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Philippa Stockley’s Restoration Stories

October 3, 2019
by Philippa Stockley

After reporting on London homes and their owners in the Evening Standard for twenty years, Philippa Stockley has written RESTORATION STORIES, a book about old, mainly Georgian, houses and the heroic souls who saved them

A back yard in Spitalfields

Raised in suburban Surrey, I dreamed of London. Mine was a romantic, book-provoked dream with a twinge of David Copperfield, but many of us rebel against what we knew as children. Though whether I would rebel if I had been raised in a castle or an old rectory was never tested, for ours was an ordinary family house with a big garden.

It was a perfect environment to nurture fantasies of grandeur, enriched by novels. Fantasies that usually included a Georgian house with a gravel sweep and tall windows, or something resembling a house in a film or television adaptation. Always old, often grand, but sometimes a decrepit house with sun-shafted dust and elegant mystery. It made no difference that much of the allure was created by set dressers. For me, beauty – however achieved – has always been the thing.

My actual experience of London was limited to thrilling rare excursions — for fireworks or to feed the ducks in St James’s Park on a snatched lunch hour with my father. Rareness and desirability so often go together.

Eventually I inveigled myself into London, staying in small or transitory places until I won a scholarship to study clothing history at the Courtauld Institute. During my second year, I shared a modest Georgian house in Eel Brook Common with other students. Of aged London stock with a somnolent flagged back yard, it was the first Georgian house I lived in. While some rooms were small and at dusk it could be gloomy, it was lovely and felt completely right.

While studying, I designed and made the costumes for a production of Edward Bond’s Restoration, hammering them out on a miniature sewing machine. My budget was tiny, but I had heard of street markets in the East End. Rumour had it that there were great shed-like warehouses selling heaps of tat in glorious abundance and old clothing emporia, and murky carparks converted into seas of wonder, to navigate sustained by bagels and hot coffee.

For a few ice-sodden Sundays I set out at dawn and bought dodgy mink and rabbit tippets, and boxes of military buttons later safety-pinned to waistcoats and breeches. But I also encountered a clutch of streets whose derelict beauty was like a double-handed slap. It was a very cold winter. My memory of that time sparks with ice. Those cobbled streets, Fournier, Wilkes, Princelet — names themselves romantic — appeared steel-grey, frozen, sprinkled with hoarfrost and fairy-dust in equal measure. Windows were broken or boarded, timber and lead porticos were decaying, yet they were the most magical houses and the most beautiful streets I had ever seen. Walking among them was like walking through the pages of a forgotten book or stepping into a faded postcard. In memory they smouldered, the colour of ashes, yet lay restless in my mind and broke into my heart. Even if I could not afford one, I never forgot them.

Later, others bought and restored them, several of which now smile gravely from the pages of my book. They feel like old friends. All different and with strong personalities. Now that they have simmered in my heart for years, I have tried to give a glimpse of them and of the people who saved them.

The accounts that their owners gave of restoring their homes were fascinating and often funny. Many were wry or poignant, all were passionate. All talked as if their houses were alive  – which they are – and as if they had distinct characters – which they do. I believe people who adopt these houses are the same sort who go to animal shelters in search of a small manageable dog and come away with two former greyhounds – one lame – a blasphemous parrot and an old, lunatic cat. The determination to save, to nurture and restore, mixed with a dollop of eccentricity, is always there. A warmth, a largeness of spirit, much generosity, a hint of genial lunacy. These are the characteristics of those who save old houses.

When I write about homes in the Evening Standard, I always write about the house and its owner as inseparable, which makes every story unique. But Georgian houses are special: not only because of their age but because of their grace.

When describing that grace, proportions are often mentioned: the ratio of glazing to brickwork, the pattern of mouldings, the measure of dado-panelling to wall height and the form of the panels. All a given. Yet it is the millions of small constituents, making up the complex that fascinate me more – all the handmade things that together, bit by bit, become a house. Grace slumbers ineffable in every one, from the humblest, the bricks and the lime mortar joining them, to the slow-grown, hand-sawn timber joists, the hand-cut slate tiles or hand-moulded clay pantiles. Then, glass blown white hot and miraculously flattened, bubbling, for window panes, plaster smoothly laid over hand-cut laths, and — oh! — hand- or bucket-mixed paint. Paint mixed to recipes passed from one painter to the other. Very simple for plain colours: the quotidian slubs and duns and off-whites, the quick cheap fake mahogany and pleasant ochres. But also, colours mixed by eye, practice and judgement, by the skill that comes with repetition. Paints mixed with knowledge, not by a machine – made with oil for longevity and satisfying sheen, to protect but also to add gentle tones made with natural earth pigments.

Some of the houses I have written about are nearly three hundred years old – and one is much older – yet their inhabitants find that life with electricity, gas and wi-fi sits well alongside Georgian beauty. What unites these people is that they put beauty first. Their houses share similar temperaments, yet each is completely different. And in every case its beauty speaks for itself.

I enjoy the fact that many were built on just a few courses of bricks. Their neighbours, their half-basements, and their solid but flexible flagged floors of thick stone laid directly on to sand or dirt hold them up effectively – supplemented occasionally with lengths of steel today. They prove that there are economical and renewable ways to construct homes compatible with modern life. If we built them now, they could stand into the twenty-fourth century.

The smallest were usually dubbed ‘fourth-rate.’ These were often narrow terrace houses of three or four floors including attic and half-basement. Today, it is a perfect size for a couple or young family. Yet some are just fourteen-foot wide — my own is a case in point. It reminds me of an upended caravan. It is not large yet it is ample and this graceful sufficiency is another Georgian trick, unlike later Victorian two-up-two-downs, which introduced meanness and a rather glum squatness. Houses like mine demonstrate an economical use of the plot with a light footprint both actually and metaphorically, while retaining the proportions of their grand cousins. These fourth-rate houses are the soot-blackened town mice, the London sparrows.

They also remind anyone who makes things that will not last or cannot be recycled, or who continues to argue in favour of demolition and shoddy, short-term building, that houses made of brick, lime, timber, and stone live, breathe and move, and if left alone will do so for a very long time. They shift and whisper, creak and murmur, particularly on London clay. Architects and planners should study them afresh.

In Elder St

In Mile End

In Elder St

In Fournier St

In Whitechapel

In Elder St

In Whitechapel

In Elder St

In Cable St

In Fournier St

In Fournier St

In Elephant & Castle

On the Isle of Sheppey

In Elephant & Castle

In Whitechapel

In Cable St

Photographs copyright © Charlie Hopkinson

RESTORATION STORIES by Philippa Stockley is published by Pimpernel Press today

You may also like to read about

A Renovation in Fournier St

David O’Mara’s Spitalfields

14 Responses leave one →
  1. October 3, 2019

    Evocative post and wonderful pictures. Thank you for a wonderful piece.

  2. James Hurley permalink
    October 3, 2019

    A fascinating account.
    Thank you,

  3. October 3, 2019

    Having met some of the house owners in Spitalfields and knowing the love for their homes, I so enjoyed today’s blog.

  4. Alice Evans permalink
    October 3, 2019

    Yes, yes, yes, this! Every line of this. Thank you Philippa Stockley, and thank you all those with the means and the soul to have rescued, be rescuing these beauties.

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    October 3, 2019

    What a beautifully written piece about beautiful things… I can’t wait to get a copy of the book!

  6. October 3, 2019

    Philippa so eloquently sums up my own feelings about these hidden gems in and around the East End. I too appreciated the “derelict beauty” of these houses and am gratified to see the sympathetic restoration of those that remain in my old neighbourhood.
    I look forward to reading Philippa’s book.

  7. October 3, 2019

    What a glory! Best of luck with the publication. I am going to look out for this. Perfect for turning the pages on a cold evening, by candlelight.

  8. October 3, 2019

    Love it! Every bit of divine imperfection.
    “I believe all creative people seek inspiration from the past; those that don’t, perhaps should.”
    Nice quote, that. As a mixed media artist who prowls around looking for old cast-off stuff
    (especially paper!) I love her reverence for patina.

    Thank you, GA, for always introducing us to the most interesting people.
    This book looks marvelous.

  9. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    October 3, 2019

    Oh, a community of people after my own heart—and soul! While I don’t (yet) have a blasphemous parrot, I do confess to having adopted a three-legged cat and one with a single eye . . .

    I have for many years wanted to restore and love an old home. There are two eighteenth-century houses for sale in the town where I live, and if I had immeasurable wealth I would buy them both, to save them from being gutted and debauched by someone with more money than taste (oh dear, did I really say that?).

    Thank you for the insightful and delightful post and the heart-warming photos!

  10. October 3, 2019

    Looking back … inspiration from the past… Beautiful blog!!! I want the book!!!

  11. October 3, 2019

    A blissful article. Until now, I have always bought or rented typical Victorian/Edwardian ground floor flats in London, always longing for Georgian. I am now in a Georgian/Regency brick and flint fisherman’s cottage on the Isle of Wight and have never been happier. This a book I have to buy. Thank you, Philipa Stockley – you have made my day.

  12. October 4, 2019

    These are such beautiful pictures. I would love to have the Rabbit doll of my own!!!????????

  13. Moyra Peralta permalink
    October 8, 2019

    Beautifully-written account. Enjoyed it very much.

  14. October 10, 2019

    Thank you to everyone who’s commented for your uplifting remarks. I’m so glad that you find something to enjoy here and hope, if you buy the book, perhaps as a gift (but do have a sneaky read before bestowing!) that you’ll enjoy the stories of the various owners’ restorations, and the wonderfully evocative photos that accompany them.

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