London Museum (mini) Challenge 2014 #1: Pitzhanger Manor
October 25, 2014 § 2 Comments
Three weeks ago I went to an opening at Sir John Soane’s Museum. It was my first time there in a shamefully long time (especially shameful given that a. I love the place to bits and b. I work so nearby that I really have no excuse), and while I was getting reacquainted with one of my favourite places in London I learned that there is in fact a Sir John Soane’s Museum Part II in Ealing – his country house, Pitzhanger Manor. A little internet research later that evening told me that it will be closing in a few months for extensive restoration. And what better way to appreciate ‘after’ than to see it ‘before’? (A bit of further research proved that I actually had heard of it before – it appears in my ancient, battered Dorling Kindersley London guide as Pitshanger Manor, a spelling disagreement which crops up in my A-Z as well as a few street signs. Should we split the difference and call it Pitszhanger instead? Come to think of it, that looks vaguely Hungarian.)
So last Saturday I trekked out to Ealing. Sir John would probably have been shocked and dismayed by the scene outside Ealing Broadway station – the fields and groves he knew have disappeared under shops and crowded pavements – but the house itself is still surrounded by parkland, even if terraced streets run almost up to the gate.
Once inside the gate I was hit by déjà vu. The façade looks like a copy of the house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, complete with haughty goddesses perched on a row of four neat Ionic columns. Nor surprising when you consider that Sir John was working on both houses more or less contemporaneously.
Unlike the house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which became a museum almost immediately after Soane’s death, Pitzhanger Manor has undergone multiple incarnations – local library, museum, events venue, art gallery – so you have to peel back a few more layers to try to regain a sense of its original appearance. The current entrance is through an art gallery which, when I visited, was hosting an exhibition of contemporary craft which, despite the elaborate guidebook, I found totally incomprehensible. I didn’t particularly want the visit to end prematurely with my brain imploding, so I left the gallery as quickly as possible and, one narrow passageway later, I found myself at the bottom of a spiralling staircase looking up at a skylight… remarkably like the skylight-topped staircase in Sir John Soane’s Museum. All that was missing was an enormous sarcophagus in the basement.
Two of the main rooms aren’t Soane’s work – they’re all that’s left of the house that originally stood on the site, designed by George Dance the Younger (Soane’s teacher), which Soane kept as the core around which he built the rest of the house. They’re light and airy, with beautifully preserved plasterwork. (This, unfortunately, is where my camera batteries gave up the ghost, so you’ll have to use your imagination for what follows.) Pass through them and the sense of déjà vu returns – the dining room and the library show many of the same quirks and preoccupations of their twins in Holborn, the same clever and disconcerting handling of space, the same idiosyncratic use of classical motifs.
There is one important difference, though – where Sir John Soane’s Museum is gloriously overstuffed with the results of his inveterate collecting (I remember thinking when I first visited it that it felt like the British Museum’s attic or junk room and I still stand by that), Pitzhanger Manor’s rooms are mostly empty – of both objects and visitors. I wasn’t the only visitor that afternoon, but I still found myself alone in most of the rooms for minutes on end in near-total silence broken only by the ticking of a clock or the cough of a bored warder outside the door. The profusion of weird and wonderful objects in the Museum might surprise and delight, but I found the emptiness and silence of Pitzhanger Manor offered much freer play to the imagination.
That of emptiness and quiet continued into the surrounding garden, but perhaps that was mostly down to it being a cloudy autumn day (it might well be different in midsummer). But then, I do have a thing for gardens at the turn of the season (I am the only person I know who enjoys going to Kew in winter as much as spring and summer), withered and rain-battered.
The one thing Pitzhanger Manor lacks is a café (apparently this is something that will be remedied in the restoration), and as everyone knows, visiting museums is thirsty work, but fortunately there’s Caffé Magnolia, a marvellous Polish café, a stone’s throw from the house. The coffee wasn’t extraordinary but the makowiec was the best I’ve ever had and had me simultaneously wishing they would open a branch in Crystal Palace and feeling grateful that it was too far away to make going regularly very practical.
Perhaps Sir John would be dismayed to see how his country retreat has been swallowed up by London… but who knows, maybe he’d consider having such excellent cake on his doorstep adequate compensation.
Or just plain dangerous.