All Change at 27 Fournier St
This is the actress Tamzin Griffin communing with Pius the house cat in her bathroom at 27 Fournier St. With only the old cat to keep her company now, Tamzin is the last remaining tenant of all the young actors, artists, writers, photographers, playwrights and theatrical producers who have rented rooms in this historic house over the last quarter of a century. Last year, the owner Henry Barlow put the house, which was built by Peter Bourdon in 1725, up for sale at £3.75 million pounds and it was bought for a cool £4 million this year.
It was as if I had walked into the last act of “The Cherry Orchard” when I went round to pay a call on Tamzin in the empty house this week. As the last to leave, I think she was glad of an excuse to take a break from her lonely packing chores and sit in the bath for a daft photo, while I was grateful for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of a tour of this majestic house, awaiting the imminent arrival of its new owner. “There is a peace here that people remark upon,” commented Tamzin as we stood at the foot of the eccentrically angled staircase and I inhaled the pervasive scent of beeswax that drifts through the entire house.
When the Spitalfields Trust rescued 27 Fournier St in its damaged state in 1981, it had been divided up for use as textile sweatshops. With a mixture of scholarship and clever detective work, they reinstated the original layout of the rooms, restoring the house to its full glory. Henry Barlow bought it from the trust under covenant and for the past twenty-five years has altruistically let it to a loosely collegiate group of creative individuals whom he knew would appreciate the place – at rents they could afford, well below the market value.
“He had a huge amount of trust and generosity of spirit,” said Tamzin in tribute to Henry. The outcome out of his extraordinarily Utopian gesture was an exceptional community of lucky young people who loved and cared for the house, filling every corner with energy and life. Each had their own living space and bathroom, and they shared the communal space on the ground floor and the cosy flag-stoned kitchen in the basement, with its long table that was the social focus for lively conversation over innumerable happy shared meals.
Tamzin lived here for twelve formative years, in which she worked with Theatre de Complicite and co-devised the long-running “Shockheaded Peter”, and though Tamzin has yet to discover a perspective on this time, it is apparent that living here in this inspirational old house has been an experience she will carry away with her. “It has been like twelve years living in as dream,” she said as we walked through the echoey panelled rooms glowing in the morning sunlight, “Now the house is spitting me out, but although I do not know where I am going next, I am not worried,” surprising herself with her own words, I think. For a moment the bravado of the strolling players came up her. In fact, Tamzin has been offered accommodation locally, but none at a price she can pay. Revealing the disappointing truth that living in Spitalfields is no longer within the budget of actors or artists, as it once was (unless they are already rich and famous), a sober fact which speaks of the changing nature of our neighbourhood and serves to emphasise the special quality of the era that Henry Barlow fostered at 27 Fournier St.
In Tamzin’s presence I felt I was exploring an empty theatre that had seen plenty of dramas and awaited new characters to walk onto the scene. What is most remarkable as you walk through this fine house is the sense of space and proportion. The lack of furniture makes the architecture speak. Nothing is regularly shaped but everything is beautifully yet modestly proportioned, and the subdivision of the space creates domestic spaces that are immediately pleasant and comfortable to inhabit.
All the rooms lead off the tall staircase, winding upwards to the weavers’ loft and down to the kitchen, and each room also has a door leading to the next which creates a sense of fluid movement throughout the living space. You are aware of light coming through windows at the front and back. On one side, the windows frame portions of the fine elevations of the eighteenth century houses opposite, while those on the other side provide views into the quiet hidden world contained between Fournier St and Princelet St, a place of gardens, yards and secret buildings that is alive with plants and birds. This other world has an atmosphere all its own, secluded and almost rural, here birdsong fills the air.
The moment I shall never forget is when Tamzin opened the door to the cellars and we peered into the infinite shimmering darkness holding a single candle. As my eyes accustomed, I could appreciate a vaulted brick ceiling and a brick floor, but beyond that I could not tell how far it extended. The hair on my neck stood up and a shiver went down my spine. This was the entrance to the past, it was cold, it was damp and it smelled of mould, and I should not be surprised if someone told me there was a tunnel from here to the Tower of London. I did not desire to explore further into the void because I wanted to go away allowing my imagination free to elaborate.
Shortly, Tamzin will carry out her last box (holding her hopes for the future and our wishes for her success), then she will turn out the light and close the door - and the most recent phase of the long history of 27 Fournier St will end. But let us know that the new owner has expressed honourable intentions to care for the illustrious house as it deserves, and that Pius the cat is returning to his suburban roots, retiring to live out his years with his mother in the Elephant & Castle where he was born.