Growing Up with History


Catherine Croft


  When I first saw Stephen Gill’s images for this project, and was asked to write about what they tell us about how historic houses are used and perceived today, I was amazed how many of them showed buildings which had very specific memories for me. Gill’s luminous and mesmerising photographs show buildings I knew as a child. I was brought up in Twickenham: as a baby I was parked in my pram at Strawberry Hill whilst my mother taught teachers at the College that then, as now, owned the building. The theory was that the ornate ceilings would act as a cheap substitute for childcare, and that the frail, elderly Catholic priests who were then still in residence would spring to my defence if need be. I survived to run away from coffee mornings at St Mary’s Church, by the river, to play in the grounds of York House and climb up the huge fountain now barricaded with chain link fencing and security lights.

We played football and walked the dog at Marble Hill and Bushy Park and took the bus to school along the road driven between Garrick’s Villa and his “Shakespeare Temple”, the little pavilion on the riverbank at Hampton. I won a prize in a children’s art competition and the pictures were hung in a “proper” gallery: Orleans House. Every time anyone came to stay we had to take them to Hampton Court, and my favourite story, The Winter Princess, told of a group of children who went each week to visit an old lady in the Grace and Favour apartments. The image of them running through the colonnades and silent courts at dusk seemed far more exciting and romantic than our trips. Even my birth certificate is evidence of the rich legacy of historic houses: although I was born at the West Middlesex Hospital, my birth certificate reads “Syon Park”, the Robert Adam house next door.

These then are buildings very much lodged in my subconscious and I expect the same is true for many of those who will come to the exhibition. However, they have quite a variety of different uses, and the relationship the public can have to them varies considerably. The issues of access and ownership seem a significant sub-text to many of Gill’s images. Hampton Court House, once a children’s home, is now a private house again, although Gill’s shot looks out through the windows to Bushy Park only just beyond. Garrick’s House was converted into flats in the 1920’s, York House became council offices. Whilst only the name of Cambridge Park House is retained, attached to a bland redevelopment, Marble Hill and Hampton Court are open to visitors and carefully curated. They are quite different from one another, both physically and metaphorically. Marble Hill was restored to its original 18th Century form by the GLC in the late 1960’s. Later extensions were demolished and it is once more a pristine Palladian box, a doll’s house standing in a landscape.

Hampton Court is a complex palimpsest of many layers: nowhere does Wren’s Classicism butt up so defiantly and so crudely to an earlier period of building as on the south front. Whilst the mythic status of Henry VIII and his ill fated wives draws hoards of international tourists to Hampton Court, Henrietta Howard, correspondent of Pope, Swift, Chesterfield and Gay and neighbour of Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill is much less well known. Although even as a ten year old I could see that her life, as mistress of George II and centre of a witty and entertaining circle of friends, was far more fascinating and enviable than that of Anne Boleyn, there is an aura of dry academicism about the story of Marble Hill, an academic exercise in reinterpreting Classical architecture, to be discussed in colourless line drawings and engravings.

Gill’s photographs show us new ways of looking at all the buildings. We are unused to seeing only interior views, more used to black and white images than saturated colour and expect photographs of historic houses to explain the architectural plan and detail, and clearly show important fireplaces, paintings and furniture. At Marble Hill Gill allows us only a glimpse into a room. We focus not on the meticulous ensemble of objects that the curator has arranged but on the light switch, the intense green of the reproduction wallpaper, the light catching the edge of a picture frame. Another image is of the space beneath an ornate side table, shot from low to the floor and focusing on the workman like construction that usually remains invisible, whilst the bust it supports is unrecognisable, lopped off at the chin. The ornate carving blurs like a crab’s claws, capturing us within a room from which all other elements have been bleached out of existence by a white light more usually associated with modernist architecture.

The Hampton Court photograph most resembles Gill’s earlier work at airports, which has been described as showing a vision “of a haunted isolation, beautiful but desolate”. In both instances he chooses to photograph an empty corridor space, full of a sense of anticipation, waiting for the return of rushing crowds. The new image has greater subtlety of light and texture. The depth of focus forces us to examine the stone floor in detail: are these really the same slabs that Henry’s wives ran over? The architectural details revel that the answer is no, as we are in the 17th century part of the palace, but how “real” are they? Surely they must have been replaced many times? In addition to a light source ahead, there is also a gentle seepage and blue glow to the left, an alternative escape into the courtyard itself.

Strawberry Hill is a curious halfway house; it seems uncertain of its primary role. It has long been open by appointment, although until recently the tours were legendarily erratic and long winded, a relic of the 19th century tradition of houses being opened up by reluctant, maudlin housekeepers. This reputation fuses with the romance of Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, written here, to add to the house’s sense of mystery and exclusion. However, now its historic importance as the first chapter in a Gothic Revival whose 19th century products are no longer reviled, is well recognised. Despite this, its future seems uncertain as proposals to establish it as a fully-fledged house museum seem to flounder. Here Gill lingers on the staircase, part member of the household, part uneasy interloper. Tiny cues show us that we are not in Walpole’s world, nor in the care of fully discrete museum culture. A second image shows the gallery with its pretty papier-mache fan vault. This is a less edgy, ambiguous image; the show room is ultimately less interesting than the stair hall. the mood of which Walpole himself seems to have been undecided about, describing it both as “the most venerable gloom... that ever was since the days of Abelard” and “so pretty and so small that I am inclined to wrap it up and send it to you in my letter”.

Many historic buildings have survived by being put to municipal use, their original significance lost beneath layers of institutional paint and cheap partitions. Lack of a concerted vision to make changes, and shortages of money effectively preserve much that might otherwise have been swept away. At York House Gill hurries across the back of the room, behind heavy, dated metal chairs set out in ranks for a conference or a wedding. The light falls across the modern fitted carpet, it is almost the view of the cleaner, rounding up used plastic coffee cups: the larger picture of what was once a beautiful room is invisible. A second image of this house shows a room dominated by a huge table surrounded by leather upholstered chairs with gold embossed crests.

The stark symmetry of the room, the original paired door cases, a pair of reproduction, electrified sconces and a small picture which we are not allowed to see clearly, are off kilter with the table. The original intention of imposing informality has been mislaid and the glossy, watery surface of the table sems poised to swallow up and drown anything that might be said.

In recent years many very large country houses have been successfully converted to flats, and this has worked relatively well as a means of preserving their most important rooms. However, Garrick’s house is much smaller and was pragmatically converted before even Georgian architecture was appreciated and valued. The closed shutters in the room at Garrick’s House seem to hold in a resonating redness that is palpable and claustrophobic, but within this space there seems to be very little that is original to the time of its famous first owner. The low skirting board, the expanse of carpet and the radiator which almost barricades the window reveal are modern, and although the sofa is 18th century style it looks ill at ease, partially obscuring the mirror. There is almost a sense of menace: the reflection of the chinks in the shutters looks like the pattern of a razor blade, and the shadeless, crystal-hung table lamp has been partially beheaded.

Stephen Gill’s photographs leave me with a final impression of an interest in the spaces in between, the volumes enclosed by surfaces and objects, rather than the physical fabric of the buildings themselves. As an architectural historian it is all too easy to do the opposite, to worry about the authenticity of walls and windows, to forget to look afresh at the total experience of being in a building. The photographs make me reengage with memories and myths, both personal ones, and those of the people that built the houses and have lived in them or visited them since.