Pontack’s was a City of London eating house specialising in French cuisine that took its name from owner Pontack.

Pontack (his Christian name is apparently unknown) was said by some to have been the son of the president of the Parliament of Bordeaux, Arnaud de Pontac although this claim has been disputed by Brian Cowen, writing in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Regardless, Pontack used a portrait of Arnaud as his sign and as a result, the establishment – which he opened on the former site of the White Bear Tavern at 16-17 Lombard Street after the Great Fire of 1666 – was popularly known as “Pontack’s Head”.

Arnaud de Pontac owned French vineyards which produced renowned wine and Pontack also capitalised on this connection in selling fine French wines to his clientele.

Cowen records that Pontack’s was relocated to the east side of Abchurch Lane in 1688-90 (his old premises were occupied by Edward Lloyd, founder of the famous Lloyd’s Coffee House).

The eating house was favourite of the elite, patronised by everyone from Jonathan Swift to Sir Christopher Wren and John Evelyn and was the location of the Royal Society’s annual dinners following its relocation until 1746 (when the society moved the dinners to the Devil Tavern).

It’s apparently not known when Pontack died – a date of about 1711 is suggested – but after his death, the establishment was taken over by one Susannah Austin who was married to a Lombard Street banker. It is not known when the establishment ceased trading.

PICTURE: Looking northward along Abchurch Lane today (Google Maps).

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Famous as the home of the Apollo Club, the Devil – more completely the Devil and St Dunstan or The Devil and the Saint, thanks to its sign which showed the saint tweaking the Devil’s nose with pincers – was a Fleet Street institution.

The-Devil-TavernLocated at number 2, Fleet Street close to the Temple Bar, the tavern’s origins date back to at least 16th century but it was Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson who made it home to the literary dining club known as the Apollo Club (the moniker comes from the name of the room in the tavern in which the club was located).

As well as Jonson, members of the club are said to have included William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and Dr Samuel Johnson. Samuel Pepys is also said to have frequented the tavern.

A bust of Apollo was mounted over the door to the room and a verse of welcome on the wall – they apparently still exist inside the bank of Child & Co (now part of the Royal Bank of Scotland) which now occupies the site on which the tavern once stood. The ‘rules’ of the club – which have been penned by Jonson – also apparently hung over the fireplace (and the name of the club lives on in Apollo Court over the road).

The tavern is also noted for its associations with ‘Mull Sack’ (aka chimney sweep turned 17th century highwayman John Cottington) and hosted concerts and other important gatherings including that of the Royal Society which held its annual dinner here in 1746.

It was demolished in the 1787 when the site was annexed by the neighbouring bank. A plaque can now be seen on the bank’s wall in Fleet Street.

PICTURE: Open Plaques

Now the home of the Royal Academy of Arts, the origins of Burlington House on Piccadilly go back to the 1660s but it was Richard Boyle, the 3rd Earl of Burlington, who had the property reworked into the Palladian building it is today. 

It was Sir John Denham, Surveyor-General of the King’s Works for King Charles II, who first began building a red brick mansion on the site in the 1660s before he sold the still unfinished building to Richard Boyle, the 1st Earl of Burlington, in about 1667. He completed the house the following year.

Burlington-HouseThe property next underwent major changes during the minority of the 3rd Earl (also Richard Boyle, 1612-1698) – his mother, the 2nd Countess, Lady Juliana, had architect James Gibbs carry out some alterations including the addition of a semi-circular colonnade at the front of the house and reconfiguration of the main staircase.

But around 1717-1718, the 3rd Earl (1694-1753), who himself was something of an architect, commissioned architect Colen Campbell to take over from Gibbs. The property was then reworked to a Palladian design – particularly the southern front of the building and William Kent was summoned to redesign interiors – the surviving interior of the Saloon is credited as the first ‘Kentian’ interior in England.

Lord Burlington soon shifted his attention to Chiswick House (see our earlier post here), and on his death in 1753, the house passed to the Dukes of Devonshire before it was eventually purchased by the 4th Duke’s younger son, Lord George Cavendish, around 1812. He had some of the interiors reworked by Kent admirer Samuel Ware, keeping them sympathetic to the Palladian vision.  Four years after the purchase, Burlington Arcade was built along the western side of the premises.

In 1854, the property was sold to the British Government who initially intended demolishing the structure and using the site for the University of London but after strong opposition to the plan, it was occupied by the Royal Society, the Linnean Society and the Chemical Society while the Royal Academy – which had been founded by King George III in 1768 – took over the main block on a 999 year lease in 1867.

The building subsequently underwent further alterations – among them Sidney Smirke added a third floor to the main building – the Diploma Galleries – and the Main Galleries and the Art School on a garden to the north of the house. Later, three story ranges were raised around the courtyard and the three aforementioned learned societies moved into these and were later joined by the Geological Society of London, the Royal Astronomical Society and the Society of Antiquities.

The Royal Society left in 1968 and the British Academy moved in but this august institution moved out in 1998, leaving the building now home to the Royal Academy and the five learned societies, the Geological Society of London, the Linnean Society of London, the Royal Astronomical Society, the Society of Antiquaries of London, and the Royal Society of Chemistry.

More recent works at the property – the last survivor of four townhouses built along Piccadilly in the 1660s – have included a 1991 remodelling of the Diploma Galleries by Norman Foster – now known as The Sackler Wing of Galleries – and the restoration of the former state rooms including The Saloon, reopened as the John Madejski Fine Rooms.

WHERE: Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly (nearest Tube stations are Piccadilly Circus and Green Park);  WHEN: 10am to 6pm Saturday to Thursday/10am-10pm Friday (opening times for the John Madejski Fine Rooms may vary); COST: Varies depending on the exhibition (there are free guided tours of the John Madejski Fine Rooms – check the website for details); WEBSITE: www.royalacademy.org.uk

PICTURE: Installation by Ãlvaro Siza, part of the Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined exhibition which runs until 6th April. Photo: Royal Academy of Arts. Photography: James Harris/Ãlvaro Siza 

The Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree – donated  by the people of Oslo each year since 1947 as a thanks for the support Britain gave to Norway during World War II. On the left is the Olympic countdown clock.

A giant hedge-like reindeer outside Covent Garden, a market since at least the 1600s but once the site of a large kitchen garden for the monks of the Convent of St Peter, Westminster (see our earlier post for more).

Christmas tree near the ice-skating rink at Somerset House, now an arts and cultural centre but originally built on the site of a Tudor palace in the late 1770s as a home for three “learned societies” – the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Society, and the Society of Antiquaries – as well as government offices (including the Navy Board).

Christmas lights in Regent Street, one of the city’s premier shopping streets, in the West End. It’s current shape was designed by architect John Nash in the early 19th century.

Christmas decorations on the exterior of Cartier in Old Bond Street, Mayfair. The area takes its name from the May Fair once held there and is now one of the most expensive areas within London (see our earlier post for more).

Looking for a book about London? See The Exploring London Little List of Books for Christmas…

An Ulster-Scots born physician, scientist and avid collector, Sir Hans Sloane served as doctor to no less than three British monarchs during the 17th and 18th centuries and during his life amassed a vast collection of natural specimens and curiosities which after his death were used to form the core of the British Museum’s collection.

Born on 16th April, 1660, at Killyleagh in County Down, Ireland, Sir Hans was the son of Alexander Sloane, a “receiver-general of taxes” who originally hailed from Scotland.

Even as a young man, he developed a keen interest in the natural sciences. Having suffered from some ill-health which, at the age of 16 is said to have kept him confined to a room for a year, in 1679, at the age of 19, he moved to London where he studied chemistry at the Apothecaries Hall and botany at the Chelsea Physic Garden – a period during which he befriended the botanist John Ray and chemist Robert Boyle.

Four years later, he travelled through France where he received his Doctorate of Physics. On his subsequent return to London in 1685, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society and in 1687 a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians.

Given the chance to travel to Jamaica as physician to the new Governor, Christopher, the 2nd Duke of Albemarle, he only spent 15 months there (the Governor died soon after arrival). But it was an important period during which not only did he document and collect a vast amount of flora and fauna (bringing some 800 specimens back to London), he also came up with the idea of drinking chocolate with milk after witnessing locals drinking the dark chocolate with water but finding the mix made him “nauseous” (back in England, his concoction was first sold as a medicine and was later manufactured as a drink by Cadburys).

Having returned to London in 1689, he published the information he had gathered in Jamaica, and in 1693 he become secretary to the Royal Society.

In 1695 he married a Jamaican sugar planter’s widow, Elizabeth Langley Rose (with whom he had several children but of whom only two daughters, Sarah and Elizabeth, survived) and, thanks in part to an ongoing association with the duke’s widow, was able to set up a fashionable medical practice at 3 Bloomsbury Place on the northern end of Bloomsbury Square.

The house, not far from where the British Museum now stands, become something of an attraction in its own right, filled with objects and specimens he had collected on his travels as well as those – in some cases complete collections – given to him by others including friends and patients (in fact, he had to purchase the property next door, number four, to find room for them all – this property is now marked with a Blue Plaque).

The composer Handel is said to have been among those who visited the property and there is a delightful tale that says Sir Hans was outraged when Handel placed a buttered scone on one of his rare books.

With his services as a physician highly prized, in 1696, he was appointed physician to Queen Anne, the first of the three monarchs he would serve. In 1712-13, with his collection still growing, he purchased the Manor of Chelsea to help house it (four acres of which were leased to the Chelsea Physic Garden, which had been founded in 1673 with the idea of providing a training ground for apprentice apothecaries, in perpetuity).

He subsequently moved his collection out to this property and his connection with Chelsea is still celebrated in place names such as name Sloane Square (not to mention Sloane Street, Sloane Gardens, Hans Street, Hans Crescent, Hans Road and Hans Place). There is also a statue of the bewigged man in Duke of York Square (pictured), not far from Sloane Square – this is a 2007 copy of 1737 original by John Rysbrack, another (older) copy of which can be found in the Chelsea Physic Garden.

Following Queen Anne’s death in 1714, in 1716 Sir Hans was appointed physician to her successor, King George I (he was also created a baronet the same year, becoming the first medical practitioner to receive a hereditary title).

Three years later, in 1719, he become president of the Royal College of Physicians, an office he held for 16 years, and in 1727, he was appointed physician to King George II. The same year he succeeded Isaac Newton as president of the Royal Society, an office which he held until 1741.

In 1742, Sir Hans retired to his property in Chelsea.

By the time of his death on 11th January, 1753 at the ripe old age of 93, Sir Hans had collected more than 71,000 objects including books, manuscripts, drawings, coins and medals and plant specimens which he bequeathed to King George II in exchange for a payment of £20,000 to his executors.

Parliament agreed, following a lottery to raise the money, his collection went on to form the basis of the British Museum, first opened to the public in 1759 in Bloomsbury. It was also to form the basis of the museum’s later offshoot, the Natural History Museum at South Kensington.

Sir Hans was buried at Chelsea Old Church with his wife Elizabeth who died in 1724.

A navy administrator and an MP who lived in London for much for the 17th century, it is for his remarkable diary – filled with reflections on great events and the intimate goings on of daily life – that Samuel Pepys is renowned around the world.

Born the son of a tailor in Salisbury Court, Fleet Street (the site is now marked with a plaque), on 23rd February, 1633, Pepys (pronounced ‘peeps’) attended St Paul’s School before moving on to Cambridge University. After graduation, he entered the household of one of his father’s cousins, Sir Edward Montagu, as a secretary around 1655 – the same year he married Elisabeth de St Michel.

Under the patronage of Sir Edward – after he became the Earl of Sandwich – Pepys was appointed Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board – a task which saw him playing a key role in shaping the English fleet which fought (unsuccessfully) in the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667).

In 1673, he became Secretary to the Admiralty and the same year was elected an MP for Castle Rising in Norfolk (he later became an MP for Harwich). Pepys also served as president of the Royal Society from 1684-1686, and even visited Tangier where he was involved in the evacuation of the short-lived English colony there. He was imprisoned twice in later years – at least once on suspicion of supporting the Jacobites – but the charges were dropped and he retired at the age of 57 in 1690.

In 1701 he moved out to a house in Clapham and lived there until his death on 26th May, 1703 (his wife Elisabeth had died many years earlier in 1669 and they’d had no children). His extensive library – including his six volume diary – were bequeathed to Magdalene College at Cambridge.

Despite an illustrious public career, it is his diary for which Pepys is most celebrated. Covering the years from 1660 to 1669 (he only stopped writing for fear he would go blind), it records his reactions to such monumental events as Charles II’s coronation (he was present as a youth at the beheading of Charles I), the Great Plague of London in 1665 and the Great Fire of London the following year as well as intimate details from his personal life including how he spent his leisure time, his various illnesses and his sexual liaisons. Written originally in a form of shorthand, it was first published in 1825 – and only fully published in 1976 – and has since gone on to enthral and entertain millions around the world.

Among places in London which still hold a Pepys connection are St Bride’s Church (he was baptised there), All Hallows by the Tower (it was in the tower from which Pepys watched the Great Fire), St Olave’s on Seething Lane (pictured above) where Pepys and his wife are buried (he was living in Seething Lane when he started the diary and St Olave’s served as his parish church between 1660 and 1674). Further down Seething Lane, there is a bust of Pepys in the gardens which now cover the Navy Office where Pepys once lived and worked.

There is also an exhibition on Pepy’s in Prince Henry’s Room at 17 Fleet Street (the building dates from around 1610 and was a pub when Pepys was alive), although it is currently closed.  An online version of Pepys’ diary can be found at the website Pepys’ Diary. For more on Pepys’ life, we do recommend Claire Tomalin’s best-selling biography Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self.