could accommodate screenings, catwalk shows and gala dinners, with all the amenities that such events require.

If I were a hotel owner, I’d certainly look to The Connaught to see how it’s done. Remember, imitation is the sincerest of flattery.

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