Saturday, 3 March 2018

Emery Walker House

7 Hammersmith Terrace
London W6 9TS
Thursday March 1 2018

When I booked this guided visit I had imagined us walking, in Spring sunshine,  through the pleasant back streets of Chiswick admiring people’s front gardens and camellias, while in fact we picked our way carefully in crampons and with sticks in order not to slide on the icy pavements.  The house itself is also not heated so it was a pretty chilly tour with Jo and I wondering whether it was colder (yes) than Little Holland House six weeks ago. It also meant, rather sadly, we could not go into the conservatory and garden which leads down to the river. 

The views from the upstairs bedrooms were impressive even on the greyest of days and must be even more enticing in better weather. Photography is not allowed; in any case lighting levels are very low, but the website has some excellent photos of the three key rooms. Though looking quite modest, and as the guide showed at the time in quite an industry-heavy part of London, this is in fact a 5 storey house with two rooms on each level. The basement is now a (slightly modernised) rental flat, while the top floor (servants’ quarters) is office space.
If you are not a fan of the Arts & Crafts Movement you might wish to stop here..

Yes, but who was Emery Walker, or Sir Emery as he later became?  Coming from quite humble beginnings, he was born in Paddington in 1857 to a coach maker and tried his hand at various trades until he found his metier in typography. Together with a business partner called Bootle they had a business of etchings and photography, which included the first ever systematic photography of the exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery. This work gave him a footing in the Art World and he gradually became acquainted with William Morris. This was hardly surprising as the latter lived up the road at Kelmscott House, they often took the same underground (overground here of course) train and, the key point, both were members, and later officers, of the Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist Party. Admiring of his work to date in the printing trade Morris offered Walker a partnership which he declined, recognising that Morris was a force to be reckoned with, but he did agree to be a technical advisor to the Kelmscott Press which Morris was setting up. The books they printed, often using the Jensen font were very ‘high end’ publications and while very beautiful (facsimiles were shown to us) do not really seem to fit with the Socialist ideals of the printers, being quite costly.

Emery did marry, though Mary Grace Walker (as she became) ‘enjoyed’ poor health which did not appreciate the pollution that was Hammersmith at the time and spent most of her life in the fresh air of the Cotswolds where Emery joined her at weekends. They had a single child Dorothy who inherited the house and lived here too; as she grew older she advertised for a ‘companion’ and Elizabeth de Haas arrived from Holland. After Dorothy’s death Elizabeth continued ‘curating’ the contents of the house (she had by then learnt all about the Arts & Crafts Movement) and trying to make arrangements for its long-term preservation. Even by selling off Emery’s book collection she was unable to create enough of an endowment to persuade the National Trust to take it on (there were also some doubts about what the NT might have done to the property) so instead set up the Trust that currently looks after the house, often running Arts & Crafts-related projects and events in partnership with the William Morris Society down the road.
I think it’s fair to say that Emery devoted more time to his house interiors and his voluntary and honorary posts various and to an extent his business than to his family,   After William Morris died in 1896 Walker went into another venture – the Doves Press (named after a local pub) again printing. His partner this time was Thomas Cobden-Sanderson who trained as a lawyer but felt himself to be artist manqué and career-switched to bookbinding, setting up the Doves Bindery.  After the Kelmscott Press wound up in 1898 Sanderson perceived a gap in the market and relaunched his business as the Doves Press in 1900.  This time Emery agreed to be a partner but not to contribute start-up funds – the money came from Sanderson’s wife.  The new press developed its own Doves font. It employed about seven people including one Edward Johnston whose later typographical work still graces the London Underground, and whose copyright is absolute.  

When the Doves Press partnership – never a happy one – ended after just eight years in 1908 there was a dispute between the partners as to who should inherit the type, Sanderson seemed unable to contemplate the type outliving him and in a series of clandestine night walks dropped all the known type face in the Thames from Hammersmith Bridge. This remarkable story  is recounted here and also if you enjoy the world of fonts in ‘Just My Type’ by Simon Garfield 
Another visitor in our group asked why some-one did not ‘just copy’ the type from the printed examples – the article explains how there was no-one able to do this skilled job and even with today’s computer technology it took the man who has resurrected it three years…
But not quite all Emery’s friends were obsessives – after Morris Emery had a long relationship with Philip Webb, the architect for Morris of The Red House  his first project and Standen, his last and a ‘stand out’ (sorry) example of the Arts & Crafts movement both inside and out. When Webb died he bequeathed to Walker many of his pieces of furniture designed by him and built by the group of craftsmen who had settled in Sapperton, in the Cotswolds.    

The tour of the house (you thought I would never get there but context is all) starts on the ground floor dining room where the levels of light were especially low today.  The bookcases to the left of the door on the wall opposite the fireplace had both come from Philip Webb’s house, the wallpaper is Morris (original as are all the papers in the house having been carefully conserved) and there is a wonderful wall hanging from May Morris’ workshop – only now is she getting the recognition she deserves. May worked next door and one of her embroiderers was Lily Yeats, sister to the more famous WB, another contact made through the local Socialist league. Talking of May Morris there is an excellent sketch of her by Edward Burne Jones, probably the best artwork in the house.

Up the stairs – only here has the paper been replaced with a more modern ‘Willow’ – to the first floor drawing room where the view is over the garden to the Thames. Another glass fronted Webb cabinet holds some of his claret glasses manufactured by Whitefriars, whom we heard about on our recent trip to Headstone Manor.

On the table are some charming jugs made expressly for Emery at the Wedgewood factory and with his initials, and a basalt tea-pot which belonged to Rossetti, one time lover of Janey Morris and presumably when he moved on, as he was inclined to do, he left the pot behind.
There are fireplaces in each room and we are sure there were servants who did the tedious task of clearing and relaying the fires and these were originally plain – however in the Sixties  Elizabeth de Haas found some William de Morgan tiles in a skip (yes, often our parents were vandals and ripped out ‘original features’)  and arranged them round the fireplace!

The third floor with similar excellent views has a bed crafted by another Sapperton worker with a unique bedcover by May Morris – it depicts a range of English wildflowers within a bright blue knot pattern – which was used as a funeral pall for the last few of the house’s occupants.
Two of the front rooms are accessible also.  On the first floor what was the bathroom for Dorothy and had originally been Emery’s study is now a small exhibition room where there are some personal artefacts from Emery which can be looked at more closely. Downstairs at ground level what was the kitchen has an excellent collection of chargers (large serving plates) and decorative wall plates, many of them souvenirs from Emery’s ‘art trips’ to Europe, and where there is now a small shop.   

Though the cold rather hampered our enthusiasm this is a house where you can immerse yourself in the life and tastes of a particular class and group of dedicated artists and craftsmen who turned their attention to every detail of their environment from the printed word to the exteriors. They also frequently inter-married or fell out – which makes the visit here one that is fascinating in many ways: well worth trekking through the snow, and doubtless even more enjoyable in better weather….

1 comment:

  1. Very much enjoyed reading your account. I went on a similar tour last autumn. It was raining slightly though we were allowed to go out into the garden and were told about the planting and herbs. Really special place. We also enjoyed watching a demonstration of the printing press at Kelmscott House (not sure if this happening too on your visit). Best wishes Victoria