Monday, 5 June 2017

Dorich House

Kingston University
67 Kingston Vale
SW15 3RN

Thursday June 1 2017

To say we had difficulty in finding this museum would be something of an understatement – true we were not meticulous in our research but between a minute on the phone Google Map and a memory of a Kingston Vale address c/o of the University we started the more epic bit of our journey at Putney station. The Route 85 heading to Kingston was familiar enough and we thought Kingston Vale began just after the huge ASDA store (where the buses all take a little turn) so rode one stop beyond – sure enough there was a sign for Kingston University Campus so we entered a rather inauspicious entrance (‘looks like where the dustbins go’ we said) and found a couple of students working on an …….airplane…. this must be the Engineering faculty we said – indeed. Admittedly they had not heard of Dorich House but were totally charming and helpful and suggested we got back on the bus and rode up Kingston Hill to the next chunk of the Kingston Campus. (Even the University’s own maps appear a bit uncertain about what is Hill and what Vale…)  Another bus stop, another wait, another 85 and some minutes later we got off at another chunk of Campus .This looked more promising with a range of buildings nestling in the woods and a choice of paths. Who knows, there might have been a house too? We headed for the Reception where they were – again – very receptive and helpful, informing us that Dorich House was stand alone on the opposite side of Kingston Hill and even directed us to the stop for the free University Bus which was just about due.

It was of course only one stop so off we got again and finally saw the entrance to the museum – there is both a sloped and stepped approach as the house has been built in a dip away from the main road – and you then wander through the garden to the front door, where today we had to ring the doorbell to gain entrance.  No brown ‘attraction’ signposts at all – apparently the authorities will not put up signs for places that do not get enough visits. The slight fault in logic here does not seem to have occurred to them…

Once finally inside you are offered a short film as introduction but are then pretty much free to roam, and today we seemed to be the only visitors. Slippers placed inside the entrance were there ‘to add atmosphere’ though I thought they might be needed to save the very beautiful wooden polished floors.

There are three strands to this visit – the life of the now all but forgotten Dora Gordine, her work and the remarkable house.

Dora was born at the end of 19th century in Latvia and moved with her middle class Jewish family to Tallinn, Estonia, then all parts of the Russian Empire/USSR. Already sensitive to her Jewish heritage (and its unpopularity in her country) she changed her name to Gordine when she went to Paris to study and ‘mingle’ with other artists during the 1930s. Her work started getting attention.  Most who met her assumed she was a Russian émigrée escaping the Bolsheviks and she rarely disabused them. On a study trip to England she was picked up, literally as stranded penniless at Victoria station, by an artistic London ‘set’ and exhibited works here also. She met and married a Doctor who was a medic to the Royal Family in Java and went out East with him. The marriage was not a success but the travels and the destination clearly inspired her and there are many examples of fine Eastern heads that she both sketched and cast. By 1935 she was back in London and after her divorce soon married the Hon. Richard Hare, a student of Russian language and culture, and well-off diplomat.  He had already invested in the purchase of some land off Kingston Hill and between them they designed and had built Dorich House (the title a combination of their first names: this must have been very popular just pre and post war – I can remember delivering Christmas post to a range of houses with similar concocted/composite names).

The couple lived there very happily for many years with Dora continuing to work and some significant public sculpture commissions coming in. Their togetherness is immortalized in a photo of them cleaning  the house post war (when there was a shortage of ‘help’ available) with Dora and her duster and Richard using the floor polisher – no “boys’ and girls’ jobs” there.

Richard died in 1966 and Dora never really recovered – she remained living at Dorich until her own death in 1991.  From the photos on display the house was in some disarray and disrepair until taken over and splendidly restored under the aegis of Kingston University. The links with the University remain and the curator we met today has a joint post between university education and the house.

Though at first approach the house looks rather too tall and austere in fact it works very well from the inside where the light floods in, especially from the back. Nor is the house actually that roomy or multi-layered – it’s more that the height is devoted to giving Dora two very tall studios – the one on the ground floor for plaster work, and the one on the second floor for modelling and now display of the completed bronzes. Dora’s preferred method, learnt in Paris and perfected here, was to use the ‘cire perdue’ or lost wax method of casting, the intricacies of which you are welcome to follow up!
She used a foundry in nearby Fulham.  

Back to the ground floor where the ‘plaster studio’ contains the models for completed works to be seen elsewhere in the house. There is also a short and informative film about Dora’s life and her work including some vintage footage. We were not sure whether the ‘voiceover’ was actually her – sounding very Russian and ‘artistic’ with her emphasis on ‘creation’. She did lay much store on capturing the souls of her sitters and this this is evident when you come to look at them. Less endearing was her trademark ‘kiss curl’ plastered over left cheek, which she never shed even when it was no longer fashionable.

The stairs between the floors are very long as the rooms are essentially double height on both levels of ground and first floors. There was a lift to hoist the completed works up and down but we are not sure we saw a ‘person lift’. Because the ceilings are so high the windows are supremely generous and allow the greenery of Richmond Park and the more distant Wimbledon Common to become part of the house.

Another haul upstairs brings you to the flat where Dora and Richard lived and the sitting room, dining room and smaller ? breakfast room all contain very beautiful fitting furniture and some storage.The sliding doors within a 'moon frame' are very beautiful. There are also numerous display cabinets, mostly devoted to Richard’s Russian artefacts – a wall of excellent icons and some intricately decorated  but not very appealing porcelain, a table top model of a troika and various historic prints.

These rooms are still generous though not overly high but they also have a further flight of stairs leading to the roof terrace which covers most of the house’s span. From here the views are even better and clearly Richard & Dora had planned this space for both sun and rain.  

The bulk of Dora’s work is displayed on the middle or studio level and covers the full spectrum of her output. We particularly liked her work from the Far East with Javanese Dancer, Chinese Head and so on reflecting a real talent and interest in her subjects who come across as uniformly assertive. The studio also includes preliminary sketches for the bigger (and sometimes commissioned) works.
Because of the circles she moved following the marriage to Richard there are also pictures and maquettes of actors and ballet dancers of her day.

Intriguing is the head she did for ‘Eugene waves’ (a type of perm) for an early post war ideal Home Exhibition. ‘Power’ (Commissioned by Esso for their Milford Haven refinery), was a little bit ‘Stalinist’ for my taste  with the man’s torso resplendent but definitely more human and tender than the Russian equivalents. Very appealing was her work for the Royal Marsden Hospital of mother and child. Dora’s was not work we had ever known and we appreciated both her skill, the underlying humanity of her subjects and the fact she was a rare woman working in the medium of sculpture – doubtless some of her work might appear dated alongside the more adventurous interpretations of  a Barbara Hepworth  or Giacometti but this should not detract from talent.

We were pleased to have finally made the visit to experience a life, a
work and a house so intricately bound up and open to the public.

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