Visit to Harrington Gardens, South Kensington By Ernest George and Harold Peto

Saturday 12th May 2012

The sun whose rays are all ablaze…………………..

A Japanese fan, some peacock feathers and some blue and white porcelain from Liberty’s – these were the basic minimum for anyone who aspired to be ‘artistic’ during the 80s of the century-before-last. Those fortunate enough to have pockets which allowed them to take things to the next stage might have added a steel engraving of Frank Dicksee’s famous painting ‘Harmony’, a few Arundel Society prints and, if funds really allowed, perhaps a couple of paintings by the American artist, James Whistler.

For a very few lucky individuals, however, the ‘artistic’ (the word ‘aesthetic’ was rarely seen in print at the time) package could be raised to an entirely different level. Sir William Schwenck Gilbert and his wife, Lucy, were two such people.

Designed by Sir Ernest George of the fashionable architectural practice of George and Peto, Harrington Gardens comprised but one speculative development within the huge tidal wave of bricks and mortar which swept over Kensington following the Great Exhibition of 1851, the building of the great museums complex around Exhibition Road and the creation, in 1865, of the Metropolitan District Line. Most of the new streets followed the classic, stuccoed, terraced pattern. Harrington Gardens was quite different.

For these houses, Ernest George drew on his picturesque impressions of the redbrick, 17th century, gabled houses of Ghent in Belgium. Both he and Harold Peto travelled each summer to the continent, the resulting sketchbooks proving rich sources for inspiration. All the properties in Harrington Gardens were built to the highest standards of design and craftsmanship for families who wanted ‘beautiful’ and ‘artistic’ homes. Unlike conventional London terraced houses, with their long passage and stairs leading up to a first floor drawing-room, these houses had square halls with dining-room, library, and drawing-room overlooking communal gardens, on the ground floor. The interior of the Gilbert’s at number 39 was customised even more individually to meet the requirements of its wealthier-than-average occupants.

William and Lucy Gilbert took up residence in 1883, following the great success of the light operetta ‘Patience’ for which Gilbert wrote the libretto and Sir Arthur Sullivan, the music. Beatrix Potter who lived round the corner at Bolton Gardens remarked in her diary: “The Dutch houses are mostly finished……Mr Gilbert’s is a very handsome house with its marble court. But I doubt the comfort of the little lattice windows….”.

But, of course, little [leaded] lattice windows were exactly what was wanted – along with a carved stone Galleon at the very top of the main gable which refers not to ‘HMS Pinafore’ but to Gilbert’s possible descendancy from the Elizabethan seafarer Sir Humphrey Gilbert. Painted glass, fine quality panelling, quotations carved above doors, fine fireplaces (almost all surviving) with blue delft tiles will all have combined with the much dimmer and less insistent lighting of the 1880s to create the apogee of the ‘artistic’ house style.

Sensitively cared for by Architects and Designer, Haskoll – and even without the furniture, oriental rugs and Morris fabrics with which it would once have been equipped – the house, 130 years later, is still a treat. For fans of the 1999 film ‘Topsy Turvy’, the study and drawing-room, accurately recreated as sets in the film, give a perfect sense of the interior of the house as it looked and as it was used during the time of the Gilberts. Still to be seen above the real study-door are the fixings which once held the Japanese sword which, legend has it, clattered to the floor giving Gilbert the idea for ‘The Mikado’.

The house holds within it a paradox – or is it an irony? Built partly on the profits from ‘Patience’ (a satire of the ‘aesthetic’ craze) and containing the study in which was written ‘The Mikado’ (a satire of the English craze for all things Japanese), it was fated to be owned by the man who would do more than anyone else to satirise and parody its very essence. Although I don’t think I actually saw a sun-flower other than on some fireplace tiles, the style which it represented was doomed even before Gilbert moved in.

By the 1890s, ‘artistic’ was falling from favour. Even Mr Arthur Lasenby Liberty had repackaged it into a new look; ‘Arts and Crafts’. With this came a new group of architects including Edwin Lutyens who, although he later tried to play it down, actually spent almost a year as a pupil in the drawing-office of George and Peto. Did this training and experience contribute to Lutyens’s own ‘Arts and Crafts’ style. How could it not have done? And as wheels tend to do, this one was to come full circle in 1923 when Lutyens’s former assistant, Oswald Milne designed Coleton Fishacre in Devon for Rupert D’Oyly Carte ….whose father Richard had been the impresario behind the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

The directors and staff of Haskoll proved excellent hosts and made us most welcome. Ithaca College of New York at number 35 and Boston College at number 43 generously shared with us the interiors of their fascinating, unspoilt and atmospheric buildings.

Margaret Richardson gave us a most interesting talk on Lutyens’s time with George & Peto. Janet Allen supplied superb notes to which I am indebted for much of this piece. And, of course, it was Paul Waite who arranged for us to be given privileged access to these special and iconographic houses. We thank you all.

John Entwistle