Prefab Museum

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After the Second World War thousands of prefabricated houses sprung up around UK in an effort to deal with the extreme housing shortage. Over the years most of these have been demolished – they were only ever intended to be temporary structures. However, one community of prefabs in Catford, South East London, has clung on. With the estate now in its last days, a temporary exhibition currently offers the rare opportunity to see inside a prefab house.

IMG_5957The Excalibur Estate was built between 1945 and 1946 by German and Italian prisoners of war and is the largest surviving prefab community in the country.  The buildings were only intended to last for around ten years.

PM1The estate – whose streets are named after Arthurian characters – is destined for the bulldozer, to be replaced with 371 new homes by Lewisham Council. Part of it has already been demolished and fenced off. Only six buildings, which have been listed by English Heritage, are to be retained.

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The temporary exhibition features photographs (including some particularly stunning ones by Rob Pickard), memorabilia and films about life in the Excalibur Estate and other prefab communities in the UK – and your last chance to visit one of London’s more unusual communities.

PM5The Prefab Museum can be found at 17 Meliot Road, Catford, SE6 1RY. The exhibition has now been extended to run until the end of May, and is open on Tuesdays, Thursdays (10am – 4:30pm) and Saturdays (10am – 6pm). Entry is free. The closest station is Bellingham (National Rail).

Caroline’s Miscellany has also written a very thought-provoking piece on the Excalibur Estate.

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Superposition, Canal Museum

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I must admit that a big part of the attraction for me of the art installation currently being hosted by the London Canal Museum was the opportunity to climb down into the underground ice wells and take some pretty photographs. But like many such things, it turned out to be about so much more than that, and I found myself exploring a fascinating interplay between art and science – with a little bit of London history thrown in for good measure…IMG_3898 This installation was created by artist Lyndall Phelps in collaboration with physicist Dr Ben Still, who have been working together since 2012 exploring particle physics. You can read more about their work on their blog. This piece, Covariance, is actually the first instalment of the Institute of Physics’ Superposition series, which brings together artists and physicists to create new works of art. IMG_3943 And yes, you do get to climb down some ladders into the usually fenced-off ice wells that sit beneath the museum building. Built in around 1863, it was originally a warehouse for Carlo Gatti, who as well as being a restaurateur was also an ice importer and ice cream maker. At the time, ice was imported in blocks from Norway, then driven along the canal from what is now Limehouse Basin. The smaller pieces in the first well represent this history, with light boxes that mirror the shape of these ice blocks. IMG_3884 But the main work is in the second well, underneath the front of the building. This dark, circular space is now home to the striking work shown here in these photographs. These colourful disks were inspired by various ways in which data from particle detectors is visualised. I’m no scientist – but fortunately the knowledgable guides can explain more, and show you photographs (also contained in the exhibition guide) of the various inspirations, such as Ben’s own coloured dot diagrams, the women who used to process data from the early detectors, and Japan’s Super-Kamiokande particle detector. IMG_3922 The work is created from everyday materials, including over one kilometre of brass rods (representing the history of science), and beads and diamantes (representing women’s contributions to physics). The space itself also informed the work’s design – and its dark, silent and rather cold environment is well-suited to it. This is one of those works that you really need to see for yourself, but suffice it to say that I could have spent another twenty minutes down there quite happily! IMG_3919 Superposition runs until 20 October at the London Canal Museum (closest tube: King’s Cross). Tours should ideally be booked in advance here, run on Thursday afternoons, Saturdays and Sundays, and cost £4, which covers entry to the museum. There will be a free conversation event with Lyndall Phelps and Ben Still on the evening of Thursday October 17th. IMG_3894 IMG_3899

Museum of the Order of St John

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Anyone who has walked through the Tudor gate on St John’s Lane in Clerkenwell must have wondered just what it is and what treasures it might house. The answer is that – following a number of different incarnations over the years – it is now home to the Museum of the Order of St John and is the property of that order, whose history on this site can be traced back to the eleventh century. And if you visit the museum on a Tuesday, Friday or Saturday at 11am or 2:30pm and take a guided tour, you can gain admittance to the upper chambers and see for yourself what lies above.

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The tours are a must as they also gain you entry into the Norman crypt and priory church across Clerkenwell Road – once part of the monastery that was locked away behind this entrance gate. Once upstairs in the gatehouse you get a good look around the Chapter Hall (pictured below), the Old Chancery and the Council Chamber (which sits in the middle of the gate), before descending a lovely Tudor spiral staircase to the Malta Room.

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Not to take anything away from the fascinating history of the Order of St John, but I was personally more interested in the gate’s (relatively) more recent history and its literary connections. Following the dissolution of the monasteries it served time as Henry VIII’s personal storage unit before becoming the office of the Master of the Revels in the sixteenth century. As no less than 30 of Shakespeare’s plays were licensed here it’s likely that the Great Bard himself was a frequent visitor.

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In the eighteenth century the gatehouse was transformed into a rather idiosyncratic coffee house run by one Richard Hogarth, father of William. His Latin-only rule probably accounts for its fairly swift demise. The gateway also played home to The Gentleman’s Magazine – which gave a young Dr Johnson his first taste of employment – and by the nineteenth century had become the somewhat disreputable Old Jerusalem Tavern, frequented by one Charles Dickens.

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The gateway was bought back by the Order of St John in the late nineteenth century and restored to its former glory. The museum benefitted from a major restoration on 2010. Its new galleries (which are on the ground floor and can be visited for free Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm) are well designed and blend in nicely with the old structure. I highly recommend timing your visit to coincide with one of the guided tours, which are also free though a donation of £5 is suggested.

Museum of the Order of St John

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19 Princelet Street

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19 Princelet Street seems a fitting place for an immigration museum given its layers of history that follow patterns of immigration in the local area. Last week the house held two rare open days – due to its fragile nature it is not yet able to be open to the public on a more regular basis. Funding is desperately required for repairs to the Grade II listed property so that its Museum of Immigration and Diversity can be fully realised. The Londonphile attended the second opening, and the queue stretching all the way back to Wilkes Street would suggest that number 19 has a bright future.

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Originally built in 1719, this five-storey building was home to the Ogier family, French Huguenot silk weavers. A metal bobbin hangs outside the building today as a lasting reminder of the weavers’ presence in the house. After a number of years housing various workshops and lodgings, 19 Princelet Street underwent its most significant change with the building of a synagogue in 1870 by a group of mainly Polish Jews, working together under the banner of ‘Loyal United Friends Friendly Society’ to create a community centre. While the synagogue now comprises the major part of the building, this part of the structure was in fact where the Ogiers’ garden once stood.

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Metal vents in the synagogue floor allow glimpses down to the meeting room built below the synagogue – this downstairs area was also open, along with a kitchen underneath the original house. Upstairs we had access to some of the the women’s gallery in the synagogue, with its lovely views across the space. The floor above that was closed to visitors but now functions as a staff area, while the attic room of mysterious scholar/recluse David Rodinsky – made famous by artist Rachel Lichtenstein’s 1999 book Rodinsky’s Room – is well out of bounds due to structural issues. One of the volunteers told me she had been involved with the charity for ten years and still hadn’t seen it.

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Due to the property’s no-photography rule you will have to imagine the crumbling beauty of its interior for yourself. But it is beautiful, and hopefully the Spitalfields Centre charity will be able to generate the funds needed to preserve and restore this lovely building and turn it into the museum of their vision.

And the best news is that more open days are already planned for March 2013: on Sundays 17th & 24th March, 2-4pm, and what is sure to be a lovely evening opening on Thursday 21st March, 5-8pm. For more details visit 19 Princelet Street’s website.

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Turner’s House

The Londonphile has been out to Twickenham again, this time to visit Sandycoombe Lodge, the former house of Britain’s renowned landscape painter, JMW Turner. This fairly modest Regency house in St Margarets is thought to have been designed by Turner himself, with a little help from his close friend John Soane. Today, Turner’s former abode is surrounded on all sides by houses, but it once sat on a plot of land that stretched all the way to the Thames, where Turner strolled, went fishing and gained inspiration.

Turner bought the plot of land in 1807 as a country residence for himself and a permanent residence for his father, Old William, a Covent Garden barber and wigmaker who had long had a hankering to play farmer. The house itself was not built until 1812. Although his father generally maintained both the house and garden for him, it was Turner himself who snuck into Pope’s nearby derelict villa to steal a cutting of the poet’s famous willow tree for his own garden. Some lovely Soanian touches are still evident in the curved walls and decorative roof light in the stairwell.

Turner’s father also looked after his son’s West End studio – it’s not known for sure whether Turner had a studio at Sandycoombe Lodge, but at the very least he would have sketched here. Old William lived at Sandycoombe Lodge – his quarters were mainly in the basement area – until poor health forced him to return to central London. Even today the house is clearly still very damp. Interestingly, Turner’s mistress and two daughters never visited this house. After his father’s departure, Turner sold the residence in 1826 for £500.

Having served as a secret factory during the war (producing pilots’ goggles), the house was bought by one Professor Livermore in 1947, who was interested in preserving it as Turner’s former home. He certainly undertook very little modernisation during his time and the house is now awaiting a substantial restoration, overseen by Turner’s House Trust. This means that current visitors are allowed a rare opportunity to see the ‘before’ picture of what promises to be a significant project.

Sandycoombe Lodge has been open on the first Saturday of the month since April and will have its last opening of this year on the 6th of October from 10am-1pm (last entry 12:30). £4 gets you an informative guided tour of the premises. It will also be open for free guided tours as part of Open House on the weekend of 22nd and 23rd of September, from 10am-3pm both days, on a first-come, first-served basis. The Trust is still seeking donations towards restoration and maintenance so do get in touch if you can help out at all, or show your support by paying a visit.

2013 update: this year the house will be open on the first Saturday of each month from April-October. 10am-12:30pm, no booking required, and still only £4! It will also be open 10-12:30 on Saturdays June 8th, 15th, 22nd and 29th as part of the Twickenham Festival.

http://www.turnerintwickenham.org.uk/

http://events.londonopenhouse.org/Building/2961

Hogarth’s House

It’s hard to believe with the traffic thundering along the six-lane dual carriageway just metres outside, but William Hogarth and family bought their Chiswick house as a country retreat. No doubt it was still considerably quieter back in the day than their London home in what is now Leicester Square. Exactly what the artist would have made of the nearby Hogarth Business Park and the chaotic Hogarth Roundabout is anybody’s guess…

Hogarth’s House must be one of London’s oldest house museums. It was first opened to the public in 1904 after one Lieutenant-Colonel Shipway purchased the property for this purpose. He also commissioned the reproduction of Georgian-style furniture for the house from the Chiswick Art-Workers’ Guild, with each piece based on a piece of furniture featured in Hogarth’s work. This furniture is still on display in the house today – along with some of Hogarth’s personal possessions, including a palette and a snuff box – and sits well with the lovingly restored Georgian interiors.

Hogarth depicted life in Georgian London (often menacing, mercenary and decadent it turns out) in his satirical illustrations and series of paintings on ‘modern moral subjects’, the latter being serialised as hugely popular prints. Copies of a number of these prints are on display in the house, including Gin Lane, Beer Street and The Four Stages of Cruelty – so if you’re looking for a a crash course in Hogarth’s work a visit to his former abode might be just the thing.

The model for Jim Mathieson’s statue of Hogarth is on display at the house.

The house itself was built around 1700 and Hogarth lived here from 1749 until his death in 1764. His wife Jane stayed on in the house after his death – apparently on the condition that she did not remarry. Jane Hogarth organised the extension of the kitchen wing on the ground floor, which is now a gallery. Currently on display is a range of historical pictures of the house and photographs documenting its recent restoration and unfortunate history of damage – it was badly bombed in the Second World War and a fire broke out in 2009 during the restoration process, delaying its re-opening until November 2011.

Hogarth’s House is open 12 noon to 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday and Bank Holidays. Admission is free. The closest tube in Turnham Green – keep an eye out for the Jim Mathieson statue of Hogarth (and his pug dog) just down the road from the station, on the corner of Turnham Green Terrace and Chiswick High Road.
You could combine a trip to Hogarth’s House with a visit to Chiswick House and Gardens, which is located virtually next door.

Sutton House

If like me you have a liking for layers of history and secret things hidden behind doors and panels, then Hackney’s Sutton House is just the thing. Built in 1535 – making this National Trust property East London’s oldest domestic dwelling – it’s one of those London places you keep meaning to visit and then wonder why you’ve left it so long when you do.

The first thing that struck me about Sutton House was just how very old it felt. As a Tudor building it is of course significantly older than the many Georgian dwellings you can visit around London – and it very much feels like it. The magnificent wood panelling of the Linenfold Parlour – carved to look like draped linen – which greets you in the first room is quite stunning. It’s not surprising to learn that back in the day people often took their wood panelling with them when they moved house, as it would have also been very expensive.

Originally built as a home for courtier Ralph Sadleir, Sutton House has seen a wide variety of residents over the years, including schools, the St John’s Church Institute and a group of squatters in the 1980s. One of my favourite aspects of the house it how it still represents so many of these groups. So while many of the rooms are in the Tudor style, there is also a Georgian Parlour, a Victorian Study and a chapel in a cellar to represent the residents of those eras. Remnants of some of the other groups remain in the form of a wall mural painted by a squatter, while a 17th-century fireplace peaks out from behind a staircase. Wooden panels and doors scattered throughout the house open to reveal previous brickwork, fireplaces and doorways. The past is not lost, it’s just tucked away beneath the layers.

Sutton House is surprisingly extensive, and as well as the many period rooms there is a lovely café (housing a second-hand bookshop) to revive yourself in afterwards. As you can probably guess from the abundance of exterior shots, photography is not allowed inside for conservation reasons, so this is one property you really will have to go and see for yourself. So put off your visit no longer –  though if you do wait just a little while you should be able to enjoy a new garden and eating area that is being constructed next door on what was once a breaker’s yard. This too will contain reminders of that site’s history – and a reference to a lost waterway – and will make a visit to Sutton House an even more attractive proposition than it already is.

For opening times, check Sutton House’s website, as they can vary slightly. The house is located roughly equidistant between Hackney Central and Homerton on the London Overground. I’ll publish an update once the new garden is open.

Foundling Museum: Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens exhibition

Not that you should need an excuse to visit, but now is a great time to drop by Bloomsbury’s Foundling Museum while it holds its fabulous exhibition on the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. I’ve written about the gardens before – the somewhat decadent playground that provided a vast range of entertainment for Londoners (including royalty, aristocracy and pickpockets) for almost 200 years from its opening in 1661. If you share my fascination with the gardens, or would like to learn more, I highly recommend a visit – the free exhibition guide is worth the admission price alone.

The Foundling Museum houses the collection of the former Foundling Hospital – its building was the hospital’s former London headquarters – a charity established in 1739 by Thomas Coram to assist parents (mostly mothers at this time) who could not take care of their own children. In the early eighteenth century in London this was sadly quite a few, with around 1,000 babies per year being abandoned. Not surprisingly, many of the exhibits covering this era are quite poignant ones, such as the huge list of foundlings’ names listed on one wall and the small tokens that mothers would leave with their babies in the hope of identifying them later should circumstances change.

The Museum is also home to the award-winning Gerald Coke Handel Collection and an ornate Court Room that has been described as one of the finest examples of an eighteenth century Rococo interior. It also has a claim to being London’s first public art gallery, as a donation by Hogarth of one of his own paintings in 1740 encouraged others to follow suit, creating a collection that was put on public display in the ‘Picture Room’ in 1857.

The Triumph of Pleasure: Vauxhall Gardens 1729-1786 is curated by David Coke (son of Gerald) who co-authored the recent impressive tome on the gardens’ history published by Yale University Press. His expertise on the subject matter shines through in the exhibition’s texts, which contain some fascinating snippets as well as the historical round up that you would expect from such an exhibition. For example, did you know that the mean slices of food served up at the gardens led to the term ‘Vauxhally’ becoming a colloquialism for ‘extreme thinness’? The exhibition is divided into sections focusing on themes such as Tastes and Smells, Sights, Sounds and Feelings –  a truly sensory list of topics that seem fitting for gardens that attracted tens of thousands of pleasure seekers per night at their height, and ones that allow for an examination of its diverse delights.

Canaletto’s ‘The Grand Walk, Vauxhall Gardens, London’ c.1751 is on display. (Credit: private collection).

The scale model of the gardens, produced by Lucy Askew in 1984 for the V&A Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens exhibition of that year, is a real highlight. Seeing the gardens in this form allows the visitor to appreciate the true scale of their several acres and the lush foliage of their trees and the darks walks. As one would expect, the exhibition includes a large number of paintings and illustrations of the pleasure gardens, but it is a particular treat to see one by Francis Hayman that once graced the interior of one of the legendary supper boxes. Amazingly as many as 15 of these survived – nothing short of a miracle given that they were left outside for four months of the year. It’s also a surprise to see two photographs of the gardens (towards the end of their run) at the culmination of the exhibition – a very modern medium and not one you normally expect to see gardens of this era represented in. It almost felt like having seen a ghost.

And in case you were wondering what the connection was between a foundling hospital and a decadent pleasure garden, there is a small section on the first floor devoted to just this topic. In brief, Handel and Hogarth were governors and benefactors of the hospital as well as leading lights behind the music and art that entertained revellers at Vauxhall. There is even an eighteenth century Chinese porcelain punchbowl on display that features the gardens on one side and the hospital on the other. And in one final, telling, connection the punchbowl is displayed next to a season pass to the gardens, which one mother left behind as the token for her child.

The exhibition runs until 9th September (closed Mondays), entry is £7.50 or £5 concession. For more information visit the Foundling Museum’s website.

7 Hammersmith Terrace

Seventeen houses make up the row in which Walker lived - his is the second of the taller houses.

Ever wondered exactly how William Morris and his ilk decorated their own homes? A visit to 7 Hammersmith Terrace will give you your answer, as it’s the (almost) perfect time capsule of Arts and Crafts London translated into the domestic sphere. The former home of Emery Walker – a printer who was a leading light of that particular movement and a close friend and colleague of William Morris – its interiors have been preserved from his day down. So while there are other properties that belonged to Morris and friends that you can visit, Walker’s house is truly one of a kind.

Emery Walker actually started married life down the road at number three, before relocating to number 7 in 1903. Although the house itself is a Georgian terrace (one of seventeen built along the Thames in Hammersmith in the 1750s), it is decorated in a style typical of the homes of the movement’s main proponents – right down to the William Morris lino in the hall (thought to be the only surviving in situ example of this). The eclectic style they favoured is very much on show here, with Morris’s wallpaper and hangings happily sharing space with colourful imported ceramics, seventeenth and eighteenth century furniture and metalwork.

Philip Webb – the Arts and Crafts architect – bequeathed his possessions to Walker and many of these are on display, including a rather fine wooden Regency wine cooler (cunningly disguised as an oddly-shaped side table). Your guide will also show you a poignant collection of mementoes of Morris that Walker kept, including several pairs of glasses and a lock of his hair. The dining room furnishings are a real highlight, as is the surprisingly modern suntrap conservatory, with its lovely collection of ceramics.

Walker’s daughter Dorothy inherited the house on her father’s death in 1933 and changed very little over time – the main exception being the addition of a bathroom in the back drawing room. This has now been removed, though the scars remain on the Morris wallpaper, adding yet another layer to this story. Even the garden, which backs straight onto the Thames, still retains the same layout as it did in Walker’s time. Dorothy left the house to her long-time companion Elizabeth de Haas, who – luckily for us – also maintained its original state, and was instrumental in setting up the Emery Walker Trust that has enabled the house to be preserved and opened to the public.

As photography is not permitted inside, this really is one place that you will have to visit to see for yourself. Three tours are held on Saturdays from April until the end of September, by advance booking only (see website below). They last just over an hour and cost £10.

http://emerywalker.org.uk/index.php

Nearby: William Morris fans might also like to visit his former home Kelmscott House, part of which is now home to the William Morris Society. It’s just down the road and also open on Saturday (and Thursday) afternoons (but that’s another blog post…).

The sedate Georgian exterior belies the eclectic Arts and Crafts furnishings that lie within.

Museum of Childhood

Mosaics created by female students from a South Kensington mosaics class.

If you’re interested in architecture then the months of March and April 2012 are a great time to visit the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, as it is holding architectural tours and a small exhibition to celebrate its 140th birthday. I visited this week and was particularly interested to learn more about the museum’s fascinating history and its many links to the Crystal Palace.

The main building at the Museum of Childhood actually started its life as a temporary home for the treasures that were being kept after the 1851 Great Exhibition, held in the Crystal Palace at Hyde Park. Its construction was modelled on that of the Crystal Palace and it is one of the oldest surviving examples of a pre-fabricated iron-frame building. It turned out that the structure was leaky, fluctuated highly in temperature and the roof had almost rusted away by the time it was dismantled – in other words, not the ideal museum storage facility! It was also not popular with locals, whose nicknames for it included the Iron Museum and the Brompton Boilers.

Modern mosaics on the Museum's new facade (2005-2006), in front of the original structure.

When the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) was complete and the structure no longer required it was offered to any borough in London that would care to use it as a museum. Bethnal Green was the only area to put up its hand, so it was dismantled and transported eight miles to the east by horse and cart in the late 1860s. At this point an architect – James William Wild – was finally called in (the original structure was designed by engineers) to design the new red-brick exterior that was built around the iron structure. Wild had visions of a great learning hub in the east and designed a much larger complex including a school room and library, but like many architectural dreams it was never fully realised. You can see a drawing of how it would have appeared – complete with neo-classical columns – in the current exhibition.

Aware of the area’s working class population, the Bethnal Green Museum initially opened free of charge on three days a week from 10am to 10pm to allow working people the chance to visit. The original collection opened in 1872 and focused on food, animal products and French art from the 1700s, while the museum later hosted a number of important national collections  – such as the National Portrait, Pitt Rivers and Wallace collections – while they sought permanent sites. The museum’s focus on children began to build slowly from the 1920s, and it officially became the Museum of Childhood in 1974 under the V&A directorship of Sir Roy Strong. Don’t miss its lovely collection of dolls houses on the top floor – I’m also a big fan of the Chinese rock gardens and model theatres on display.

'The Eagle Slayer', John Bell

Although a fair amount of the museum’s history is covered in the foyer exhibition, if you can make it to an architectural tour on a Thursday afternoon you will learn even more. For example, the fleur-de-lis iron railings around the museum also came from the Crystal Palace, while The Eagle Slayer statue by John Bell now found in the cafe area was originally exhibited at the Great Exhibition. A fountain from the 1862 International Exhibition also used to be housed in the front courtyard. This was removed in the 1930s as it was breaking down due to the pollution in the area – it was stored off-site for safe keeping and promptly ‘mislaid’. So if you stumble across a large majolica fountain in your travels you know where to return it to…

Architectural tours run on Thursdays in March and April from 3.30-4pm – no need to book, just turn up at the information desk.
The 140th Anniversary display will be on show until the 8th of July.

http://www.museumofchildhood.org.uk/

Fencing from the Crystal Palace