February 28th, 2016
Thirty years ago this old house, built in the 1740s and set back behind a high wall on a main thoroughfare in London’s East End, was a wreck, sans joinery, window frames or fireplaces, its basement filled with debris and 200 cubic yards of rubble. It was restored as a place of domestic habitation and a fabulous, unique house museum by Tim Knox, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum and Todd Longstaffe Gowan, garden designer and historian. The house’s front steps, landing and railings were finally reinstated just a few months ago in 2015.
Top floor bedroom; see below.
The Spitalfields Trust had bought both houses to prevent their demolition; the one on the right was then sold on to Tim Knox, and Todd Logstaffe Gowan who took the black and white picture showing the old shopfronts and a tyre and exhaust fitting workshop on the left in 1998, shortly before they were swept away and the long task of restoration began. These crayon portraits of Todd and Tim drawn in his Hockney manner by Glynn Boyd Harte in 1991 hang under a shelf supporting ‘twig ware’ baskets and vases.
I have been lucky enough to know Tim and Todd since about 1989 when we met across a friend’s supper table in Hampstead. I was so smitten by them that soon afterwards I acquired a bear-like taxidermised dog of indeterminate breed from a specialist dealer in Portabello Market at their eager urging. In the intervening years their friends have watched with mingled admiration and incredulity as a collection of taxidermy and religious statuary begun with Tim’s sure and curious eye was gradually enlarged by their all-consuming combing of markets and auction houses all over England and beyond. The first major find was a museum quality bust of Sir Walter Scott by the neoclassical sculptor Bertel Thorwaldsen, Todd has gone on to buy hundreds of Old Master paintings, drawings and objects of Virtu; there are many more stuffed animals particularly dogs, ethnography, an elephant’s skull and a pair of servants livery coats, rare survivals and examples of needlework of the highest order fished from a Portabello stall by Tim. Changing all the time, their collection is arranged as a wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosities and a series of aesthetically beautiful and romantic roomscapes. After living here for a few years, Tim and Todd commissioned this ‘biographical’ overmantle to fill a gaping hole in the chimney breast of the ground floor front reception room. Plaster portrait medallions sculpted by Christopher Hobbs in Xmas 2002 ( set designer for the films of Derek Jarman and Ken Russell) are its defining elements. It includes the likenesses of their two dachshunds Tiger and Sponge, garden implements and architectural devices and an ancient human skull (excavated in the early 1970s in the site of the YMCA in Tottenham Court Rd).
Light switches of painted tulip wood in the entrance hall copied from those in an upstairs room were part of the first wave of building work undertaken in 1998. The notice is a postcard reproduction of one at Stratfield Saye, the Duke of Wellington’s Hampshire seat.
Romantic Interior in the manner of Abbotsford. The marble tondo relief on the left is a portrait of the Duke of Albany, son of Queen Victoria, prototype for one on his funeral monument in Whippingham Church on the Isle of Wight.
Their restoration and fitting up of the house has been both imaginative and conservative. In the basement kitchen, a stoneware sink decorated with Vitruvian scroll pattern was retrieved from a skip.
Although bits of the original kitchen overmantle were discovered amongst rubble and debris excavated from this room, it was only partially reconstructed; a stuffed dogfish sits on top of the kitchen range. It was bought at Lord St Levan’s sale at St Michael’s Mount in West Cornwall.
During the last decade Todd has begun collecting twentieth century British art. Four Modern Movement paintings by Thomas Frederick Stalker Miller (1912-2006) surround Robert Medley’s painting of a woman mourning over a dying Minotaur. Medley (1905-94) was a schoolfriend and sometime lover of W.H. Auden, friend of Francis Bacon, David Hockney and Elizabeth Frink. A plaster death mask of Napoleon sits upon the chair.
This is the Sarcophagus Room. Christopher Hobbs’s fantastic overmantel is bookmarked by giant atlantes of an African and an American Indian, symbolic of the lands in which Tim and Todd spent their respective childhoods.
In the foreground a carved table from northern Europe carries the remains of a 2nd century marble statue excavated by Charles, 8th Lord Kinnaird in Italy in the 1820s. An enormous Dogon ‘spirit’ ladder from Mali leans against the pillar,
In the Nun’s Parlour a marble bust by Scheemakers once in the Temple of Friendship at Stowe and a gilded Viennese porta-busto guard a marble topped table carved with a mask of Hercules draped in the skin of the Nemean Lion, based on an C18th original by Matthias Lock. The presiding bust which stands upon it is an antique Homer from Wilton House, once in Cardinal Mazarin’s Collection.
On the opposite wall of the Nun’s Parlour is a huge painting from a cycle depicting the story of Actaeon, found by Todd in a Melbourne auction house; Actaeon’s muscled torso is modeled from the antique Laocoon group’s central figure. The William IV frame which fits it exactly was bought at the Lacy Gallery in Westbourne Grove. Upon the bombe chest lies the highly realistic sacrificial lamb, carved by Joseph Wilton for the 2nd Earl of Bessborough to adorn a Roman marble altar in a temple at his house in Roehampton.
The Hopton Brothers, attributed to Van Dyck – Sir Arthur Hopton was an ambassador in the reign of Charles I – bought in blackened condition at the Barmingham Rectory sale in Norfolk. Propped against the base of the scagliola pedestal is c15th Pegu glazed terracotta panel from Burma bearing two horned deities.
Propped on the table is the fragment of a painting by Rubens: Herodias with the head of John the Baptist, cut out of the original canvas in c.1647. It first belonged to Rubens’s friend the painter and writer Joachim von Sandrart, and was bought at a sale in Salisbury. Above, the head of a water buffalo from an Irish country house.
The upstairs lavatory, a shrine to all things pontifical, is painted in a colour called ‘anti-fly blue’.
The Cabinet, or Museum in the Museum : A tortoise shell and a brain coral along with many exotic shells, some collected by Dr Knox and Dr Longstaffe Gowan during their far flung childhoods ( Todd’s in Chile, Dominica, Barbados, Panama and Canada, Tim’s in Tanzania, Nigeria and Fiji), fossils, dried and preserved bird specimens, skeletons, lapidary treasures and ethnographic curiosities. On the wall behind, the giant engraving made up of nine plates is, The Mocking of Christ, after Van Dyck.
The ‘Idol Cabinet’ in the Museum Room.
A fire-gilt bronze statuette of John the Baptist found at Portabello Market is attributed to Susini, after a lost original by the early Renaissance Florentine sculptor Michelozzo di Bartolommeo. Acquisitions like these are not ‘lucky finds,’ but the fruits of vast knowledge and meticulous research. The overmantel is a C18th Prussian overdoor carving, flanked by shell sconces made by Belinda Eade.
The devotional painting of a Penitent Magdalene after the original by Guido Reni is the first large oil that Todd bought, found at Christies in c.1988. The largest canvas is a portrait of Miss Markham of Wardour, and was one of a pair of ancestral portraits painted for the house in the 1770s.
A seventeenth century portrait of Cicely Arundel in a frame by James Moore; on her right is Adrien Carpentier’s portrait of Dr. Ruby, who was afflicted with a hare lip. The elaborately carved and gilded table was formerly in the collection of the Getty family in Los Angeles
The taxidermy goat beneath it came from shop window in Kelvedon in Essex, and was found in the Criterion Auction House in Islington.
A garniture of Chinese porcelain on the chimneypiece in Tim’s first floor study, photographed in raking winter sunshine.
Small busts, porcelain, translucent alabaster and obelisks lined up in Tim’s study
Looking from the Green Room into the study, sphinx parked on the floor.
A pair of state liveries encrusted with armourials, made for the 3rd Earl of Ashburnham in 1829, and bought by Tim at Portobello Market, flank a bust by Christopher Moore of Robert Holmes – ‘Father of the Irish Bar’. Tim & Todd have been trawling the market together for almost 30 years.
A seventeenth century Flemish cabinet given by Christopher Hobbs is married up with a sturdy Victorian Pussy Oak table
The Trophy Hall and staircase; some of these specimens come from the collection at Eton College
Tim’s mother’s Sanderson-fabric-covered armchair in the huge bathroom, memorials to the Victorian dead.
Tim’s first stuffed dog, rescued from a skip in his early youth. On the right the wooden case housed a hand pump that once raised water to the top floor of the house.
The fire escape leading to the uncertain safety of the roof, relic of the print workshop and typewriter rental company that operated from the lower floors here in the twentieth century.
A statue of St Aloysius Loyola, garnished by Chinese ceramics.The seventeenth century paneling
behind was reused by the speculative developer Thomas Andrews who built two houses on the site of an older mansion which he demolished.
Behind the paneling was once a night closet or dry closet (not a water closet); a small section of paneling was removed in the C18th for ventilation.
The four poster from the manor house is Buckingham is hung with Spanish and oriental antique fabrics.
Tim’s window sill cactus theatre.
The bust of St James is an eighteenth century devotional object from a pilgrimage church in northern Spain, made of lead over a wooden core, bought in Westbourne Grove.
A nineteenth century plaster bust of Christ and a made-up bird skeleton composed, inter alia, of chicken bones in Todd’s top floor study.
In the top floor back bedroom, a landscape by John Nash, and David Bomberg’s self portrait.
New Zealand tree fern forest by Todd in the garden to the rear.
‘Imagines de vestir’, a pair of religious statues or lay figures, finished with real human hair, originally devotional figures that were dressed in the appropriate robes or vestments according to the liturgical calendar, found at Portobello. Malplaquet House’s role as the most distinguished private house museum in London, second only to Sir John Soane’s Museum (of which Tim was recently Director), is now at an end. The packing cases and boxes here signal its recent dismantling .
Grateful thanks to Tim Knox and Todd Longstaffe Gowan.
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