The Museum of... Our pick of the UK's specialist collections - Museums Association

The Museum of… Our pick of the UK’s specialist collections

Simon Stephens hears about a challenging project to conserve the remarkable London home of a Kenyan-born poet
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Simon Stephens
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What

575 Wandsworth Road, a terraced house in south-west London, is the former home of Khadambi Asalache, a Kenyan-born poet, novelist, philosopher of mathematics and civil servant in the Treasury. He died in 2006 and bequeathed the house to the National Trust. Conservation work began in January 2011.

Opened

Tours began in March. Visitors have to pre-book and it is already proving very popular. It’s free for trust members and £6.50 for non-members.

Collection

The house came with all its contents – more than 2,000 items. These range from everyday objects such as paper clips and toothpaste to a painted ostrich egg and two Senegalese wall hangings.

“Everything was carefully placed by Khadambi so our aim was to lay as light a hand on the place as possible so we really present the house as he had it,” says curator Tessa Wild. The trust has been advised by Asalache’s partner, Susie Thomson.

“We were immensely lucky that Susie was here,” says Wild. “We were able to think ourselves into the right mindset and leave behind preconceived notions of how we should tackle things.

"What we tried to do was take on a very gentle but creative approach, thinking all the time about what Khadambi would have done. Everything we did was attuned to this place and so was an exercise in restraint.”

Budget

The conservation cost £500,000.

Highlights

There are some amazing objects in the house, but the highlight is Asalache’s remarkable hand-carved fretwork, which adorns every room. He also painted doors, walls and floors.

“It’s wonderful as an expression of a home, but it is a work of art in its own right as well,” says Wild. “It was not a work of art that was made for an audience, it’s just that it happens to have found an audience, almost by chance.”

Visitors

Because of the fragility of the house, there are only nine tours a week and a maximum of six people on each one.

Sticky moment

Conservation was very challenging and more than 100 people contributed skills and expertise to the project. The house was suffering from subsidence, rising damp, a leaky roof, and the lath and plaster ceilings decorated with fretwork were on the verge of collapse.

“What was really critical was that it was localised repair, keeping as much of the original ceiling as possible,” says Wild. “Most of the ceilings already had a very bumpy character and there were areas where there were fills that were done by Khadambi. The fretwork ceiling roses take account of this undulation so what was critical was that there was no change and everything was like for like.”

Future plans

Asalache’s fretwork is in the garden as well, providing a framework for the plants.

“That is our next phase of work – to tackle the garden and bring it back to its former state,” says Wild. “It has slightly run wild and we can’t let people out there at the moment.”

www.nationaltrust.org.uk/575-wandsworth-road


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