Restoration Stories by Philippa Stockley and Charlie Hopkinson is one of the 30 books in the Pimpernel Press Collection of books on gardens, landscape, architecture and history now available for institutional and individual annual subscription from Exact Editions. In this short notice we will focus on one title, one chapter and one house in this book, a book which comprises 16 essays, richly illustrated, on carefully restored houses, mostly Georgian, mostly in East London. The timely reader of this blog post will also be able to sample, or as we might say ‘postview’, the entire digital book using one of the Exact Editions Reading Rooms — a platform which enables free but time-limited access to complete books for promotional purposes. Click here for a link which will be valid for free/open access until 8 Feb 2021. Provided that link has been opened within your browser, several of the links following in this notice will open the right page in the book. Just as long as the Reading Room remains open! Users who come to this blog after 8 Feb must make do with a thin substitute from the video at the foot of the blog.
The focus of this review/postview is Chapter 14 ‘The Smallest House in the Street’ a tiny house in congested Spitalfields. Five stories small and tall! A house, one-room-per-floor, built in 1727 in Elder Street, and it is by no means a grand dwelling. Even now that it has been beautifully restored and richly furnished in one of London’s smart-Bohemian areas. For this is no longer a scruffy boarding house, but a chic Spitalfields gem, no longer slum property in a worthless zone of the city, as it was surely considered 80 years ago. Being merely virtual visitors we can suppose that it is still a tight squeeze moving from room to room up, or down, the narrow winding staircase
This house was bought in the 1960’s, rescued and then lived in for 30 years by the radical Marxist historian Raphael Samuel (1934-96). In Samuel’s time there was no lavatory indoors, just a khazi in the garden. Samuel was influential and admired by a generation of scholars through his pioneering enthusiasm for local history, working class education and the radical tradition of the History Workshop — a movement and a journal which he founded. But he was also a devoted investigator of archives and expert on the historical echoes or flotsam that colours living London culture. Marxist, materialist and expert on the Huguenot and immigrant traditions of East London he would surely have appreciated, or at least examined with curiosity, the memorabilia and found objects collected by the current owner.
“Cheery, glossy egg-yolk yellow lights the basement kitchen and makes a good background for a varied collection of china from eighteenth-century plates to amusing modern mugs. Many pieces have intriguing tales to tell. The ceiling is Victorian, along with the floor tiles and bible chairs, while the table was made from timber salvaged from Brighton’s celebrated West Pier.” p 167
If the house no longer has to cope with twelve Althusserians for breakfast — a challenge to hospitality recollected by Alsion Light his widow, it does with its current owner have the familiar studious feel of scholarship and research when a house consists of small book-lined rooms.
Book-lined rooms confronted with something very different but with formal similarities: digital Reading Rooms, representing the book just as it is printed and published. Digital has some advantages even when we lose the delights and feeling for paper. Search is a natural tool for diving into the digital books in the Pimpernel Collection, the books can be searched individually or collectively, but another more serendipitous and browser-friendly tool within each title, is the option each page provides to select a thumbnail view of the whole book. Showcasing every double page spread in the book as thumbnail images, in a scrollable window. And this thumbnail-only, but searchable, view of the book is also accessible without a subscription. In fact without an open Reading Room.
Restoration Stories is a book about the living past and has a charming ability to tell us the brief history of each house and also to celebrate the ways in which they are now being lived in and enjoyed as they have been restored. The photographs and informative captions succeed in taking the reader into the layouts, the nooks, through the patina, paint and wall coverings into the foundations and origins of these old buildings. It tells their stories as it walks us through their doors and corridors. The temporary Reading Room also allows the reader to explore the book for herself, and if the reader has missed that opportunity: here is a recorded 4 minute Zoom of a browse through the digital book.