At Beckenham Place
An empty villa on a bone-cold January day might not appear an immediately enticing prospect for a visit, yet Beckenham Place in Lewisham contains more than enough wonders to fire the imagination even if they are enshrouded with a melancholy winter gloom at present.
Constructed by John Cator (1728-1806) in the seventeen-seventies as his country house with the proceeds of his timber business, Beckenham Place ceased being a private home at the beginning of the twentieth century. After a sequence of institutional uses, including most recently as a golf club house, it is currently undergoing restoration as artists’ studios while plans are developed to discover how best to dedicate the building to public use.
John Cator took up residence in Robert & James Adam’s Adelphi in the Strand in 1776 and it seems likely the Adam brothers were responsible for the magnificent plasterwork at Beckenham Place, while architect Robert Taylor is the most probable candidate for design of the house. Conceived as a southerly counterpoint to Kenwood House in Hampstead, Cator landscaped the surrounding parkland, planting rare imported species of trees recommended by his acquaintance Carl Linnaeus, creating a lake and diverting the main road. He set out to contrive a country estate in the best possible taste, signalling his arrival in the world and elevating the status of his family. Yet John’s circle of friends included Henry Thrale, Fanny Burney and Samuel Johnson, who all recorded their candid impressions of the man.
“Cator has a rough, manly independence and understanding and does not spoil it by complaisance. He never speaks merely to please and seldom is mistaken in things which he has any right to know” – Samuel Johnson
“He prated so much, yet said so little, and pronounced his words so vulgarly that I found it impossible to keep my countenance” - Fanny Burney
“A purseproud Tradesman coarse in his expressions and vulgar in Manners and Pronunciation; though very intelligent, and full of both money and good sense” – Henry Thrale
When John Cantor’s nephew John Barwell Cantor inherited the estate in 1806, he also inherited his uncle’s social aspiration and brought a huge stone portico salvaged from Wricklemarsh, a nearby ruin, which he installed upon the north side of Beckenham Place without regard to proportion or design. The effect is as incongruous as those neo-Georgian porticos upon the suburban villas which were to surround Beckenham Park when it became a golf course in the twentieth century.
Today the golf course is also history and the bunkers and greens only remain prior to restoration of the landscape, yet the view from the villa over rolling parkland is as august as when it was first built. You could easily imagine yourself in a remote shire, even if you are only nine miles from Central London.
Occupied by ghosts and the presence of all those who have passed through, Beckenham Place speaks eloquently of the elegant conception of its architect complimented by extraordinary craftsmanship, overlaid with a century of use by an extended family, staff and tenants – and the school children, the sanatorium occupants, the soldiers, the golfers and the others who came after. Even in the depths of winter, it was heartening to see the old villa being prepared for new arrivals and a new life.
Artists & makers’ studios at Beckenham Place are available to rent at £175 a month – contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.beckenhamplace.org
“At Beckenham Place, you could easily imagine yourself in a remote shire, even if you are only nine miles from Central London”
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