The façade of Sir Paul Pindar's house is an outstanding survival of a London timber-framed house built before the Great Fire of 1666. It was built around 1599 by Paul Pindar (1566 – 1650), a wealthy merchant and diplomat who was knighted in 1620 by James I.
Sir Paul Pindar was born in 1566 at Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. Although educated with a view to a university career, he soon decided to enter the trading profession, becoming apprenticed to Mr. John Powish, an Italian merchant in London. Over the next 15 years, Pindar amassed a fortune in Italy and southern Europe before returning to England. Now renowned for his expertise as a merchant, in 1611 he was sent to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) as ambassador to the Sultan of Turkey for nine years, before returning to London.
Pindar's business activities enabled him to invest in speculative trading expeditions, loan large sums to Charles I (reign 1600 – 49), and contribute the enormous sum of £10,000 towards the rebuilding of St Paul's Cathedral in London. However, the deposition of Charles I, following the English Civil War (1642 – 51), meant he was unable to repay his loans leaving Pindar with huge debts when he died in 1650 at the age of 84.
However, the political upheavals of the 1640s and Charles's inability to repay loans left Pindar with huge debts when he died in 1650 at the age of 84.
In 1597, Pindar bought several properties at the north-east edge of the City of London on the west side of Bishopsgate Street, just outside the City walls. This was one of the main roads to East Anglia and had recently been paved. It was also convenient for Pindar's business activities. Less than a mile away was St Paul's Cathedral – a rendezvous for city merchants – and Cheapside, where traders also acted as bankers. Closer still was the recently founded Royal Exchange at Cornhill, where Pindar would have met other wholesale merchants and swapped news.
On Bishopsgate, Pindar constructed a jettied timber-frame building, with an impressive street façade of three and a half storeys and a garden that looked over the open land of Moorfields and Finsbury Fields. The term 'jettied' means that each storey projects over the one beneath, a feature that was common in English timber houses from 1300. The house was much deeper than it was wide, with the main part to the rear. To the left, the older properties were adapted to form part of the impressive new frontage. To the right a gateway led down the side of the house. Between these Pindar built a new bay, and it is this that has survived.
Houses of several storeys with jettied fronts were not rare in London in 1600, but Pindar's house would have been unusually large and the façade, dominated by full-height and semi-circular or 'carell' windows, particularly striking. 'Carell' windows had been used in royal and aristocratic buildings since the 1530s and were still very fashionable by the time this house was built in the 1590s. Pindar would have had a choice of glass for his windows: imported clear glass or English glass, which was greenish in colour.
The façade is also covered with large panels of solid, plain-sawn knotty English oak boards about 7.5 cm thick, each with an elaborate carved decoration. This was a new fashion in Elizabethan London houses. The designs were probably copied from workshop pattern books based on prints imported from the Netherlands. The central panel on the first floor is carved with the coat of arms of the City of London, and the central panel on the second floor is carved with a thistle. This was probably a badge of loyalty to the new king, James I (reigned 1603 – 25), who was also James VI of Scotland. This suggests that this part of the façade was not completed until after James's succession in 1603.
Decorative elements also appear on the main vertical posts on each storey, which include grotesque brackets that appear to support the jettied floor, and on the panels between them.
Behind the projecting first-floor window was a large reception room with fine moulded plaster ceilings, an elaborate chimneypiece and oak panelling. The caption to an 1810 engraving of the room describes it as: 'East view of a room of the first floor of Sir Paul Pindar's Bishopsgate Street. Internal specimen of the decorated style in the latter part of the reign of Elizabeth 1600. The chimneypiece from the floor to the upper part of the tablets of hunting the stag is of stone the upper part, the ceiling and the cornice are of plaster, all the rest are of wood'.
The house was grand enough to serve as the residence of Pietro Contarini, the Venetian ambassador to the Court of St James in 1617 – 18. Contarini's chaplain described it as "a very commodious mansion which had heretofore served as the residence of several former ambassadors".
By 1660, the mansion had already been subdivided into smaller dwellings. It survived the Great Fire of 1666, but was soon converted into a workhouse for 'poor children' and 'vagabonds, beggars, pilferers, lewd, idle, and disorderly persons'. The street-level rooms on the front were used as a tavern, known as Sir Paul Pindar's Head. By the mid-19th century, the newly developed railway station at Liverpool Street meant that many small businesses flourished along Bishopsgate – Sir Paul Pindar's former mansion stood between William Sorrell's coffee rooms and Ralph Smith & Co, Pianoforte Makers.
In 1890, the property was demolished to make room for the expansion of the station, but fortunately, the façade was recognised to be an architectural rarity and presented to the V&A by the Great Eastern Railway Company.
Sir Paul Pindar's house front can be seen on permanent display in The Simon Sainsbury Gallery, Room 64b.