Before & After in Fournier St
1995, the sweatshop
2005, the music room
Ten years of renovation lies between these two photographs of the same room in Fournier St – between this snap of the abandoned sweatshop that John Nicolson purchased in 1995 and the swish interior shot by lifestyle photographer Jan Baldwin, that was one of a set taken in 2005 to celebrate the completion of the endeavour. Earlier this week, I showed you the collection of wallpapers dating from 1690 until 1960 and the curios from beneath the floorboards that John salvaged from this ancient house. And today you can see the “before” and “after” pictures which illustrate the breathtaking transformation that has been achieved, bringing new life back to what was once a derelict pile.
The tailoring industry had found its home there from 1720, through successive owners, Huguenot silk weavers, then Jewish tailors, and subsequently Bengali clothing maunfacturers, up until the nineteen nineties – when cheap manufacturing in the Far East made it no longer profitable to continue and the last owner went bankrupt, leaving the house in the ownership of the bank. No-one had lived there since the nineteen thirties, and by 1995 it was one among an entire terrace of abandoned buildings.
After the Fruit & Vegetable Market closed in 1991, many properties used to store fruit and herbs became empty in Spitalfields. The one next to John’s house had been a banana store, which gave him pause for thought when he first explored the property and discovered the yard overrun with exotic spiders. Yet in spite of this discovery, John had the courage to put his arm through a hole in the cladding on the wall on the first floor, reaching through into the darkness and touching what he believed to be eighteenth century panelling.
Many more discoveries were to be made over the coming years, as well as all the wallpapers and the curios mislaid under the floorboards in the previous three centuries. There was the lost cellar which had entirely filled up with silt. Above the false ceilings, there were grand box cornices installed by William Taylor, the joiner who built the house in 1721. Every room but one had its Georgian fireplace which had been covered over, still thick with soot. There was a mysterious brick flue from the cellar that was revealed to be ventilation for the dying of silks.
And all the doors had been taken off their hinges in the nineteenth century and hung the opposite way round from the previous century – because while the Georgians preferred doors to open into a room, offering a moment of grace as someone entered, the Victorians preferred their doors to open against the wall and wall straight into a room. “I’ve restored it to the Georgian etiquette with the doors opening into the rooms,” John admitted to me with a gracious smile, “to give my guests time to prepare for my imminent arrival.”
The house underwent successive alterations, at first to the panelling in the seventeen-eighties, and then the front wall had entirely been rebuilt in the eighteen twenties when a shopfront was added. John set about returned the house to its original proportions, removing partitions to create two rooms over each of the five floors and restoring missing panelling. He also demolished an outbuilding which filled the back garden and replaced the shopfront with a domestic facade consistent with the eighteen twenties work, including a new door case which derived its proportion and design from the eighteen twenties front door that survived. Elsewhere, John supplemented bead and butt boarding from 1900 and brought a sink back into use from this period, that had once served all the residents of the house when it was divided into tiny flats for Jewish refugees.
Today the house retains all its idiosyncratic appeal, a sympathetic amalgam of the successive alterations that speak of its different inhabitants in Fournier St over the last three centuries. Yet now it is a home again, and thanks to ten years of conscientious and imaginative work by John Nicolson, an atmosphere of peace and domesticity reigns once more.
The house as John found it.
Reconstructing the domestic facade.
The rear elevation of 1720 with original windows flush with the level of the wall.
Alternating plain and barley twist spindles from 1720, as John discovered them.
The view from John’s bathroom to the spire of Christ Church, Spitalfields.
Original lead paintwork on this door, rehung in the nineteenth century to open towards the wall, in contrast to the eighteenth century etiquette, of doors always opening into the room – permitting a moment’s grace before someone entered.
The rear basement as John first saw it, once the silt had been dug out.
“Before” photographs copyright © John Nicolson
“After” photographs copyright © Jan Baldwin
You may also like to read my other Fournier St stories