Paul Benney in the Deadhouse

Paul Benney’s atmospheric series of paintings – entitled Night Paintings – are the perfect fit for their current home in Somerset House’s Deadhouse. Londonphiles will also be interested to know that the subterranean Deadhouse and the surrounding lightwells – normally only accessible on guided tours or for private events – are currently open to the public for this free exhibition, the first of its kind in these spaces.

The Deadhouse runs underneath Somerset House’s Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court, linking the east and west wings and has long functioned as a passageway for just this purpose. The lightwells that surround the courtyards are home to a number of small alcoves – often used for storage – and some currently have individual works by Benney displayed very effectively within them. The Deadhouse is also home to a number of seventeenth century gravestones – but no bodies. To explain this anomaly we need to go back in time somewhat, into the depths of Somerset House’s long history.

In short, a former incarnation of Somerset House used to be the Buckingham Palace of its day for the three queens who lived there. Charles I rather contentiously built a Roman Catholic chapel for his French queen Henrietta Maria here. This site also included a burial ground. When this version of Somerset House was demolished and replaced by the current building, which was built between 1776 and 1802, some of these gravestones were kept and relocated into the walls of what is now known as the Deadhouse. These walls actually serve to support the quadrangle due to the sloping nature of the site.

But back to the art… London-based Benney has a studio at Somerset House – which also explains why his works suit the space so well. Night Paintings includes some works featuring an interesting use of resin and a number of water-based subjects. It was raining on my first visit to this exhibition and the watery works seemed well suited to the mysterious, damp, enclosed environment, which was literally dripping in places. The shadowy, paved alleyways of the lightwells, with their individual works placed inside the alcoves, lead the viewer neatly round to the Deadhouse, where the larger body of works are found.

So both the rare opening of the Deadhouse and Paul Benney’s evocative works make for two very good reasons to visit Somerset House right now. You have until Sunday December 9th, when the exhibition closes.

Free guided tours of Somerset House – which visit the Deadhouse and lightwells – run all year round on Thursday and Saturdays afternoons.


Vale of Health

Despite its name and current rarefied status, Hampstead’s mini-neighbourhood the Vale of Health actually started life as a bog variously known as Gangmoor or Hatchett’s Bottom – and was later home to factories, fairgrounds and laundering operations. It’s come a long way since – it is now said to be one of the most expensive residential areas in the world. It’s certainly one of the most exclusive, being composed of just a small hamlet’s worth of houses (and absolutely no amenities) entirely surrounded by Hampstead Heath. And while its name might suggest a former health spa or some such, the reality is that it probably originated as a euphemism or an invention aimed at changing the area’s tarnished image.

Please note the dog in the window.

Certainly the now purely residential nature of the Vale of Health was not always so – along with the odd factory, the area was once particularly popular with day-trippers (especially after the railway came to town) and was home to tea-houses, boat rides, grottoes, arbours and a fairground. Though the merry-go-rounds and slot machines were packed away some time ago, the legacy of these more giddy days continues with the existence of what would otherwise have been one of the least likely caravan parks in London, which abuts the Vale along one edge. Today it is still inhabited by fairground employees, and has been owned by the same family for over a century.

I first stumbled across the Vale of Health by complete accident while exploring Hampstead Heath. I’d remembered it as a quaint semi-village full of white houses. This recollection was only partially correct  – there are indeed a number of white residences but not exclusively so and these share space with two more modern apartment buildings. These flats were built on land once occupied by the two hotels in Vale of Health and have a lovely setting over the pond on one side of the settlement (see the before and after images below). Building in the Vale was severely curtailed in 1872 when the Metropolitan Board of Works bought the heath, limiting construction to the existing area.

By 1890 there were 53 houses in the area – and it’s much the same today, with the residences strung out along the one main road (called Vale of Health), an unnamed side road (where the apartments are) and a series of interconnecting alleyways behind these. It is a fascinating little area to explore or stumble across, with an unusual history and a number of listed buildings. Two blue plaques can be found for previous residents DH Lawrence and Rabindranath Tagore. It’s well worth a detour when you’re next rambling across the heath.

The Vale of Health can be reached via East Heath Road. The closest tube station is Hampstead Heath on the northern line.

Sandys Row Synagogue

Hidden behind a fairly nondescript brick frontage in one of my favourite warrens of old streets in Spitalfields is London’s oldest Ashkenazi Synagogue – Sandys Row. Sandys Row actually started life as a Huguenot church (circa 1763) and was later a place of worship over many years for various Baptists congregations. The local Jewish community – composed primarily of Dutch Ashkenazi workers – created a fellowship in 1854 and took ownership of the site in 1867.

Utilising the chapel’s balcony as the women’s gallery, they also instigated a re-design to create the new main entrance on Sandys Row. The old entrance on the eastern side can still be seen today in its bricked-up form on Parliament Court, the alley behind the synagogue. It was relocated as the Torah Ark (a cabinet containing the synagogue’s Torah scrolls) needed to be housed on this side as it’s the closest to Jerusalem. Following the destruction of the Great Synagogue of London in Aldgate during the Blitz, Sandys Row became London’s oldest Ashkenazi synagogue.

Today Sandys Row is Spitalfield’s last surviving, operational synagogue – in an area that was once home to a flourishing Jewish community. After years of a declining congregation, it has experienced a renaissance of late, with an increasing number of Jewish families moving back into the area and board members who are keen to open the synagogue to visitors. A recent £250,000 English Heritage restoration project allowed for the repair of the Huguenot roof, which had been badly damaged by vibrations from exploding bombs in the Second World War.

A rare glimpse of the human face in these lights – not usually depicted within synagogues.

Currently on display in Sandys Row is a series of fascinating 1912 street photography of the local area by C.A. Mathew. Mathew was an Essex-based photographer – these photographs represent his only surviving body of work. They show a heavily populated Spitalfields that is at once both familiar and unfamiliar: some areas have changed out of sight while others are surprisingly recognisable. Anyone familiar with the wonderful Spitalfields Life blog will probably have read some of the Gentle Author’s pieces about Mathew’s work – or even about Sandys Row itself.

Mathew’s photographs will be on display until February 2013 – Sandys Row is open to the public on Sundays from 10:30am-4pm, but check their calendar to confirm as the synagogue may be booked for private events on some dates.

Spitalfields sleepovers

Unless you happen to belong to the ranks of the mega rich, buying a lovely former weaver’s home in Spitalfields is probably pretty much out of the question these days. But the good news is that you can take a short break in one. Both the Landmark Trust – who specialise in restoring historic buildings for holiday lets – and the owner of 5a Fournier Street currently have lovely Spitalfields residences available for short stays. The Landmark Trust’s 13 Princelet Street held on open day recently (which they do annually), so I can show you some of what’s on offer.

Princelet Street was amongst the first streets to be developed in Spitalfields (circa 1705-1720), and was home to some of the most prosperous residences in the area. Number 13 (previously known as number 21) was initially built and leased by a stonemason in 1718-19, but was later inhabited by silk weavers. When Peter Lerwill – who bequeathed the property to the Landmark Trust – bought the property in 1984 it was in a sad state, but happily still retained its eighteenth century layout and much of its original joinery. Lerwill’s substantial restoration project meant that by the time the property came to the Trust they had little to do to it other than a spot of basic re-decoration, which has included a nice line in photos, maps and illustrations of the area.

Another particularly attractive feature of the house – in addition to its wonderfully sloping wooden floors and staircases – are the fascinating views of the old neighbourhood that can be glimpsed through many of the windows. And I have to mention the fireplaces with their delft tiles. The Princelet Street property has one double bedroom (with ensuite) and two twin bedrooms, as well as ample sitting and dining areas on the ground and first floors. Prices vary over the year, but upcoming prices listed online include £838 for four nights in December and £644 for the same in February. And remember that as the property sleeps six you could share the expense amongst six adults.

5a Fournier Street is also a former weaver’s abode, dating from 1720, and featuring similar period details, such as wood panelling and floorboards, while also containing direct views of Christ Church just across the road and an old weaver’s loft. There are two bedrooms, one with a double bed, the other a four-poster king-size bed. Rates range from £600 for four people for three nights.

Another option: 5a Fournier Street, with Town House at number 5.

5a is located directly above Town House at number 5 Fournier Street, which contains a lovely shop, small gallery and coffee and cakes. Well worth a look in its own right for its discerning stock and excellent coffee, it also offers you another glimpse into an old Spitalfields home – grabbing an espresso in the basement kitchen feels much like hanging out at a friend’s house. The gallery is currently featuring an exhibition of striking black and white photographs of the Square Mile by Anthony Jones (on until 21st October), so now is an excellent time to drop by.

This is history that you can live in – if only for a short while!

Landmark Trust Princelet Street

5a Fournier Street/Stay in Spitalfields

Town House