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 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 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