Ian Harper’s Spitalfields Door Parade
Woodgrainer, Ian Harper, with a rosewood door he painted in Elder St.
If you should ever require an excuse for a stroll around Spitalfields one Sunday, what could be a more relaxing and gently informative diversion than to take a tour of the doors painted by Ian Harper, the woodgrainer? Your journey commences at the ancient Bell Foundry in the Whitechapel Rd where Ian painted the entire facade with a spectacular mid-oak effect.
“I walked in one day, ten years ago,” Ian told me,“and they asked if I could restore the wood-graining because it was damaged, so I said, ‘Yes,’ and since then I’ve repainted it twice.” The graining here dates from the Victorian era with constant repair over the last century, yet such is Ian’s skill in achieving an authentic effect , you would never guess that any maintenance or repainting has been done.
Mid-oak was an effect commonly used by small businesses and trades that wanted to look solid, Ian revealed to me, whereas more ostentatious effects were the preserve of classy private houses such as you find on the next stop of your walking tour, in Princelet St. At number twenty-four, where Chris Dyson has reconstructed an eighteenth century facade to blend with the rest of the street, he commissioned Ian to paint a dark-oak effect on the wooden frontage, and burr walnut upon his front door and that of his neighbour John Alexander at number twenty-two. In such close proximity to Brick Lane, Ian was wary that his work might get tagged but, a year later, it remains pristine. “Some of the roughnecks came along to watch me at work and I think I earned respect,” he confided to me with a relieved smile.
Round the corner at Marianna Kennedy‘s showroom and workshop at three Fournier St, there are a pair of doors in old-oak that Ian has painted and repainted in recent years. “They are much repaired and much loved, patched in keeping with the battered exterior of the house,” Ian admitted, “So many tramps have slept against it and bookbinders battered against it.” Similarly, there is an interior door in mahogany in this house that has been frequently repaired by Ian and coated with multiple coats of Copal varnish to imbue a rich marmalade glow.
Across the marketplace, over in Elder St, you will encounter three beautiful wood-grained front doors displaying contrasting effects – mahogany, rosewood and walnut. Robin Waite, the owner of nine and eleven, commissioned Ian to grain both doors. In each case, Ian was lucky enough to uncover traces of original graining around the edges and regrained them based upon these discoveries, with number nine in mahogany and number eleven in rosewood.
The final stop on your tour in Elder St is Dan Cruickshank’s burr walnut front door, first grained when the house was part of the Isaac Tillard Estate in the early ninetenth century. “It is the most perfect example of traditional graining in Spitalfields” declared Ian, “I’ve repaired parts of it, and occasionally maintain it with new coats of Copal varnish. You can tell it’s early because the style is very loose, very painterly – it’s slightly mad!”
On your walk, you will have wondered at the realism and surrealism of wood graining, learnt to distinguish walnut from rosewood, and maybe you will have succumbed to the paradoxical charm of wood graining which derives from the delight in being deceived by it, even when you know it is fake?
“It’s seen as something expensive today, whereas the whole point of graining done in the past was to put a gloss on poor materials.” Ian explained to me, savouring the irony of the prestige now placed upon wood graining, when once it was a cheap option to fake a bit of class for those who could not afford true quality. Yet it is Ian’s bravura talent that makes his work so fascinating, and the parade of his lush glossy doors in Spitalfields is the public gallery of his mastery. “I’ve done miles of graining for grand interiors, but Spitalfields is where I have most exterior doors.” he assured me proudly.
The mid-oak wood graining on the front of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in the Whitechapel Rd dates from the Victorian era with regular discreet maintenance and repainting by Ian.
Mark, manager at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, steps outside to admire the wood-graining.
At Chris Dyson’s house, number twenty-four Princelet St, Ian painted dark-oak upon the facade and burr walnut upon the front door.
At John Alexander’s house, number twenty-two Princelet St, Ian painted burr walnut.
At Marianna Kennedy’s showroom, three Fournier St, Ian has painted old-oak which has been patched up and acquired many coats of Copal varnish.
Three Fournier St in old-oak.
Interior door in Marianna Kennedy’s showroom in mahogany.
At nine Elder St, Ian painted a mahogany effect inspired by residual fragments of original graining.
At eleven Elder St, Ian painted rosewood in the loose early-nineteenth century style.
Dan Cruickshank steps out of his front door with original walnut wood graining believed to date from the 1840s when the house was part of the Isaac Tillard Estate.
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman
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