Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Folgate Street

©Ellen Leslie

Just this week, I was taking a little seasonal stroll around Spitalfields, in London. The area is an architectural and historical enclave of Georgian townhouses that has been the homes and workshops for many waves of immigrants over hundreds of years, none more so that the refugee Flemish silk weavers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Once nearly lost to “progress” and City developers, the area was saved in the 1970s by a concerted campaign, led by the poet Sir John Betjeman, amongst others. If there were ever an example of the beauty and benefit of saving historic quarters in this modern life, it is Spitalfields.

While on the walk I found myself in Folgate Street and outside the unique home of the late Dennis Severs. He bought the house in 1979 and set about stripping the unprepossessing layer of 20th century living back to how it would have looked 150-200 years ago. But what makes 18 Folgate Street special is that it doesn’t just show what it looked like, it also shows how it smelled, tasted and felt as well. It is staged as if it is still lived in, with no modern heating or lighting, which adds to its sense of authenticity.

The house is open to the public, but not every day and most of the time you need to book in advance. But luck was on my side. As my partner and I looked soulfully through the window at the warm and welcoming lit fire in the kitchen in the basement and pondered the next available tour times, David the curator stepped outside to tidy up before that evening’s visit. We got chatting, or more truthfully, my less-shy partner led the conversation and before we knew it David kindly invited us in.

It certainly was a bombardment for all the senses. You walk through the front door and leave the present day behind. We were transported back to the 18th and 19th centuries with the rooms set as if the Georgian and Victorian occupants had just left the rooms, with food and drink laid out, beds unmade and clothes discarded. The house is arranged with a story. The story is fictional but historically possible with the lives of a family (5 generations), visitors and tenants over the 150 years or so, from the 1760s to the beginning of the First World War. In the kitchen David was just cooking a Christmas hash on the small cast iron range for the “tenants” that supposedly live in sparse circumstances in the attic rooms. That food was to be laid out later for the evening tour. We sat around the warming range and talked about the house and Dennis Severs’ desire to bring people as close to the historical period as possible. We agreed it was virtually time travel. After we had steeped ourselves in the sights, sounds and smells of the dark and cosy kitchen, David showed us the rest of the house from the recycled medieval stoneware in the back basement that they would have used for building repairs, to the grand salon on the first floor, the main bedrooms on the 2nd floor and the meagre tenant attic space above. Each room gave an immediate sense of being in the past.

© 18 Folgate Street Website

In truth, it is difficult to fully convey the magic of visiting 18 Folgate Street in a simple blog. You need to see it for yourself.  If you live in or are visiting London, this is a must. Booking in advance is important. You can enjoy it by day, but maybe more magically, you can experience it at night, all lit by candlelight.

You can read more about 18 Folgate Street here.  There was also a video of the house here, with an interview with Dennis Severs before he died in 1999.

More information about Spitalfields, its life and preservation can be seen on the Spitalfields Life website and through the East End Preservation Society

©Ellen Leslie

Friday, 13 September 2013

The Beautiful and Enduring Houses of The Weald

Wealden Hall House - Bayleaf House © Weald and Downland Open Air Museum
I’ve just had an enquiry to research the history of a 15th century Wealden hall house in Kent. This is a type of building that I have quite a bit of experience of and one that gives me enormous pleasure to research. Their innate timbered beauty, the quality of construction from so many centuries ago as well as their sheer survival makes these buildings a favourite of mine. As the name suggests they are usually found in The Weald, in south east England. This is an area between the North and South Downs that runs from Kent to Hampshire, through Surrey and Sussex. Of course nothing is that cut and dry and you can find Wealden houses in Essex too.

Wealden hall houses were usually constructed in 4 bays with the 2 central ones enclosing a double-height hall with a central hearth. The smoke from this would escape through holes or specially made louvers in the roof. At one end of the hall there would be a screen, hiding a cross passage behind and beyond that two rooms known as the Buttery and the Pantry; the service rooms. At the other end the ground floor rooms tended to be the Parlor, where guests would be received, possibly with business or with matters to discuss; hence “Parlor” from the French “Parler” – To Speak. Upstairs, the two end bays would provide the private family area such as sleeping quarters. These were known as the Solar and would be jettied, hanging over the length of the ground floor. Eventually a floor was inserted to create a full-length first floor and the central hearth was moved towards the cross passage or outer wall to create a fireplace and chimney stack. Initially, these timber-framed buildings were thatched and would have had wattle and daub walls. As time went on these would have been replaced with tiles on the roof and brick infill in the walls. The 18th century was also popular to add an entire brick skin around the house. This is why often, timber framed buildings can remain hidden and are still being discovered today.

To illustrate, here are 2 examples of Wealden houses that I have researched. Both have changed significantly since the time of their construction, but beneath them are surviving Wealden Halls. The first is in Wadhurst (on the Kent and East Sussex border) and another on the far end of the Weald, in Kirdford West Sussex. Despite the extensive change and alteration in their long lives they still hold the fundamental dimensions and structure of their original construction. The house in Wadhurst is 14th century and still retains soot-blacked beams in the roof, from the days of the double-height hall and the central hearth.
©Ellen Leslie
The Kirdford house is a little more recent, around 1585 and had been in such a bad state of repair it was nearly demolished in the 1990s. Thankfully it was saved.

©Ellen Leslie
So the Wealden Hall House endures. It was a popular style of construction then, and was a form that took centuries to evolve and eventually be replaced by new styles of architecture.

If you want to get up close with such buildings you should visit The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in West Sussex. This museum has rescued and reconstructed an amazing collection of traditional buildings from the south east of England, including Bayleaf House (see top picture).

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Bricks and Mortals

Discovering the history of the previous owners, and or guests to your property can be fascinating, but also sometimes grisly. Can you handle the truth? It is a wonderful thing, unlocking the history of your house. Whether you commission an historian like me, or decide to make the journey yourself; there is a sense of anticipation and excitement about what will be discovered. Is the house a real medieval hall house? Does the cellar belong to a much older building that had existed on the site before? Who built the house in the first place? What was it used for? Will the rumours about a famous resident or visitor prove to be true?

But when you are investigating the history of a building, you can't pick and choose the information. The complete story of a house would include the highs and the lows, the good times and the bad. Are you prepared to find out that your home has a darker past?

In 2012 I had three assignments in a row, where there was either a suicide, a suspicious death or financial ruin (which often preceded the former). Even though these properties were not mine, when researching you can easily become emotionally attached. And although finding the untimely and sad end to people's lives can be considered "run of the mill" in my work, I always take a sharp intake of breath when the evidence is revealed! It can be upsetting, particularly if you have followed the fortunes of a particular person from their birth to their final days.

One of the properties I researched was a mill in Buckinghamshire. I followed local press stories about the owner of the house from 1830 to the 1870s. He seems to have been a real character, either ending up in local tavern brawls, taking fellow local businessmen to court for various perceived transgressions, or one of his businesses catching fire (more than once) or even his own bankruptcy. The trail of his financial demise led to the day after he officially lost his fortune. The coroner's report which I found on Ancestry.co.uk confirmed that as a result of "intoxication", he had fallen into the river next to the mill. If that wasn't enough, 10 years later, his brother-in-law who had taken over the running of the mill had taken his own life in a first class railway carriage from London to Carlisle. 

Another house I researched was an 18th century long house on the South Downs in Sussex. A family had been the tenant farmers of land covering hundreds of acres for hundreds of years. I had traced their tenure from the tender early days in the 1630s up until 1913. The family was wealthy and well-established in the area. But this began to unravel when the head of the family, in 1844 was drowned off the south coast aged just 42. Things didn't really improve after that. Finally, in 1913 after over 10 years of rent arrears the patient landlord had to call in the debt. After over 250 years of farming that land, the family were forced to leave, the head of the family was declared bankrupt and even though his son took over the lease, within the year the house it was up for sale again.

The final example was an 18th century country house in Gloucestershire. From its construction in the 1780s it was occupied by a string of tenants and in 1903 the new tenants were a newlywed couple.  Local press in 1905 reported in lurid detail the tragic story of the wife, who following the birth of her first child had killed herself with a knife in the house. With the benefit of modern medicine and psychiatry for us in 2013 it is easy to see she had been suffering from post natal depression.

I always ask my clients, before beginning the research, whether they would like to have the "warts and all" story of their house; having said that, very few say no. Even where I am researching just the structural evolution of the house, more than the social side, most home owners decide to know all the gruesome details. Would you?

This first appeared  in countrylife.co.uk in January 2013 

Monday, 20 May 2013

Arts & Crafts On Sea. - George, Peto and Lutyens?

East Court - Victoria Parade, Ramsgate (© Ellen Leslie)
The English seaside never ceases to surprise me when it comes to architecture. But it shouldn't really as people have gravitated to the coast for health, recreation and inspiration since at least the 18th century!  The variety of architecture in English seaside towns reflects the evolution of a place and none more so than in Ramsgate on the east Kent coast.

Of course, Ramsgate is most famous for The Grange, the home of Augustus Pugin, one of our most celebrated 19th century architects. The town also has an amazing collection of 18th and 19th century townhouses in their typical seaside distressed elegance and if you look closely, there are small tucked away cottages of an earlier century. However, this weekend I wasn't prepared for East Court up on Victoria Parade, north of the town.

The house shouts Arts and Crafts (my architectural weakness) sitting in among more prosaic Victorian terraced houses and streamlined 1930s buildings.  The main block stands over two floors with an additional attic level. The long window range on this latter level facing the sea is particularly striking as are the other jettied windows. What cannot be ignored are the green (Westmoreland) slates in a fish scale setting on the exterior walls and roofs which contrast beautifully with the red brickwork on the ground floor and chimney stacks. This immense house also boasts its own matching stable block. It also stands out with the intriguing initials "WHW" stamped on the rainwater hopper on the front of the house. Obviously the initials of the person who commissioned the house.  

However, what was particularly exciting was that I had seen many of the specific architectural features before. I recalled a Lutyens house I researched many years ago, near Godalming.  That house was one of Lutyen’s earliest commissions, dating to 1891. So I gingerly put a similar date on this seafront construction.  There was the same “bottle-bottom” glazed front door, the heavily studded oak side door and the timbered verandah overlooking the sunken garden; all very familiar. But it didn't feel completely Lutyens. Early Lutyens was more Tudorbethan. This was far more sophisticated. What also puzzled me were the ground floor Venetian windows, which I would date as slightly older than works by Lutyens. The last time I saw this specific design of fenestration was in Cadogan Square in the centre of London, which was built in the 1870s and 1880s. But I knew Lutyens is not necessarily associated with its Queen Anne style or Flemish architecture.  But, what I found out would make perfect sense.

The bottle-bottom glazed front door reminiscent of early Lutyens designs (© Ellen Leslie)

(© Ellen Leslie)
This Grade II house was designed by the architects Sir Ernest George and Harold Ainsworth Peto for William Henry Wills (1st Lord Winterstock) in 1889/90. In later years it went on to be a nursery and a school. The George and Peto partnership was one of the most prolific and successful architectural practices in London in the 1880s (although they also worked all over the country). The Cadogan Square link held true as George and Peto were responsible for several  buildings in that square and nearby streets. But East Court is certainly a departure from the “Pont Street Dutch” of Cadogan Square and the “Tudorbethan” style they favoured for their country clients. In fact I'd say East Court has ingredients of both those styles but heavily coated with the burgeoning popularity of Arts and Crafts.  And what of Lutyens? The young architect had been a paying apprentice at the George and Peto practice just one year before East Court was built. So the question is does East Court carry Lutyens contributions or was the house I researched in Godalming an homage to George and Peto. Maybe we will never know. 

Original Drawing of East Court ((© RIBA Library)

Monday, 13 May 2013

Road to Nowhere?

Royal Avenue Looking North 2013 (© Ellen Leslie)
Royal Avenue Looking South 2013 (© Ellen Leslie)

At weekends I like to explore little historic pockets of London. Yesterday I checked out the peaceful streets behind the bustling King's Road in Chelsea.  One of the curiosities I found was a beautiful avenue of Horse Chestnut trees lining a long gravelled open space with gullies either side. The trees were flanked by the fine stuccoed townhouses synonymous with this part of London. Usually, there is a private garden in the middle of these elegant spaces; but not here. What made it different? I checked the street name “Royal Avenue”.  Looking south the trees stopped opposite a fine set of gates that lead to Burton Court and The Royal Hospital (a 17th century home for army veterans established by Charles II and designed by Sir Christopher Wren).  At the other end it met with the buzzing and trendy Kings Road.

1797 Map by Cary, showing "White Stiles"

Looking into this curious yet pretty arrangement, I found that Royal Avenue also owed its existence to Sir Christopher Wren. When it was laid out in the late 17th century there were no houses lining it. But looking further into the history of this small stretch of road, there seems to be a discrepancy between when it was built, for whom and why.

Royal Avenue by William Evelyn Osborn 1900 (© Tate)

The plaque displayed on the site says the Avenue was sponsored by King Charles II, but that on his death in 1685 there was no more money to continue its development. Others say, and they are possibly more reliable sources, that it was built in the early 1690s for William III and Mary II as a direct carriageway  from The Royal Hospital to their new residence Kensington Palace (previously Nottingham House). However, why it went no further than the King’s Road is not known, although lack of funds is the most probable reason.

By 1748 the short road was known as White Stiles, because of the white fencing that lined the avenue, but was eventually renamed Royal Avenue in the early 19th century when the town houses were built around it. Famous residents of Royal Avenue include Fanny Cornforth artist's model and muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti who lived there 1869-1877 and  the film director, Jospeh Losey who moved to the UK in the 1950s to avoid the McCarthy Witch Hunts. One little additional finding .... Avenue Road is the fictional home of James Bond.

Fanny Cornforth

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Butcher Cumberland Comes Clean!

©Ellen Leslie

There was once a time when I never missed any changes to the London urban landscape. Those were the days when virtually all my research work was carried out within the six London transport zones. But now that I work all over the country, keeping tabs on new developments (happening at an alarming rate) in the centre of town, is trickier.   But last week I had to visit the Howard de Walden estate, just north of Oxford Street. I walked through Cavendish Square, close to Oxford Circus and was surprised to sense the fresh smell of soap. Believe you me, in this part of the world, soap is the last thing you expect! Also something was different about the square. I’ve known it all my life. What was it? The soap happened to be a clue.

For years there had been a large, late 18th century stone plinth in the middle of the square, dedicated to the Duke of Cumberland (1721-1765).  This third son of George II had defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden (1746). This victory made him extremely popular for a short time, but it was his “pacification” of the Jacobites, his unbending punishment of any enemy sympathiser, that earned him the name “Butcher Cumberland”.

Despite his latter unpopularity the plinth, with a statue of the Duke of Cumberland on horseback on top, erected by his small but dedicated group of supporters, wasn’t removed until nearly 100 years later in 1868. The plinth remained, and that is how I remembered the square.

When I walked through last week though, the statue of “Butcher Cumberland” and horse had been “returned”. But something wasn’t quite right. The surface looked overly weather worn as if it had stood there fighting the elements for nearly 250 years …. and it smelt of soap. 

It transpired that it is in fact  a soap sculpture, created by South Korean artist Meekyoung Shin. Entitled, “Written in Soap, A Plinth Project”, it was erected in July last year and will be there for a year, so you still have a few months to go and see it for yourself. The purpose of the fast-eroding statue is to examine the passage of time, as it weathers through all four seasons of the year.

© theartnewspaper.com

Could this be the way forward for other statues of controversial individuals? Put up a soap carving for a few months and as it erodes before our eyes, we would be coerced to consider the reputation of the person depicted, whether the final analysis is good or bad ….

©Ellen Leslie