Saturday 6 August 2016
Visiting 575 Wandsworth Road requires booking and, as only 6 people are admitted per tour, we need to thank Roger for the meticulous advance planning. The place does not look like the stereotypical National Trust property, nor is it flagged by brown signs. But once you get to the front garden, there is evidence that you have reached the right place, and it is clear that you must wait to be admitted. So we did, and as the 13.30 slot approached, so did a couple of guides and Laura, who checked us in and would have taken our money had we not been NT members. The other two people who had booked for our tour did not appear, so we effectively had a private view. Photography is not permitted inside the house, but you will find a plethora of pictures here.
From the moment we entered (by the way, you start in the house next door where there are lockers to leave your bags) we were completely amazed. We were taken downstairs to the kitchen, where we were given a fascinating account of the house and its artist-owner. Then we changed into slipper socks, to protect the painted floors, and explored the seven rooms.
Khadambi Asalache was born in Kenya, and qualified there as an architect, before coming to Europe and becoming a noted novelist and poet. During the 1970s he became a civil servant, and this small house suited him well, as it is on the 87 (formerly 77a) bus route which dropped him at the Treasury in about 20 minutes. The house, dating from 1819, was
in a parlous state when he bought it, and some squatters (or 'dossers' as he called them) had to be removed, together with the chickens, a pig and a horse which they kept in the tiny back garden. When the basement kitchen's damp patch became unsightly, he covered it with some floor boards rescued from a skip, and then embellished the patch with fretwork of his own design. From 1986 to 2005 he decorated every wall, ceiling and floor with fretwork or painting, mostly using retrieved wood, which meant that there was little risk of warping. The basement, bathroom, kitchen and dining area; the two sitting rooms and the two bedrooms, are all covered with his work. Shelves of beautiful tracery house his collections of - well - all sorts of things: inkwells; Victorian plates with a hot water base for keeping food warm; lustreware of all kinds; postcards. His partner's small dogs were treated to a tiny kennel by the bed, with a step up to help them in. But he also painted a range of scenes at dogs' eye level so they would not feel left out.
Some of his carving is Moorish in inspiration, some African, some Ottoman. In addition, some dancers had clearly come from the classical ballet, and some from Matisse. There were animals of all kinds, and we could have spent hours exploring every room. The thought of all this entrancing woodwork lit by candles was somewhat worrying, but the artist loved to entertain, and candlelight would have enhanced the magic of his work.
When he died in 2006, leaving the house to the National Trust, the Trust was at first dubious: the amount of conservation needed, in a damp house on a busy main road, was daunting, and the need to limit numbers of visitors meant that it would never 'pay its way'. But happily for us, they decided to go ahead, and the restoration and conservation is ongoing. The garden is due to get a replacement for the mimosa tree which was threatening the foundations of the house.
Do go! Even with the Overground not working (grr) we found it easy to reach and worth every minute of the time we spent there.