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Philippe Debeerst At Malplaquet House

January 24, 2016
by the gentle author

Photographer Philippe Debeerst sent me his splendid photographs which are published for the first time here today, and accompanied by my own account of a visit to Malplaquet House in Mile End Rd

Walking East from Spitalfields down the Mile End Rd, I arrived at the gateway surmounted by two stone eagles and reached through the iron gate to pull on a tenuous bell cord, before casting my eyes up at Malplaquet House.

Hovering nervously on the dusty pavement with the traffic roaring around my ears, I looked through the railings into the overgrown garden and beyond to the dark windows enclosing the secrets of this majestic four storey mansion (completed in 1742 by Thomas Andrews). Here I recognised a moment of anticipation comparable to that experienced by Pip, standing at the gate of Satis House before being admitted to meet Miss Havisham. Let me admit, for years I have paused to peek through the railings, but I never had the courage to ring the bell at Malplaquet House before.

Ushered through the gate, up the garden path and through the door, I was not disappointed to enter the hallway that I had dreamed of, discovering it thickly lined with stags’ heads, reliefs, and antiquarian fragments, including a cast of the hieroglyphic inscription from between the front paws of the sphinx. Here my bright-eyed host, Tim Knox, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, introduced me to landscape gardener Todd Longstaffe-Gowan with whom he restored the house. In 1998, when they bought Malplaquet House from the Spitalfields Trust, the edifice had not been inhabited in over a century, and there were two shops,“F.W. Woodruff & Co Ltd, Printers Engineers” and “Instant Typewriter Repairs,” extending through the current front garden to the street.

Yet this single-minded pair recklessly embraced the opportunity of living in a building site for the next five years, repairing the ancient fabric, removing modern accretions and tactfully reinstating missing elements – all for the sake of bringing one of London’s long-forgotten mansions back. Today their interventions are barely apparent, and when Tim led me into his Regency dining room, as created in the seventeen-nineties by the brewer Henry Charrington and painted an appetising arsenic green, I found it difficult to believe this had once been a typewriter repair shop. Everywhere, original paintwork and worn surfaces have been preserved, idiosyncratic details and textures which record the passage of people through the house and ensure the soul of the place lingers on. The success of the restoration is that every space feels natural and, as you walk from one room to another, each has its own identity and proportion, as if it were always like this.

By December 1999, the shops had been almost entirely removed leaving just their facades standing on the street, concealing the garden which had already been planted and the front wall of the house which was repaired, with windows and front door in place. Then, on Christmas Eve an exceptionally powerful wind blew down the Mile End Rd, and Tim woke in the night to an almighty “bang,” to discover that in a transformation worthy of pantomime, some passing yuletide spirit had thrown the shopfronts down into the street to reveal Malplaquet House restored. It was a suitably dramatic coup, because today the house more than lives up to its spectacular theatrical debut – it is some kind of curious masterpiece.

I hope Tim will forgive me if I confess that while he outlined the engaging history of the house with professional eloquence – as we sipped tea in the first floor drawing-room – my eyes wandered to the mountain goat under the table eyeing me suspiciously. Similarly, in the drawing-room, my attention strayed from the finer points of the architectural detail towards the ostrich skeleton in the corner.

As even a cursory glance at the photos will reveal, Tim & Todd are ferocious collectors, a compulsion that can be traced back to childhoods spent in Fiji and the West Indies. They have delighted in the opportunities Malplaquet House provides to display and expand their vast collection of ethnographic, historical, architectural and religious artefacts, natural history specimens and old master paintings. Consequently, as Tim kindly led me from one room to another, up and down stairs, through closets, opening cupboards in passing, directing my gaze this way and that, while continuously explaining the renovation, pointing out the features and giving historical context, I could do little but nod and exclaim in superlatives that grew increasingly feeble in the face of the overwhelming phantasmagoric detail of his collection.

Yet he confessed how fascinated he is by the everyday life of the Mile End Rd and the taxi office across the road that has remained open night and day since he first came to live here, before we walked into the walled yard at the rear, canopied by three-hundred-year-old tree ferns, and wondered at the echoing sound of a large community of sparrows that have made their home in this green oasis. It is a paradox of submitting to the spell of this remarkable house that the familiar external world is rendered exotic by comparison.

I have been in older houses and grander houses, but Malplaquet House has something beyond history and style, it has pervasive atmosphere. It has mystery. It has romance. You could get lost in there. When I came to leave, I shook hands with Tim and lingered, reluctant to move,  because Malplaquet House held me spellbound. Even after my brief visit, I did not want to leave, so Tim walked with me through the garden into the street to say farewell, in a private rehearsal for his own eventual departure from Malplaquet House one day.

38 Responses leave one →
  1. Ardith permalink
    January 24, 2016

    It is spellbinding. I’m gobsmacked.

  2. Glenn permalink
    January 24, 2016

    wow!

  3. Greg Tingey permalink
    January 24, 2016

    One: How on earth does one dust/clean all that lot?
    Two: Why “Malplaquet” – a particularly bloody victory (his last) by Marlborough?
    Three: Far too much of the revolting RC-christian disiease present – brings me out in itching bumps, that sort of thing – again – why?

  4. January 24, 2016

    A super set of pics and a good write up. This house and contents are a real treasure a time warp. There are good themes, although tightly packed there is order here. I liked the Christian features in the various rooms. We must remember the house is a home as well, a blend of the two. Tim and Todd keep going refine the collections as and when. Bless you both for the work you have done at the house. Keep your quarters warm and comfy. I wonder if Sam Pepys would have recognised the earlier form of this house.

  5. jill paterson permalink
    January 24, 2016

    I am absolutely thrilled that you have written about this house. I have been dying to know what the house is like inside, it is so mysterious behind the romantic, lush, front garden. There are tantalising glimpses of the statues within and everytime I peep through the gate I imagine myself bodly walking up to the door and asking to come in. So thank you so much for opening that door.

  6. January 24, 2016

    A wonderful restoration and collection. The inscription from Horace , ‘hoc erat in votis….’ fits very well, as Tim seems to have found his corner of paradise here. Valerie

  7. January 24, 2016

    Wonderful carpets. I would hate to have to dust in this house, though.

  8. Rosemary Hoffman permalink
    January 24, 2016

    looks interesting

  9. Nicholas Keeble permalink
    January 24, 2016

    Inspirational. Some will see clutter, but to me it’s continual delight for the eye, reminiscent of Soane.

  10. Shelagh Daley permalink
    January 24, 2016

    Incredible, beautiful, inspiring and exciting. Elements of my childhood and dreams, extraordinary.

  11. Annie G permalink
    January 24, 2016

    I too have walked past and pressed my face to the railings, wondering what could be inside. Did not dream it would be all this! Personally, I could visit but not live with such a plethora of goodness but I am delighted that these two have made a wonderful house into a great home. More of this, if you please. GA, get behind some more mysterious doors and let us walk with you.

  12. January 24, 2016

    Wow, what glorious rampant STUFF!? Thank you for the amazing photographs that lure us deep inside this phenomenal and unique home — I immediately wanted a “book” version of this fascinating and singular place. Or, at the very least, a splashy spread in “World Of Interiors”.
    Without ever leaving my home, much less getting out of my pajamas, I feel that I have just toured one of the most distinctive and personal homes ever. From the first photo, right down to the bottom of the grouping, I was totally hooked. I can only imagine the adventures, travels, and tall tales behind each artifact. Suddenly my own home, full of our collections, seemed (ahem)
    “minimal”. (too funny) Thank you so much for this favorite-among-many-other-favorite GA postings.
    Again: Wow!

  13. Marco permalink
    January 24, 2016

    Do Tim Knox and Todd Longstaffe-Gowan actually LIVE in this house? Or do they use it just to contain their bizarre collection of trouvailles?
    While it’s a very interesting place which I’d be curious to visit, rather than living in such a house I’d sleep under the stars…

  14. Jane D permalink
    January 24, 2016

    Thank you for this TGA, and thank you to Philippe Debeerst for the wonderful photographs. There are a lot of impressive houses in London but Malplaquet House is extraordinary.
    Very inspiring for artists, I had ideas for new sculptures just looking at the photographs.

  15. January 24, 2016

    Hands down, the most stellar home ever, created with an incredible eye for
    warmth, intrigue, eccentricity and the sense of a massive, house-wide, artistic
    still life.

  16. TAA permalink
    January 24, 2016

    It is such a shame you didn’t include any photos of the outside or garden so one could gleen a sense of the size and the perspective of how it sits on the street – why was that? If it is such a magnificent piece of history to The Mile End Road, then why not have shown it in situ? Odd that is, very odd.

  17. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    January 24, 2016

    Love the garden but the interior is nightmarish!

  18. Cece permalink
    January 24, 2016

    A bit too macabre for me with all the skeletons, etc., but what an amazing collection these guys have amassed. I’d be interested to go in, but definitely not at night!

  19. Linda Granfield permalink
    January 24, 2016

    Such a personal space filled with interesting items. But too claustrophobic for me–history a-tumble, eyes of all kinds following you wherever you are.
    And whomever is the duster-and-polisher of that place deserves a raise in pay as the owners add more! (and is it a job, dusting or collecting, ever done?)

    incroyable!

  20. January 24, 2016

    Stunning theatre, can’t help thinking of the shadows that must be cast at night around the house!

  21. pauline tayloror spending permalink
    January 24, 2016

    This is the stuff of nightmares to me, I positively hate stuffed animals, but it is one of my favourite articles nevertheless, just incredible, and thank you for taking us inside and letting us see for ourselves. I have been asked if I like dusting as I have so much stuff in my house but it is nothing compared to this. I agree about the carpets but as for spending a night in there, no thank you!!

  22. Judy Stevens permalink
    January 24, 2016

    fabulous! thank you for an insight into this extraordinary home!!

  23. January 24, 2016

    Wow…Hieronymus Bosch would feel right at home.

  24. January 24, 2016

    Would love to see this open on a future London Open House weekend. Reminds me of Restoration House in Rochester (the model for Satis House in “Great Expectations”) which is regularly opened by the owners for tours throughout the summer months.

  25. Vanda Human permalink
    January 25, 2016

    Lovely restoration work, but there is just way to much in the house all those stuffed animals, skeletons, I would never have them in my home. Thank goodness I dont have to do the cleaning. I would have loved to see photos of the garden.

  26. January 25, 2016

    Indeed a glorious interior — I’ve never seen such before!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  27. Sonia Murray permalink
    January 25, 2016

    Some lovely things – but the skeletons, stuffed animals, and skulls are at least a century overdue for decent burial. Eeee-ugh!!!

  28. January 26, 2016

    Amazing. It looks like a cross between the Sloane Museum and the Severs house when Dennis was still there – hopefully one day it will be open to the public.

  29. Sharon Carr permalink
    January 26, 2016

    Hieronymus Bosch would feel very much at home there. What a busy joy of a house! Could spend a lifetime just looking and still not get to the bottom of this fabulous collection. Well done and thank you again, O Gentle Author, for bringing this to our attention.

  30. Marc Anthony permalink
    June 9, 2016

    Tim & Todd – you have manifested my Collector’s Dream Home. I’m gobsmacked

  31. Nancy Fenstermacher permalink
    June 12, 2016

    Wonderful article and photos! Amazing rooms of interesting collections. Too bad it cannot be left as a museum…would love to see it in person! Thank you for allowing us in.

  32. Stephen Barker permalink
    June 12, 2016

    Wonderful photos. I am envious of the framed In Memorium in the bathroom. I would love to visit this house.

  33. James Hart permalink
    June 13, 2016

    I can not imagine ever leaving such a place if it were mine. I would love to visit this house on a “dark and stormy night.”

  34. Jen permalink
    June 13, 2016

    Absolutely amazing!

  35. June 14, 2016

    I have been mesmerised by England all my life. Being born in 1950 and named Anne I thought I was switched at birth with princess Anne. Such pictures have left me longing for my imaginary homeland once again. I was blessed to visit several European countries as my father later lived in the South of France and Spain but never to my beloved England much to my unending heartache. As a retired therapist who cared for a husband who was very ill for twenty years, I have had to let go of my longing for financial reasons. I shall count my blessings and be ever so grateful that I serendipitously found this article and sumptuous photos on my tablet on a sunny and lazy afternoon. Many thank yous and God Bless.

  36. Hubertus permalink
    June 30, 2016

    “What that house needs is a good clean” – The late Victoria Deluria Press on Malplaquett House !

  37. Bob permalink
    October 17, 2016

    stunning, creepy, wonderful!

  38. Claire Fauvel permalink
    January 10, 2017

    Thank you for the beautiful photos, and thank you that people with panache dare to create such a wild mermerising place. Strong vision, poetic details..
    ( Sorry my english collapse, i am a foreigner)

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