Georgian soap magnates and Russian oligarchs – joined in grand absurdity

Why did Andrei Guriev, or early 20th-century industrialist Arthur Crosfield and his family of just three, want to buy Witanhurst house – London’s biggest residence, besides Buckingham Palace, with 25 bedrooms and 365 windows?

Highgate these days is full of Russians,” my friend Diana Athill said recently as we drove past the steep lane that leads to the cemetery and the grave of Karl Marx. Diana is rather old – she was born only a few weeks after the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace – so you might say that her life has spanned every jump in modern Russian history, from the last tsar to Lenin, from Lenin to Stalin, from Stalin to Gorbachev and from Gorbachev to Putin; though by “Russians” she meant the most recent, oligarchical kind rather than those who, down the hill 30 years ago, would queue in their badly made suits to lay their official bouquets beside Marx’s great bronze head. Of course, both kinds of Russians are often the same people in different guise: apparatchiks whom historical opportunity has turned into plutocrats.

Diana said she’d once asked a taxi driver if he ever drove any Russians. “He replied, ‘No, but I often drive their cooks.”’ She laughed at this. Despite their prominence in conversation, Highgate’s Russians are unobtrusive as pedestrians, pub goers and frequenters of the local shops, possibly because they are too rich for any of these ordinary activities. Theirs is the world of the bodyguard and the black-glass limousine. A few of the big names are known, including Alisher Usmanov, who is ranked third by Forbes in its list of Russian billionaires, and owns a regency villa on the edge of Hampstead Heath. But easily the most visible evidence of Russian wealth is an enormous house called Witanhurst, which stands only a few hundred yards from the high street, and for the past five years has been surrounded by scaffolding, shipping containers and Portakabins – evidence of its extravagant remodelling for an anonymous owner, of whom until this week nothing was known, other than the likelihood that he or she was Russian.

Nothing about Witanhurst or its history is small-scale. Built in the Queen Anne style for Sir Arthur Crosfield (known as “the soap magnate”) between 1913 and 1920 on an 11-acre plot, it commands some of London’s finest views – across the heath to the prickly skyline of the city and the hazy rise of the North Downs. The original house had 25 bedrooms, a ballroom, a glass rotunda and four tennis courts, where a tournament was played every summer after Wimbledon, featuring many of its players. Witanhurst and the tournament became a high-society venue – the Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, attended in 1951 – but the Crosfields’ son found the house a difficult inheritance, and after 1970 its ownership passed though a succession of developers and speculators, each of whom failed to do much with it, until Safran Holdings Ltd, a company registered in the British Virgin Islands, bought it for £50m in 2008.

Then the fun started. In 2010, Camden council approved plans that are in the process of turning Witanhurst into the second-largest private home in London. An old service wing near the front gate has been demolished and replaced with a three-storey “orangery” that will provide “everyday family accommodation” to supplement the existing 25 bedrooms. The real expansion, however, is underground, where a great 40,000sq ft cavern has been excavated to accommodate a 20m swimming pool, sauna, gym, staff quarters, a cinema with stalls and balcony seats, as well as parking for 25 cars. Another, smaller basement was granted the go-ahead by Camden in 2013. Altogether, the interior space above and below ground will add up to 90,000 sq ft, which is only slightly smaller than Buckingham Palace.

The refurbishment has been difficult and prolonged, and Highgate residents have protested often about the noise, dust, heavy trundling of lorries and the risk to the landscape of the heath. But they could complain only to the servants, as it were, and never to the mysterious entity that ultimately employed them. The Land Registry doesn’t require offshore companies to disclose their individual beneficiaries, and the project’s senior management had signed confidentiality agreements. Despite the efforts of at least two British newspapers, Witanhurst’s ownership remained unknown for the seven years between the purchase date and last weekend, when, thanks to a fine piece of investigation in the current New Yorker by the British writer Ed Caesar, the people of Highgate learned that their coy but disruptive new neighbour was Andrei Guriev, a 55-year-old billionaire who made his fortune out of phosphate mining and fertilisers.

According to Forbes, Guriev is worth $3.9bn, which makes him a lowly 497th in the world league of billionaires, and only the 28th richest individual in Russia. What does he want Witanhurst for? Caesar suggests that he sees it as a “refuge, showroom [and] deposit box”, though, as Caesar also says, if avoiding public (or Putin’s) notice was his intention, he would have been better off buying a six-bedroom detached in Richmond. But then why in the first place did Crosfield build something so absurdly grand, a house for a family of three where the number of windows deliberately matches the 365 days in a year? Perhaps just to say: “Look, I’ve left Warrington. Please don’t think of me in connection with soap.”

The truth is that Crosfield was never really a “soap magnate”. That title properly belonged to his grandfather Joseph, a Quaker businessman who established a soap works on the banks of the Mersey in 1814. Soap consumption doubled per head of population in the first half of the 19th century, and the population itself grew nearly as fast. Crosfield, his sons and grandsons were enterprising industrialists – keen, for example, to learn from German advances in chemistry – and their success brought changes in family behaviour. The later generations went to smart schools, worshipped in Anglican churches rather than Quaker meetings, and played fashionable games such as golf.

Arthur Crosfield represented the change at its most extreme. He became Liberal MP for Warrington and captain of the golf club at Cannes, winning the French amateur open championship in 1905 and two years later marrying Miss Domini Elliadi, the tennis-playing daughter of a Greek merchant, at a ceremony in Paris. She was to be Witanhurst’s châtelaine, but even before then, when the couple lived in Hoylake (handy for the golf), all kinds of the European beau monde, including Russia’s Grand Duke Michael, came to stay. “These social and political activities precluded any interest in soap and chemicals,” writes the company’s historian, rather sternly, and it comes as no surprise to learn that Crosfield’s death in 1938 was caused by a fall from the Marseilles-Genoa express as it sped towards the Cote d’Azur.

His younger brothers bought him out as a director of the family firm in 1911, perhaps because they discovered he was secretly negotiating a sale with Lever Brothers when they preferred amalgamation with Brunner Mond. It was with this money that Arthur built Witanhurst.

Guriev, being also in chemicals, might like to consider this history as he sits on his magnificent terrace. He might even consider making a pilgrimage to the factory that afforded the place. It still stands smoking and steaming next to Warrington railway station, almost the last proper factory to survive on the line between London and Glasgow. Pipework, chimneys, tanks, railway line: the scene may remind him of industrial Russia.


Ian Jack

The GuardianTramp

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