I recently read Laura Cumming’s fascinating book The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velázquez and was pleasantly surprised to find that the author, albeit briefly, mentions one of my favourite London landmarks: York Water Gate. Now located in the Victoria Embankment Gardens, this fine piece of architecture is all that survives of York House, one of the many great houses that once lined the Strand. Its name refers back to the Archbishops of York who had owned the building from the mid-sixteenth century onwards. In 1622, however, it was acquired by George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham (1592–1628), a friend and favourite of king James I and later of his successor Charles I.
Villiers immediately set about embellishing his new property: Within a few years it was adorned with frescoes by Orazio Gentileschi, paintings by Holbein, Raphael, Titian and Dürer, a statue of Samson by Giambologna (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum), and a fairly large number of sculptures from Roman antiquity. All of these works, alas, were destroyed or dispersed when the building was demolished in 1675, having been sold off to developers by Villiers’ son.
So all that remains today is the former water gate, built in 1626 at the rear end of the property. Like most of the palaces on the Strand, York House and its grounds extended all the way to the Thames. It was there that the gate was erected as a ceremonial entrance for those arriving from the river, a much-used transport route in those days. As befits its function, the water gate is richly decorated with coats of arms, inscriptions, emblems, and heraldic beasts relating to the owner and his family – e. g. the Villiers’ motto Fidei Coticula Crux (The Cross is the Touchstone of Faith) inscribed on the land side of the structure.
But even without its decorations York Water Gate would still be highly impressive. Reflecting the Italianate court style fashionable in the ambit of Charles I., it essentially is a small-scale triumphal arch dominated by rusticated Doric columns.
Unfortunately, the architect of this rare piece of London Baroque is unknown. Traditionally, it has been attributed to sculptor and royal master-mason Nicholas Stone, but other names have been suggested, too, most notably Balthazar Gerbier and Inigo Jones. The one thing we can say with certainty, though, is that its design was based on that of the Medici Fountain in Paris, erected only a few years earlier by an Italian master, presumably Tommaso Francini, in the gardens of Marie de’ Medici’s palace on the Rive Gauche.
There is a certain irony in the fact that York Water Gate was modelled on an elaborate architectural garden feature – for that is exactly what the gate itself has become since the construction of the Thames Embankment in the 1860s: The river now flows more than a hundred metres south-east of the building, leaving it stranded and all too often overlooked at the back of the Embankment Gardens.