Mary Miers applauds an evocative portrait of a group of London Georgian houses cherished back to life.
If ever there was a publication that could convert people to the merits of reclamation in this disposable age, it is surely this. Restoration Stories seduces on many levels, most immediately through its photography: page after page of serene interiors interspersed with close-ups – a piece of pine scraped to reveal layers of paint made from earth pigments; plain deal battens pockmarked with old nail holes onto which textile wall coverings were once pinned.
Some rooms, with their Georgian panelling and oriental rugs, mahogany cabinets and Chinese porcelain, look rather grand. Others, tall windows framed by shutters, daylight filtered through thick glass to model a plain timber chimneypiece or catch the gleam of a silver candlestick, evoke a painting by Hammershøi. Narrow halls and stairways, a bedroom or kitchen carved into the eaves, suggest the modest scale and origins of many of the houses featured.
Charlie Hopkinson finds beauty in anything old he photographs, however distressed. Yet this is not solely a picture book. Writer and artist Philippa Stockley owns one of the 16 houses – ‘the fourteen-foot-wide derelict house [bought at auction in 2005] was all I could afford’ – and she’s a fount of knowledge on the quirks and tricks, as well as the economic and health-giving benefits of inhabiting a little-altered Regency dwelling that was once a wreck. Her relaxed text combines a portrait of each house and its owners with local history, practical information and decorative tips.
For her and her fellow restorers, these buildings have a living presence: ‘They shift and whisper, creak and murmer… swell and shrink,’ she writes, noticing how a hairline crack in the plaster can widen and narrow at different times of year; how, in some lights, paint appears to dance and glitter. One owner observes how, over time, his 1792 silk weaver’s house has ‘slipped and slid to one side then the other, and gone up and down a bit, like a galleon on a gentle swell’. The implication is that you have to go along with the unevenness and imperfections: ‘A wonky floor won’t work with a straight ceiling’.
The group featured are mostly East London Georgian terraced houses of sober red brick, although there’s also a former coaching inn and a Tudor gatehouse – a ‘wild card inclusion’ on the Isle of Sheppey. Many were made not by architects, but by builders and masons, their interiors finished by plasterers and carpenters who went from house to house—as surviving detail in Spitalfields attests.
If there’s one thing that unites their owners, who range from a paint specialist and a barrister to a jeweller and a carpenter’s son, it’s that they’re all sensitive to the atmospheric effects of ‘patina and subtle variation of paint abraded and faded over time’. The use of paint and colour is a running theme through the book.
Many of the houses were derelict when acquired; others had been rescued from the jaws of the bulldozer by the valiant Spital-fields Trust, which squatted to prevent demolition and then repaired them to an initial stage and found restoring purchasers. The author documents all the dedication and hard work, the hours put in removing ‘intolerable excrescences’, layers of wood-chip and hard gypsum.
In the basement of a Spitalfields house, lined with Mexican tiles and peeling melamine, a breeze-block wall divided ‘a boiler that belched carbon monoxide, and a cooker called a Falcon Dominator’ from seven urinals and ‘two enormous fire safes, which had to be winched out with a block and tackle’.
Resourcefulness, as well as fearlessness, are the other shared attributes. From the clever use of limited space to the endless recycling of bits and pieces, salvaging from skips and reinstating fixtures that former owners had repurposed, the author’s message is: don’t be afraid of having a go. The pictures belie all the hard work: the 25 coats of limewash, new shutters, mouldings and chimneypieces copied from surviving fragments, waxed floorboards and relaid tiles, repaired patches of plaster. Such dedication is repaid by exciting discoveries: a 1726 door with working hinges found behind some panelling; a Roman amphora.
What renders all these efforts so rewarding is the elegant, congenial homes they have created. It’s not difficult to see why they appeal today. Unlike so many modern houses, ‘they were handmade for people by people, to a very human scale, with well-proportioned rooms that are made to live in’. The drawing room of a 1726 Spitalfields house that was originally occupied by carpenter/property developer Marmaduke Smith
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