Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Geffrye Museum

Wednesday 21 January 2015

The Geffrye Museum

136 Kingsland Road, London E2 8EA

The Geffrye Museum is very convenient for those of us who live on the route of the Overground.  I almost wrote that it 'couldn't be easier';  but in fact it will be even easier in a few years when they open their new entrance exactly opposite the exit to Hoxton Station. There is a brief description of the ambitious plans at the end of this post, and lots more on their website.

So Linda and I met at the main gate and went in at 10.00, which is opening time.  These former almshouses, dating from 1714, are a Museum of the Home.  They provide an attractive and fascinating account of the homes of the 'middling sort': the poor over the centuries not having anything much to pass on, and the very rich putting their furniture and fittings in stately homes.

From the 16th to the 18th century, these people mostly worked from home, or rather had shops and office premises which formed part of their houses.  Here, for instance, is Mr Henry Lambert, a Master ship's chandler and sail maker, in his parlour overlooking the Thames which provided his livelihood.

The Museum starts with a parade of chairs, which set the scene neatly, becoming more comfortable from the 16th to the 20th century, and then progressively less comfortable but much more artistic.

The main display is a series of rooms, each group beginning with a context-setting explanation.  The time lines are clear, with the sort of historical events most people have heard of, and cutaway drawings to show where the displayed rooms fit into everyday life.

The children's trail features Sam the dog, bewigged for the late 17th and 18th centuries, and sporting a topper for the Victorian era.

The 1630s are represented by the hall of the house, with dark table and stools to sit on;  the room is panelled, and the flooring is rush matting, rather than loose rushes as might have been the case 70 years before.  By the 1690s, there is softer floor covering, and a handsome drop-leaf desk as well as a drop leaf table.

The next moment is 1745, and attractive porcelain embellishes the room as well as fine wall coverings.

You then come to a narrow gallery from which to view the gardens.  The wall is painted with a frieze of flowers, peacocks and a very elongated horse and rider, perhaps to allow for the curve of the wall.  You can relax here and read gardening books of several vintages.

The gardens are attractively laid out, but we were not tempted, on this chilly and damp day, to explore them, instead moving on to the central space of the range of almshouses, which used to be the Chapel.  It is austerely decorated with the Apostle's Creed, the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments.  I noted particularly the phrasing of the 6th commandment as 'thou shalt do no murder' rather than 'thou shalt not kill', since I had met this before in chapels where soldiers might be expected to worship and worry about their professional duties if the balder statement were used.

Possibly my favourite room was the next one, a large space where visitors can sit and study various art books;  there was also a fine range of children's books.  But what made the room so interesting was that the walls are crowded with paintings of domestic scenes from the 18th to the early 20th century.  Here is 'Maternal Anxiety', though Linda and I both thought the baby looked fine!

Then the run of period rooms recommences, with the 1790s, books and porcelain embellishing the living space, and then 1830.  Swathes of curtain and rather oppressive carpet brought us to the 1870s, where the piano and the dried flowers in their glass dome on the mantelpiece denoted the affluence of the Victorian middle classes.

The 1890s room had an aesthetic, arts and crafts sort of atmosphere, with William Morris wallpaper, and charming tiles around the fireplace with its display shelves and porcelain.

A second parade of chairs brings the visitor into the 20th century. The Edwardian room took me shivering back to my grandmother's house, since the high backs and wings to the chairs were reminders of the draughts that whistled around as one huddled close to the fire.

The 1930s room was all walnut and rectangles, with a less-than-attractive rug on the floor;  and then came the 1960s, and something really familiar, since we started our married lives with a Guy Rogers chair, and low sideboard (though ours was white with orange handles....)

The last 'period' room is a 1990s dwelling, with smooth laminate floor, a mezzanine balcony bedroom, and an open plan kitchen area.

We then enjoyed a further room of domestic art works, this time from 1900 to the present day, and learned that the Museum holds the English Regional Chair Collection (which sounds rather like those 'order' beds at Kew or Wisley).

Downstairs is the special exhibition space, which is, at the moment, showing the plans for the new developments.  The Museum has been going for a hundred years, and the display gives visitors an outline history.  By 1906, the almshouses were empty, and up for sale.  The Peabody Trust would have demolished them and replaced them with housing, but there was a campaign to preserve them in  their historic form.  The LCC stepped up, and they became a museum, the first Curator being appointed in 1913.  A key moment was probably 1935, when visitor numbers were falling, and the Council appointed Marjorie Quennell as Curator. The History of Everyday Things in England in all its volumes showed her particular interests, and the Geffrye Museum became a centre of education as well as a home for just such 'things'.

Tragedy struck in October 1940, when people were killed in the air raid shelter constructed under the front lawn., but after the war the Museum resumed its previous life.

They now plan a major development, of which the convenient new entrance is a small part. There will be more exhibition space, so they can hang more of their 250 paintings of domestic life, and extend from living rooms into sleeping areas and kitchen displays.  They also hope to expand their 'recreation' of the almshouses, with costumed volunteers playing the part of residents from the period when Sir Robert Geffrye's benefaction provided accommodation for the 'deserving poor' of this part of Hackney.

As we headed back through the period rooms, after a refreshing cup of coffee, we were delighted to see a school group of very young children (year 1?  possible even Foundation) sitting completely engaged as they were told about one of the rooms by one of the Education team.

We shall be revisiting to note the new developments in this lovely museum.


  1. My husband and I took the kids to the museum one Christmas years ago The period rooms were all suitably decorated for Christmas their time. Looked lovely. We didn't venture into the garden either! Maybe a second visit is called for some time.

  2. This is a museum that I've been longing to visit for ages. Your review is really interesting and I shall definitely go during this year. Thanks.

  3. As an almost-teenager (1961-66) I spent most Saturday mornings at the Geffrye's Museum. There were numerous activities for children from painting, pottery & basket weaving to sketching and watercolour painting. Seek & Find quiz sheets were also available to encourage youngsters to go from room to room looking for the answers, at the end of each session a small prize (usually a Frys chocolate bar) was awarded to the child with the highest score. It was a fascinating place where children were encouraged to handle and examine the exhibits; sit on the chairs; lie on the beds and dress up in period costume. Very different to other museums at that time. Historical education at its best! Many years later I revisited with my own children and they were equally enchanted by it and learned far more than they would from a book or computer. I hope The Geffryes will long continue to take visitors (especially children) 'back in time' and teach them about our everyday lives and social history.