Monday, 15 February 2016

Burgh House

New End Square
London NW3 1LT

Thursday February 11 2016

Today found us with our last trip to Hampstead, this time for the free local resource that is Burgh House. Part community arts centre, part meeting venue and part art gallery with a small local museum thrown in, it is to be found in the charming back streets of Hampstead a few minutes from the Northern Line Underground station.   My parents were living in Hampstead when I was born and I later spent 7 years at school down the ‘bottom of the hill’ of which New End Square is about halfway. The top of the hill is of course the Heath, later glimpsed on our way home.

Burgh House stands out as a significantly larger building than the many ‘cottages’ that constitute this part of Hampstead…built in 1704 as a private residence when Hampstead Wells were seen as a go to destination for those keen on ‘taking the waters'.  It passed from owner to owner with relatively few additions or alterations – it had a brief spell as the HQ for the Middlesex Militia for about 23 years and then back into private hands. By the time of the 1930s it was empty (Hampstead perhaps focussing on promoting Modernist buildings) and taken over by Camden council (or Hampstead Borough as it would have been then) in 1947. Since then it has been in public if not consistently open use.

There is a charming terraced garden (remnants of Gertrude Jekyll's design) leading to the steps to the front portico and door – today we could only glimpse some snowdrops and daffodils but I am sure it is stuffed with decorative plants. The spaces on the ground floor are large reception rooms, two of which were in use today: one seemed to be hosting a committee meeting of some kind and the other a gardening lecture. The back two rooms are gallery spaces and today we learnt about local artist George Charlton who had a house opposite in New End Square where he moved after a successful start to his artistic career – he studied at the Slade under Henry Tonks and went on to teach there, marrying one of his pupils Daphne Gribble (I think this was a good case for taking on your partner’s name). Originally hailed as the new Cruikshank, the liveliness of  his paintings became more muted after the First World War. This exhibition focuses on nude sketches which we presume included some of his wife Daphne – she of course was an artist in her own right. Their home was visited by other contemporary artists including Stanley Spencer who may or may not have taken Daphne as his lover. The sketches are competent – lifelike, confident yet intimate – all you might want from a portraitist.

In the back room, by contrast to the black and white of the Charlton display, was an exhibition entitled ‘Firecrackers’ with works by Chinese artist to celebrate the very imminent Chinese New Year. The contrast between the colourful and heavily impasto works and the gentle monochrome is quite striking but kept us on our toes.

The rooms upstairs are smaller and more intimate and are where the history of Hampstead has been displayed in a range of placards and artefacts. There is of course a cabinet of Neolithic remains but so remote and elevated is most of Hampstead that it was something of a surprise to learn it was part of St Peter’s Monastery based in Westminster – extensive land ownership you might say. Some parts also belonged to Kilburn Priory so both before and for a long time after the Reformation Hampstead was little more than a ‘small and lonesome’ location. It did manage to have a Poor House so looked after its rural poor to some extent...

Belsize Park, I learnt, derived from Bel Assis or beautiful seat/location. There are sundry contemporary prints of the Armada Beacon, including a press button model so you can see the little braziers light up – not quite as exciting as the Museum of London’s Great Fire model but at least in working order... as of course the top of the Heath is high enough for the signal to be seen from far away.   After Burgh House was built Hampstead had its first claim to fame – another place to take the waters... the Chalybeate Well  remains from this brief era – Chalybeate apparently meaning water which contains iron.  Although short lived as a destination it had encouraged development and this continued rapidly through the Victorian era with the population doubling. Notable residents of course included John Keats (whose home we have already visited) and John Constable who lived in nearby Well Walk and memorably painted the Heath. He is buried nearby.

In contrast to many local museums this one has little in the way of local industry either pre or post the Industrial revolution. In 1907 the Underground Line opened the station at Hampstead which is still the deepest on the network and this certainly precipitated more development albeit of the residential kind. Incidentally the earth dug out was used to construct the arbours and terraces of Inverforth House and Golders Hill Park (really the Heath under another name). We also learned that, in the same way as locals elsewhere supported the navy, Hampstead chose to send its contributions for tanks. And of course if Hampstead is renowned for anything it is for its ‘liberal leaning artistic and political residents’ too numerous to list.

‘Modernist Hampstead’ is featured here at Burgh House with models and pictures of the key buildings – 2 Willow Road  and the Lawn Road Flats. There is a good display of Isokon furniture and it explains that this portmanteau word comes from isometric and construction – so there you are.

Hampstead was quite badly damaged during the war with 10 V1 and 4 V2 bombs – I can remember my mother telling that she sheltered under the table rather than using the Belsize Park deep shelter as demonstrated here. The exhibition notes the wartime and post war influx of emigres or refugees and asylum seekers as we would call them nowadays and clearly rented accommodation was easily affordable as my parents set up their first home off Fitzjohn’s Avenue. And I can remember clearly the excitement that greeted the opening of the Sir Basil Spence Library and adjoining swimming pool (replacing the Victorian baths on the Finchley Road) down at Swiss Cottage. New End had had a hospital which was later absorbed into the Royal Free, itself rebuilt in 1978. New End’s hospital is a little theatre and the Royal Free was Jo’s ultimate destination today, reached by a gentle walk down Willow Road.

London’s property prices being what they are very little of Hampstead is at all affordable   unless you are from overseas and Russian or a footballer...
We enjoyed today’s trip combining as it did in one visit  a small art exhibition about an artist we knew little of and a brief history of a unique part of London offering insights and nostalgia both. 

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