Restoration Stories – Review by Patricia Cleveland-Peck

Patina and Paint in Old London Houses by Philippa Stockley with photography by Charlie Hopkinson

This attractive book tells the stories of the restoration of sixteen, mainly Georgian, houses in East London. This period undoubtedly produced some of the most well-proportioned, graceful and charming houses in the city but the interest here derives in part from the changes in fortune these properties have undergone. Like the East End in general, one-time elegant buildings, often connected with the silk trade, fell from favour and if not demolished as uninhabitable, were destined to serve as sweatshops and sundry humiliating commercial establishments before the tide turned and their value began to be recognised. Ranging from a tiny one-room-to-a-floor dwelling to the almost-grand, the houses featured are now some of the most covetable properties in London. Lucky indeed were the people who had the courage to buy at a time when the half-derelict properties were going for a pittance as they are now worth a great deal of money. Money apart these stories reflect the excitement and enthusiasm of the people who worked so hard to bring them back from the brink.

The most important agent for this renaissance of East End Georgian was the Spitalfields Trust and several of the owners in this book acquired their properties via this body which aims at preservation and restoration for habitation rather than speculation. Each story is as individual and the houses themselves but they have many elements in common. Most required lots and lots of work, much of which a number of owners undertook themselves. This could involve digging out concrete and the removing partitions, floors and accretions of tatty furnishings and fittings.

With the house stripped back to basics, the owners then undertook months, sometimes years of scraping, patching, scrubbing, repairing and reinstating. During this process the houses began to reveal their secrets; layers of wallpaper gave clues to original colours, things which had slipped down between the floorboards, or in one case, showered down from above when a false ceiling was removed, revealed the past life of the house. Such findings; coins, pipes, children’s toys and wedding rings were precious traces of the house’s past.

It was almost universally accepted that as much of the past should be preserved or reinstated even if it meant giving the limewash 30 coats. Colour in fact was very important and the shades often preferred were duns, drabs and sludge, i.e. muted, subtle and sombre tones rather than anything garish – although that being said some wonderful reds, peacocks and verditers proved ideal. Sections of woodwork were often just cleaned and deliberately left unpainted with visible splits and cracks; ‘honest damage and honest repairs.’ Similarly, odd holes were unfilled and original fittings left in situ. As the subtitle of this book indicates, patina was highly valued. We learn of searches for original fittings, some actually found tucked away in the house or buried in the yard, others rescued from skips. In this way the stories give us a flavour of the excitement of these undertakings.

The Georgian period has many admirers for whom it represents the acme of taste and this beautifully produced book, lavishly illustrated with first-class photographs, will provide them with a rich voyeuristic treat. Too much indeed, to be consumed in one sitting but rather one to savour slowly, story by story. Just occasionally there is a hint of pretentiousness – as when a dried flower on top of a pile of old books is captioned, “an instant still life’ – but this is far outweighed by the quality of both the text and the photography..

A volume to treasure.

Restoration Stories, ISBN 978-1-901258-41-5 is published by Pimpernel Press @£45.00