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Historic House

The House of St. Barnabas: Soho

After a demanding work week in central London, the last thing I wanted to do on Saturday morning was head back into Soho… however a truly engaging tour of The House of St. Barnabas was just the antidote I needed to pull me out of my quite frankly foul mood! Situated on the corner of Soho Square (originally Fryths Square in the 17th century) and Greek Street, it is an imposing yet understated building from the exterior. As I pulled the oversized doorbell to gain entry, I was greeted by Dr. Adam Scott who led an enigmatic tour of this fascinating house. Architecturally it has been altered and extended numerous times over the centuries and today incorporates Georgian, Victorian and Rococo features as well as a neo-Gothic chapel on a Basilica floor plan. In terms of tenancy, it has been a private home to aristocrats and Members of Parliament, offices for the Westminster Commissioners of Sewers and Metropolitan Board of Works in the early 1800’s, was purchased in 1862 by Dr. Henry Monro and Roundel Palmer as a House of Charity to help those in need, and remained a hostel until 2006. Today it is a social enterprise integrating a members club which funds an employment academy serving the original purpose of helping the homeless get back on their feet. Unusually for Soho it also has a garden which is not only home to the plane tree immortalised in Charles Dickens ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ but also contains an aluminium and LED light installation by Keef Winter – just one of many artworks dotted throughout the house. Feathered creations by Kate MccGuire, sculptures by Cathy Lewis, and works by Banksy, Hirst and The Chapman Brothers all sympathetically decorate the building. The house will no doubt continue to evolve, remain resilient in the face of developers and maintain structural stability as Crossrail tunnelling continues directly below it.

For more information visit their website

Categories
Historic House

Rainham Hall & Gardens: Rainham, Essex

I rarely leave Zone 2, and with the exception of boarding a plane at Southend or Stanstead airport, I’ve never visited Essex! That changed this weekend with a trip to Rainham Hall and Gardens – a property within the National Trust portfolio which re-opened earlier this month following a two year £2.5 million conservation project. The Queen Anne-style house dates back to the early 18th century and fittingly its first exhibition tells the story of Captain John Harle, a shipping merchant from Durham who built the Hall and was its’ first inhabitant. Refreshingly, period furnishings and the traditional “frozen in time” approach to interpretation is nowhere to be seen… instead the Hall incorporates a six minute projection of Harle’s life at sea (so effective it left other visitors feeling sea-sick!), a soundscape of the Durham coastline playing in the background, uses the Georgian bath to vividly tell the tale of Harle’s ‘Lost Ship’ captured by the Spanish in the Caribbean in 1737, includes objects on loan from The National Maritime Museum, and displays Harle’s original will discovered by a local postmistress at a boot-sale and donated back to the Hall. Additional attractions include William Hogarth engravings, a room showcasing personal items found under floor-boards and behind skirting boards comprising coins, hair pins, buttons, playing cards, a shrivelled balloon and even 1940/50’s Disney tin toy plates, as well as textile installations by a collective of artists known as ‘The Material Girls’ hidden within the buildings’ cupboards. A miniature version of the Hall takes centre stage as you enter the property, and over time this will be filled with miniature versions of each exhibition. This is a house with many different layers, and I’m excited to see how it develops and which historical period and which fascinating prior tenant is chosen to focus on next.

Exterior
The Exterior
Entrance-way
The Entrance
Loan items
Objects on loan from The National Maritime Museum
Mary Tibbington replica dress
A replica of Mary Tibbington’s (John Harle’s wife) wedding dress
Bath
Innovative use of the bath to explain Harle’s ‘Lost Ship’
Material Girls installation
One of ‘The Material Girls’ textile installations

For more information visit their website

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Experience Historic House

Absent: Shoreditch Town Hall

I am deeply suspicious of immersive theatrical experiences and have a palpable dislike of forced audience participation, so had my concerns about attending Dreamthinkspeak’s new production at Shoreditch Town Hall. Inspired by The Duchess of Argyll’s residence at a London hotel for over a decade until her eviction in the 1980’s, ‘Absent’ uses the Town Hall’s labyrinthine basement as the set for a journey “guests” can enjoy at their own pace. Upon arrival, I immediately bought into the deception of it being a real hotel, complete with reception and check-in area, functioning bar, and doormen leading you down to the basement where the hotel façade continues. With no idea what to expect when entering the first bedroom, black and white films of a glamorous dinner and a two-way mirror allowing you to see into the next bedroom where a drunk and disorientated older woman is packing her suitcase, ease you into the story. Moving down the corridor, you can look into each of the hotel bedrooms via keyholes and peepholes to view the same woman at different life stages; an innocent child, elegant young lady, and lonely older woman. Influences range from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, to C.S Lewis’ Narnia and Orwell’s 1984 – and the integration of film, installation, eerie soundtrack and detailed miniatures of the rooms you are standing in, make navigating your way through the building intriguing and utterly absorbing. The maze-like basement constantly alters in scale, and oscillates between the real (actual rooms) and the imaginary (film, installation, replica miniatures) making you feel as though you are stepping into scenes you have been watching or moments from the past. As you exit the final room a doorman is required to inform you that the experience is over, testament to its authenticity and to how convincing an illusion has been created.

For more information visit their website

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Historic House

The Historical Experience: Benjamin Franklin House

A narrow Georgian townhouse at the back of Charing Cross train station has been standing since 1730, provided lodgings for Benjamin Franklin (face on the $100 bill, Founding Father of the United States, scientist, diplomat, inventor of unusual musical instruments and more!) for sixteen years between 1757 and 1775, and has been a museum since 2006. To enter, visitors ring the doorbell much like you are paying a visit to someone’s home, are led along a corridor of original wooden floorboards and panelling, and down the stairs to the basement where the ‘Historical Experience’ begins… a small orientation room comprising information boards, an artefact display cabinet, and even human remains from the anatomy school which also operated from the building help introduce you to the House. After a short video, Polly (the landlady’s daughter and close friend of Franklin whilst he was lodging at the House) leads visitors to the Kitchen where flagstone flooring, a Victorian cooking stove, and views of the sunken basements are cleverly integrated with projections and voices that Polly continues to interact with throughout the House to help tell its’ stories. Visitors are then led upstairs to the Landlady’s Parlour, Card Room and finally Franklin’s Parlour – all complete with authentic features from the floorboards, to the shutters on the windows, marble fireplaces, and even the green paint on the walls specially mixed to match flecks of the original paint revealed through spectro-analysis. Typically I find costumed interpretation horribly uncomfortable, however it is immediately obvious that this House employs a professional actress and provides a theatrical ‘experience’ executed to a high standard. Likewise, the fact that it is largely unfurnished lends itself to this type of visitor offering, and it was refreshing to focus on the original features rather than trying to navigate your way through a cluttered house full of replica furnishings.

For more information visit their website