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78 Derngate (Northampton)

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82 Derngate / Northampton / NN1 1UH / Northamptonshire / England / E-mail : info@78derngate.org.uk / Website : www.78derngate.org.uk /

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      25.06.2007 21:48
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      An interesting house but you wouldn't need to go more than once

      Charles Rennie Mackintosh is a name so deeply and intrinsically linked with Scottish art and architecture that it’s not surprising to find he was only ever involved in the design of one building south of the border. What is surprising is that the house wasn’t a big grand mansion in London or a major city. The place that calls itself ‘The House that Mack Built’ was a very modest town house in Northampton at 78 Derngate. It’s the sort of place you would easily pass without blinking an eye if it weren’t for the advertising board out on the street outside. And to be precise, he didn’t actually build it, he ‘remodelled it’.

      The house was owned by a local businessman - Wenman Joseph Bassett-Loake, whom I’ll refer to as B-L - who received it as a wedding present from his father in 1916. The family business was boiler-making and young B-L later became a specialist manufacturer of miniature boats, trains and other items. He was a big fan of all things modern and would much have preferred to have a house built to his own designs but sadly, with the country in the middle of the Great War, no new housing was being built. Instead he had to make do with a Georgian house and stamp his mark on it by hiring a designer/architect to give it the look he was after. The house was bought for £250 but B-L spent three times that amount on the remodelling.

      Nobody seems entirely sure how B-L came to meet Charles Rennie Macintosh (let’s give my fingers a break and call him CRM) but it’s believed that CRM never actually visited the house. He would meet with his client in London where he was living in Chelsea and where B-L had an office in High Holborn. It’s also unclear at times which bits of the remodelling were influenced by CRM and which by B-L himself.

      B-L’s attention to detail and tendency to want to do things his own way must have made him a challenging client and perhaps it’s no wonder that CRM didn’t rush into doing more English projects. In fact, if I’ve read the time-lines on the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society’s website correctly, 78 Derngate was done when he was well past his peak and it looks like it was his last interior project. I asked the tour guide about why a man so distinguished would have bothered with a Northampton town-house and she suggested that by 1916, CRM had fallen out of favour with the Scots, was being seen as a bit unfashionable, and was spending most of his time painting watercolours of flowers.

      Preservation
      ***********
      B-L and his wife finally got their dream home – a flat-roofed villa in another part of Northampton. They moved out and successive owners adapted and changed the house. For many years it was owned by the Northampton High School for Girls, who used it for offices and later classrooms. When the school decided to sell the house in the late 1990s, a group of CRM fans put together a case for buying the house and restoring it to its original glory. So began years of painstaking research and restoration work, which was supported by a variety of local and national grants and endowments. To date, £1.4 million has been spent on the restoration. B-L was a keen photographer so many photos were available to help the restorers – all of them were, of course, in black and white. Throughout the house the philosophy has been to only restore what they KNOW was there – no guesswork, no extrapolation. Even though some things must have been there, if they aren’t shown on the photos, they aren’t reproduced.

      Why we went to see it
      *******************
      We’ve been living in Northants for nearly three years and been intending to visit the house for most of that time. Quite honestly there’s not a lot to do in Northants so we’d been saving this one up and this week we finally got around to it. We had thought that a Saturday afternoon might not be the cleverest time to try to do something touristy but we left it until about 3.15 pm. If you should ever find yourself in Northampton with a couple of hours to kill, track down the Guildhall and look for Derngate – the house is almost at the end of the street.

      Me and CRM
      **********
      Over the years, I’ve visited most of the famous Charles Rennie Mackintosh houses. Whilst I’d not rate him as highly as my idol – the late great William Morris – he’d be in my Top Ten British designers (do you all have a top ten architects and designers list or am I a bit weird in that respect?). It helped having a good friend in Glasgow who was a bit obsessed by him and tended to drag me off on CRM pilgrimages. My picture of a CRM house prior to going to 78, Derngate, was of bright, light rooms with high ceilings and lots of space. 78, Derngate just doesn’t fit that image at all.

      Taking a Tour
      ***********
      Admission fees for the house are £5.50 for adults and £4.50 for concessions. Family discount tickets are available but I’d question the wisdom of taking kids to see 78, Derngate. It’s a real ‘don’t touch’ sort of place and about as much fun as going house viewing with your Mum and Dad.

      We entered through the visitors’ centre, which is next door at number 80. Tours are supposedly optional but highly encouraged. Whilst you can do an unaccompanied tour, I suspect that it would be hard to get the most out of it, and we definitely felt that we’d be discouraged from doing it ourselves. We arrived at 3.20pm and were booked onto the 3.30pm tour. To kill time we had a quick look at the art gallery, tea rooms and shop all of which can be accessed without payment – although why you’d bother, is a bit beyond me.

      Our tour guide collected another couple and us and took us down to the lower ground floor kitchen to watch a short video about the restoration. The kitchen was bright and airy, fully tiled and with few things to see other than a laundry boiler and a nice 1930s fireplace that was put in by a later owner. From the kitchen we went out into the garden to look at the back façade of the house. The biggest bit of the remodelling work was an extension that was built on the back of the house to give a couple of balconies on the upper floors and a larger dining/living room on the first floor. Even the garden planters and trellises had been copied from original photos.

      Next we headed back into the neighbouring house to put on over-shoes before touring the main house. This was the point at which I got the disappointing news that no cameras were allowed. I was, quite honestly, a bit annoyed as there’d been no indication in the entrance area that this would be the case. I asked if I could use the camera without the flash but that was also not permitted – I think the intention was to sell more postcards or copies of the thin guide to the house, which at £5 a go seemed a bit of a rip-off. I stomped off up the stairs in my blue plastic shoe-covers with my camera tucked firmly back in my bag.

      First stop was the rear reception room – the main beneficiary of the extension. This room was the main sitting room and dining room used by the Bassett-Loakes, although they’d not really have been able to entertain very much as the dining table took up most of the room. By the large bay window it was light and had great garden views, but the oppressive wall paper and dark wood made the room a bit gloomy. The fireplace and cupboards were CRM designs, as was the carpet but the main furniture was by B-L. Fair enough, all the photos they worked from for the restoration were in black and white but it was totally lost on me why anyone would have put together the mix of colours and patterns in the room. The guide said B-L had been colour blind but surely someone would have stopped him mixing his colours so badly.

      Next stop was the front room, which is probably the ‘showcase’ room for the entire house. It is, quite honestly, one of the most unpleasant and over-the-top rooms I’ve ever been in. The size was small – perhaps 12 foot square, not much more. The door from the street would have opened straight into this room which was decorated mostly in black - imagine trying to keep that clean with people walking straight off the street in dirty shoes. The walls are hung with fabric that’s black and screenprinted with black and white squares representing tree trunks, and gold coloured triangles representing leaves. The fireplace is mostly black with some white, the floor is painted black with a black and white rug, the furniture is black, the curtains black and purple. It is, in short, utterly horrible in the same way that a teenager always thinks it might be cool to paint their bedroom black. Clearly the Bassett-Loakes didn’t have any pets! In fact even the Bassett-Loakes couldn’t live with the colour scheme and had to ask CRM to redesign it with a mostly white background. The best thing in the room is the screen at one side by the staircase which throws light onto the stairs. However, even this is painted black and inset with glass squares, some of them stained glass.

      I was starting to think the tour guide would never let us out and I and the other woman in the group started inching up the staircase to hurry her along. Upstairs was a relief after the oppression of the living room. The main bedroom was light and pretty with a balcony looking over the garden. There’s a nice vanity unit that was inspired by an ocean-liner and the bathroom across the corridor was quite stunning with a big old American-style sink and a heavy heated towel rail. Heading up to the top floor, we came the outrageous guest bedroom decorated in black and white stripes that would give you a headache after a drink or two. It’s reported that George Bernard-Shaw visited B-L and stayed in the guestroom. Mrs B-L, obviously a bit less committed to the modernist ways than her husband, apologised to GBS saying she hoped he’d be able to sleep in such a ‘busy’ room. ‘My dear’ he replied, ‘I’m in the habit of sleeping with my eyes closed’.

      Across the landing was B-L’s study, a room that’s had very little done to it. A door on one side leads up into the attic where Lottie the maid would have had her room, but that’s not open to the public. I’m guessing nobody bothered to take photos of Lottie’s room so the restoration would have been difficult.

      What did I think?
      **************
      I enjoyed our tour but I couldn’t help but think that there are better ways to spend £1.4 million than tarting up a house with so few of its original features. The degree of obsession shown in the work does seem a bit excessive for what’s basically a 3 bed town house that’s not especially typical of its designer and dates to Georgian times. It’s only 90 years since the remodelling was done and I do wonder if the museum will stand the test of time or attract enough visitors to justify the time, money and effort spent already and the on-going investment that will continue to be needed. Not being able to take photos did annoy me and I couldn’t help but wonder how many people would be willing to pay £5.50 to see a small house when there are a lot of stunning stately homes in Northants competiting for the tourist pound. CRM’s lack of personal ‘engagement’ with the building, mixed together with B-L’s interference make it a hotch-potch of styles and if you didn’t know it was a CRM design, I don’t know if you’d be that excited by the house.

      At times we felt a bit like potential buyers being shown around a house by an estate agent. My husband – ever the practical one – summed up my feelings about 78 Derngate with the words ‘Nothing we couldn’t sort out with a couple of coats of magnolia’

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    • Product Details

      Welcome to this unique house, remodelled in 1916-17 by renowned Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Northampton businessman Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke. After eighteen months of careful restoration the house has been returned to its 1917 appearance. The adjoining property, number 80, has been transformed from a small Georgian terrace into a modern gallery. It houses an exhibition about the 1917 design of number 78 and about Bassett-Lowke and his business. It includes a display of many fine model ships and trains. The entrance is through number 82, which houses The Dining Room Restaurant, Gallery, shop and where one can see a short video about how the restoration was undertaken. Location: In the heart of Northampton, close to the Derngate Theatre.