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At Malplaquet House

September 19, 2019
by the gentle author

Celebrating our tenth anniversary with favourite stories from the first decade

Photographer Philippe Debeerst sent me these splendid pictures which are accompanied by my own account of a visit to Malplaquet House.

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.

Photographs copyright © Philippe Debeerst

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13 Responses leave one →
  1. Bernie permalink
    September 19, 2019

    What a delightful and surprising treasure-trove! I do hope that the original blogpost did not amount to an invitation to burglary and that the house and collection remain intact in 2019.

  2. Barbara permalink
    September 19, 2019

    What an amazing place ! Just to think I used to walk past sometimes when visiting grandparents (who lived in now-demolished Lear Street) and never imagined how it was inside.

  3. September 19, 2019

    THIS is thrilling. I am so glad to see this post again. As a fan of World of Interiors magazine, I suspect this gem has already appeared — and certainly these beautiful evocative photos by
    Philippe Debeerst are publication-worthy. I’m ON the house tour, along with you. I am gaping, gasping, trying hard not to point and squint, murmuring, blurting out “Wow!” at every turn, and wishing I had hours-if-not-days to view everything. Plus, I want to hear the stories. “Where did you ever find it? How long have you been collecting? What is your favorite relic?” . This home has galloping personality, unabashed confidence, unapologetic boldness, and an endearing sense of humor. Theatrical, fantastic, lavish, unique. PS – And as a tribute to the home and its owners, I’m not going to split hairs……”oh dear, why so much taxidermy?”, etc……When a home is this well-loved and spirited, one has to just admire the whole darn thing. Wow!

  4. Lucie Amos permalink
    September 19, 2019

    Thank you so much for this article.
    Some yeas ago I met and worked with Tom L G when I was part of a team working on an exhibition about London gardens at the Museum of London. He was kind enough to invite me to visit the house but at the time I was too shy to accept, something I regret every time I passed the house with the eagles.
    With your article I have at long last had a glimpse inside.
    Sincerely
    L

  5. Virginia Heaven permalink
    September 19, 2019

    My kind of people. Dreamy, a total treat!

  6. September 19, 2019

    Stunning, but who does all the dusting?!

  7. daphne steele permalink
    September 19, 2019

    What a wonderful house – I know that it was sold a couple of years ago, so perhaps it has changed and no longer allows visitors- does anyone have any information on this as I help organise events for the London Appreciation Society and we would love to visit if it still looks like this

  8. September 20, 2019

    Oh My Goodness!! These Pictures are like a Dream. I would love to walk in these rooms. Thank You So Much!!!! 🥰😘😉💝🌺🌻💐🙏👼

  9. Jill Wilson permalink
    September 20, 2019

    Wow! What a place… I love a bit of eccentric ‘maximalism’!

    It reminds me of the Sir John Soane museum

  10. September 20, 2019

    Thank you for this retrospective on Malplaquet House. I note that in 2016 the house was put up for sale asking price 3 million pounds. Some recent photos show the house totally empty and it does not say if the house was sold or what happened to the owners. Do you know?

  11. Zephirine permalink
    September 21, 2019

    The house was definitely sold, but whoever bought it seems to be very discreet.
    Tim Knox is now the Director of the Royal Collection, so perhaps he has had an opportunity for another historic house to restore!

  12. September 22, 2019

    How amazing, and strangely enough, the sight of a modern laptop didn’t look incongruous at all to my eyes. For me, a place to visit, but not to live in, as I’m pretty sure some of its contents might give me nightmares

  13. Ron Wilkinson permalink
    September 23, 2019

    The only place I could compare it to is Hearst’s San Simeon (I’m from CA, USA). But this is every bit as good and it has a sense of humor, it also has a human scale.

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