| Caroline Kowalski | Juillet 2020 |
The recent revival of John Soane’s country home seems to mark a fresh start for Ealing. Clare Gough, previously director of communications at the National Gallery and director of the Pitzhanger Manor & Gallery Trust leads us in the heart of a long forgotten jewel.
Clare, what is it like to leave the hustle and bustle of Trafalgar Square to settle in the leafy suburban atmosphere of Ealing ? What is so unique about this place?
It has been a real pleasure to discover Ealing, full of hidden gems like Saint Mary’s in Perivale and the gorgeous parkland around. I think it is a fascinating mixture of city and countryside, with many characteristics of the county town and yet in London: the community is active and engaged whereas the more centre you go the more detached people are.
Here people take more notice of what you do, they have an opinion… When we want to do something about Pitzhanger Manor, they go: “Ooh, excuse me, what are you going to do with MY place ?!” And I like that! It makes our lives harder but it jolly well keeps us on our toes!
So many people told me how genuinely excited they were to see the place taken back to its former glory. They feel it changed the atmosphere in Ealing. Lots of people came to me saying: “I remember studying here for my A level when it was a library”… Although the building became very dull, unrecognizable as a Soane building during that period before the conservation, there was still a great fondness to it in people’s hearts.
Our passionate team of volunteers is so proud to show off this estate!
Do we know precisely what the place looked like when John Soane bought it in 1800, apart form the Dance block that we can still see nowadays?
It is quite remarkable, looking back at the watercolors of the house before 1800. It doesn’t have any of the flamboyance that many Georgian houses had. It is very austere, solid, and rather dull, as Soane writes it. He is actually very rude about the outside but he seems to love the interiors.
And during the conservation work we were surprised to discover he had more remodeled the building than knocked it down. The shape of the rooms is very different. The original exterior bricks are underneath the new facade he put on. It was bigger because it extented into the colonade area. He has trimmed it down to create this beautiful cube of a building.
Did the renovation work amend the shape of Soane’s property? How do you think he would have reacted to what his manor looks like today?
Basically we have recreated everything as faithfully as we could. Apart from the mock roman ruins that we didn’t re-build, and the original kitchen block transformed into a contemporary art gallery, within the manor wherever possible we tried to go back to what it was under Soane’s. A journalist once said to me when I took him round: “I think Soane would have approved this”. And I like to think he would.
If he had seen what had happened to it in between! The moment he would have screamed with horror was when, in the 1830’s, they painted over his interior designs. Interior decoration was to him upon integral part of the architecture of the house. He would have been devastated as well to see his roof-light and his gorgeous conservatory overlooking the parkland disappear…
Harshly criticized at first for his proportions and minimalism, Soane seems to have become a model. What do you think made him such a modern, skillful and influential architect?
It is precisely because he is so incredibly modern that he is so influential. His ideas were so ahead of his time! If you look at the conservatory, honestly it doesn’t look like something from the 1800’s. Much more from the 1920’s or the 1960‘s… The small drawing room in the heart of the manor looks like an art-deco room. It is quite astonishing.
Undoubtedly, a real skill of his is playing with light to the greatest effect. Using stained glass to tint the light in the room and leave beautiful puddles on the floor… Those are really gorgeous things that so many people relate to. And his constant play with proportions, curves and domes is something you can also admire here!
Apparently John Soane had a deep sense of theatrical set up. How does this show in Pitzhanger Manor?
The most obvious place for that is your very first point of coming into the house, as you climb up the steps. Soane had 28 acres and could have built a huge big house, but he kept it relatively small. Nonetheless that first room you come into is so dramatic! By playing with it as though it was a scenery, he makes it feel so much bigger and more imposing than it is. He plays with the double-hight ceilings, he draws your eyes up to the roof light. He gives you a vista. You peak through the door ahead straight out to the park beyond… The faux-marbling on the walls – incredible decorative scheme – again is used as a scenery.
The other room I love is the breakfast room, where he painted the ceiling in this sort of trompe-l’oeil effect to give the impression of a beautiful Italian sky, much warmer than the one in Ealing. You can imagine you are away on holiday in Rome, it is very dramatic!
How do you think Neo-Classical style and landscaping appeal to 21st century taste and lifestyle?
The fact that this manor sits within the park is something very special. Actually one of the first things Soane did when he bought the manor was to bring on board his landscape gardener! It was crucial to him to sort of bring the park into the house through the various vistas…
Many find this style the easiest to enjoy against a sort of sunny green backdrop. But we don’t want to be blinked about that and we need to recognize that for some visitors the grander the entrance, the harder it is to come in. Classical buildings can appear daunting and put some people off from coming over the threshold. That’s why we work at getting some art outside the walls, to tempt people in so it doesn’t become a barrier. We want to make sure we stay welcoming.
But for most of us, Neo-Classical buildings are the simplest elegance. There is something very pure and enticing about this style, the columns making very clear where the entrance is as well.
The small proportions of the manor make this place – and its former landlord – easier to relate to…
Absolutely! So many have fallen in love with it! They feel they could move in tomorrow. It is not that huge big stately home. I know it would be rather luxurious – but you could imagine yourself living here… The rooms are not crazily big. Actually one person had a party here and said to me: « I just want my friends to be here as if it was my house » and I just think there is something rather lovely about it.
Sadly, in all his greatness, Soane had his frailty too. He had this terrible relationship with his son. His career might have been a great success. But my goodness, he did fall out with quite a lot people, even his colleagues and mentor! He got Dance stop being a lecturer at the Royal Academy – which is a terrible thing to do if you are a mentor! He was obviously a complex character but like many geniuses, in his brilliance I am afraid he was jolly hard to live or work with.
Transforming a ghostly old library into a must-see cultural destination for Londoners… What a challenge! Which ingredients did the Trust select to achieve that goal?
What we have focused on is this wonderful juxtaposition between the old historic and the new forward-looking. Our aspiration in the project was very much to restore the house to how it was in Soane’s time, and next to it, to create a really exciting ambitious program in the contemporary gallery.
The contemporary art makes the old art come alive in a way that you can’t always get in heritage sites. It is that forward sense of: “Yes, this is an old house, but it has an effect on artists, designers and architects, people thinking creatively today. I think it is that forward-looking aspect of it that makes it so exciting. To me, it is not somewhere stuck in the past. It is still relevant, influencing, having that impact on designers today.
How do you choose the various exhibitions on show at the gallery?
We have a very explicit policy: every exhibition has some form of link to Soane. We want people having seen the exhibition to look at the house in a new light. So we follow a bit of a pattern. One exhibition is from a contemporary artist (Anish Kapoor for instance) and the second one is meant to do be from a designer or an architect (Es Devlin). We are keen to pick up on something historic (that Soane would have known or been inspired by) and use it as a catalyst for a contemporary artist exhibition.
Our next exhibition, which is really exciting, revolves around Hogarth’s series of painting A Rake’s progress (showing the downward journey of a young heir from wealth to bankruptcy), coming back to Ealing for the very first time in 200 years. Those beautiful paintings from the late 1700 will be surrounded by the work of contemporary artists, looking at the challenge of living in London today… It’s a very contemporary exhibition picking up on themes present in those historic paintings.
In each case we look for exciting artists – well-known or not – whose work just stands really well next to Soane’s design. We don’t expect them necessarily to make new work. Some of Anish Kapoor’s pieces existed beforehand but we felt they just set up a really strong resonance with the house, of reflection, of form, of color… Anish being influenced by some similar things that would have influenced Soane.
Do you believe this renovation could be part of a cultural renaissance for Ealing?
That goes to the heart of our vision actually. We want to use Pitzhanger Manor to inspire people with art and architecture as expressions of life and creativity. Architecture plays such an important role in our lives – making it functional but also beautiful and uplifting, through historic and modern buildings at the same time.
As schools are not always able to spend time teaching art and creative subjects as such, we are trying to engage pupils with architecture and design around them – whether that means objects or buildings – and open their eyes to careers they don’t often think of. We can also use the exhibition program to inspire literature and creativity in other ways.
Yes I very much hope we can be part of a renaissance of interest in Ealing.
As you might know, the artist Steve McQueen came from Ealing and went to school here. So I would like to think that a future Steve Mc Queen might one day say: « I didn’t know what I wanted to be in life, but one day my parents took me to that place and I saw something amazing that infused me… And it is on the basis of this that I became an artist.”