Monday, 6 July 2015

Sutton House

2 & 4 Homerton High Street, Hackney,
London, E9 6JQ
Thursday July 2nd 2015

Jo & I approached this inner London National Trust property by different bits of the Overground , which was a wise choice as the trains are nicely air-conditioned on this not quite the hottest day. The house itself was also cool and we seemed to be the only visitors not from Hackney. Because of its good location and range of communal spaces it serves as a community facility for Hackney and today the older citizens were enjoying a sing song along with hand instruments in the downstairs barn extension.

The guide is indispensable (and free) if you are not to repeat yourself or miss some aspect of the house due to its very diverse pattern of owners and occupiers and its actually having been two houses for some years. We are now so used to Hackney being Inner London that you have to be reminded that it was once in the country and the site  was spacious enough for Sir Ralph Sadleir, long-serving aide to the famous/infamous/ Wolf Hall  ‘hero’ Sir Thomas Cromwell decided in 1535 to build himself a fine ‘bryk’ house in an era where most people made do with wood and wattle and daub – however it is emphatically not a grand palatial dwelling , but a large family house.
The most splendid and best preserved linen fold carving is in the downstairs parlour, which also has a brief ‘told to the children’ life of the house’s first owner, who, like many during Tudor times, fell in and out of favour. Linenfold does what it says on the tin, and here is a demonstration of how a wood carver might achieve this very pleasing and easy to maintain wall covering – easy that is provided you avoid beetles and dry rot….

Sticking with the building materials, the next stop of the suggested route is down in the cellar where there is information about bricks – it seems that in Tudor times the brickmakers worked on site next to the bricklayers, presumably moulding specially shaped bricks to order though they do take 4 weeks to dry off. This must have saved the Tudor roads of London and the countryside being clogged with huge loads of building supplies …. Sutton House are clearly proud to quote Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall, who found the different prints embedded in the bricks very evocative.

1535 was the year the original Sadleir house was built.

Back up to the first floor you run headlong into the 21st century as this room (too damaged to restore) is now used as a community gallery whose works we enjoyed, but not enough to buy any. The staircase and landing have further ghosts of the original wall paintings. 
There follow two chambers – one small, probably originally a bedroom, and the Great Chamber by which time you are moving into a later phase of the house’s history. One of the subsequent owners after the house’s founder Ralph Sadleir, was a Captain Millward a rich silk merchant who apparently displayed his wares in this, the largest room of the house.  The 17th century silk market was clearly volatile as the captain lost his fortune and the house became a girl’s school for almost a hundred years.

What delighted Jo and me was the clear time-lines throughout the property and explanations how the different parts of the house and different uses all fitted together, and it was repeated in various rooms so became better embedded in our minds.

Though the National Trust are careful to indicate where the Tudor parts of the building are still visible and what their original functions were, they have also ‘set-dressed’ the rooms in the context of their later use – hence the Victorian Study tucked away in the corner – by this time, because of growing population especially round Hackney (sounds familiar?), the house was divided into two vertically which is why you are guided to go up one side across the top and down the other. At one point the houses had different names and very different functions. By the time you get to the top room, feeling a bit like an attic, you are firmly in the 20th century with the remnants of the squatters’ graffiti, also preserved for posterity. In a way they kept the building safe, though there was some damage inevitably, for the years they were here and until the Trust took over. They also ensured that the building would continue to serve as a meeting place for the local community.

This marks the halfway point and you go down to cross over into the ‘other half ‘ of the house as was, with the Georgian parlour as the main exhibition space – this is used to give us the story of the Huguenot family, refugees as many were, who lived here with their 9 surviving children of 12.  Pausing in the parlour allows the Trust to remind us of the Georgian preoccupation with tea and tea cups, and Mr Twining whose little museum was one of our first visits.
By 1891 the house was re-united and then used by the local St John’s Church in Hackney as the social and community premises for clubs for local youth for ‘the Spiritual, Mental, Social and Physical welfare of Young Men’.  In 1914 the church turned the other cellar into a chapel which was so dismal and damp we suspect it was hardly used.  

Today Sutton House continues to host activities for local groups – and we could still hear the community music session keeping some local older citizens well entertained as we got back to the ground floor. As particularly beloved of the  National Trust these days there was a recreated Tudor kitchen complete with a good display of very lifelike model food – we decided that they  (the NT) must have a central workshop that churns out ‘food’  for all they hundreds of properties, most of which have kitchens of one era or another…

It was equally agreeable to exit into the small courtyard, sunshine and landscaping to the sound of singing and the feeling that the National Trust had managed the not easy task of combining the preservation and lively presentation of a house with a very chequered history with continuing use by local people.  

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