The Italian Inn of Wimbledon
While most players rent houses top spectators stay at the Hotel du Vin
Blink and you might miss it. The National Portrait Gallery has a singular line, side- profile drawing of a short, very stout woman in a ball gown and with frazzled hair clutching a fan, as if attending a rather hot garden party. The woman is Sophia Johnstone, aka, the Duchess of Cannizzaro, who inherited a fortune from her father, George Johnstone, the former director of the East India Company, and who in 1814 married an impoverished Italian aristocrat Francesco Platamone, Duke of Cannizzaro. The pair moved to Warren House, a grand estate in the village of Wimbedounyng, meaning Wynnman’s hill, the doun Celtic for hill—later Wimbleton, then Wimbledon.
It was a marriage of convenience. She got a title; he got a nice income. Eventually, the Duke of Cannizzaro returned to Italy with his mistress. The drawing, by Sir Edwin Landseer, a famous painter and sculptor of animals, corresponds with diarist Charles Greville’s description: “very short and fat with rather a handsome face, totally uneducated but full of humour.”
Once the Duke was gone, however, Lady Cannizzaro resumed a life of music patronages and lavish garden concerts attended by the likes of the Duke of Wellington and Lucien Bonaparte. At some point, the second “z” in the Duke’s name dropped and the grounds became known as “Cannizaro”. When Lady Cannizzaro died in 1841, the partying continued under Adela Schuster, the Lady of Wimbledon, who turned the house into the centre of the arts, music and High Victorian society. As Wimbledon became more urban, however, the last heirs to the house donated the house to the town council which turned it into a care home.
“We literally are a country house seven miles from London,” said Spencer Yeo, the manager of the Cannizaro House, now a part of the Clermont Hotel Group—owners of the Hotel du Vin chain—and every June, a respite from the literal and metaphorical heat at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, which hosts its annual Championships down the street. “Guests don’t have to go to Surrey or the other side of the M-25 to get luxury accommodation—they can embrace the tournament and enjoy a vacation in one location.”
While it is not the “official” hotel of Wimbledon, the Hotel du Vin at Cannizaro House might as well consider itself one. Players mostly rent the houses around the AELTC campus for extra space during the Wimbledon fortnight, but everybody else, including media, sponsors and longtime fans, comfortably crashes at the hotel, just over a mile from the Club. “Our new guests inquire about getting a taxi to the tournament and we usually tell them, would you just like to walk?”
Usually, Cannizaro House puts up a couple of large-screen televisions around the bar and keeps a chef on hand until midnight during Wimbledon, but two years out of the COVID-19—the first time the AELTC Championships wasn’t orchestrated since World War II—Yeo, a 28-year veteran of the hotel industry, says the Cannizaro House, in partnership with the Courts magazine, will create an “annex to the AELTC” for a full-scale year of Wimbledon.
“We love Courts magazine. It’s not like a glossy for every tennis brand; it’s a magazine that tells interesting stories about the game and features more obscure articles, rather than stories rehashed,” Yeo says. “With Courts, we’re going to have a merchandise booth, theme menus, Wimbledon tea every day, some “sundowner” drink specials and copies of the magazine for everyone.”
Equally, the founder and publisher of Courts, Laurent Van Reepinghen, is ready for “sitting on the terrace and feeling the sun go down on your face after a great day at Wimbledon,” he says from his outpost in Brussels, Belgium. This year, Courts has ventured to several of the major ATP & WTA 500 and 1000 events, including the Rotterdam Open, the Monte Carlo Masters, the BMW Open in Munich, the Geneva Open, the Lyon Open and Roland-Garros. “But coming to Wimbledon is always a special occasion. And the Cannizaro House is not a tennis museum and it’s not a cliché. It’s a perfect complement to a near-perfect event.”
Before the six founders of the AELTC ever dreamt of adding lawn tennis to its croquet fields in 1868, local councils across England started building “pleasure grounds” and public commons were transformed into beautiful landscapes. Before the Duchess of Cannizaro, in the 1790s, Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville, planted the many foreign species of trees which make up what is now known as Cannizaro Park, the grounds on which Cannizaro House sits. Lady Cannizaro not only conjured up a rose garden, but also an Italian garden with a promenade lined with manicured hedges.
Since 1987, Cannizaro Park has been a Grade 2 English Heritage garden, boasting one of the country’s finest collections of Rhododendrons, azaleas, camelias, maples, magnolias, pines, beeches and hundreds more species. Every summer, a group of local residents calling themselves the Friends of Cannizaro Park puts on an open air concert festival, in addition to frequent art exhibitions. In 1996, the Merton Town Council sold the Warren House, which had been a long-term care home, to the Hotel du Vin boutique chain, which owns and operates nineteen hotels across the UK, primarily in university locations and cathedral cities.
Per Hotel du Vin standards, each one of the Cannizaro House’s hotel rooms has been decorated with its own signature wallpaper and furnishings. All of Cannizaro House’s rooms are surrounded by either the park or the front drive of the house, and its suites feature Emperor beds, sitting areas, bathrooms with large tubs and underfloor heating. The Orangery at Cannizaro House—the hotel’s bistro—is a large, informal open-terraced new Italian restaurant overlooking Cannizaro Park.
Yeo, who has worked for the Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula, Forte and Intercontinental groups of hotels in diverse regions including Abu Dhabi, Nairobi, Egypt, California, Istanbul and the Maldives, came to Cannizaro House right before the pandemic hit in 2020. While not a sport superfan, he follows tennis fairly regularly, thanks to his travels, and has kept the hotel’s longtime relationships with Ralph Lauren, Wimbledon’s official clothier, Eurosport and its other media partners, and the tennis celebrities, such as commentator Tim Henman, “who add to the flavour and camaraderie of the fortnight.
“You never know who is going to turn up at Cannizaro House,” he says. “It’s been that kind of place for decades before Wimbledon and it will remain so. But we’ll always have our regulars.”
Story published in Courts no. 4, Summer 2023.