diamond geezer

 Monday, February 14, 2011

Day Out: Northampton
Visiting... 78 Derngate

Charles Rennie Mackintosh is one of Britain's best-loved designers. More specifically he's one of Scotland's best-loved designers, which means examples of his work south of the border are fairly sparse. He undertook only one domestic commission outside his home country and that was in 1916, in Northampton. Local entrepreneur W J Bassett-Lowke hadn't able to build the marital house of his dreams because there was a war on, so invited Mackintosh to redesign a narrow terraced house on the edge of town. This Charles did, with warm geometric precision, and the newlywed couple moved in the following year.

Bassett-Lowke ran a model train business with a rosy future (and a toyshop in High Holborn that's now a McDonalds). 78 Derngate was his home for nearly ten years, after which he commissioned and moved into a ground-breaking modernist house on the Wellingborough Road. That's now in private hands, whereas number 78 ended up under the control of Northampton High School who used it as offices and for lessons. Hence much of Mackintosh's handiwork survived, ready to be rescued when a group of volunteers took the place over. That was a mammoth job, although more of a re-creation than a restoration because so much of the original design existed only in photographs. They've done a marvellous job, including taking over the two houses nextdoor to build a visitors centre and restaurant. If nothing else makes you consider Northampton as a tourist destination, this place should.

No, you don't enter through the front door. It's rather a stunning front door, jet black with triangular motifs, and in sharp contrast to the rest of the street. You enter via number 82, which has been gutted to create a modern glass atrium, and where they'll take £6.20 off your hands. Time your visit right and you can join a 1¼hr guided tour. Don't time it wrong, because the volunteers are excellent and a self-guided tour just wouldn't be the same. [virtual tour]

The most impressive room in Bassett-Lowke's house is the hall/lounge, located on the other side of the front door. It's ever-so black, partly because they have to keep the curtains closed, but mostly because that's the colour it was painted. Black walls, with yellow stencilled triangles intended to resemble treetops. Black ceiling, with an unusual chequerboard panel holding up a faux-medieval candelabrum. Black fittings, like the hinged box in the fireplace designed to hide tobacco from view. And a black lattice screen across the stairs, inlaid with further yellow triangles in leaded glass. Mrs Bassett-Lowke lived with the gloom for five years before having the whole room repainted in much lighter tones, but the conservationists have gone back to the original design to great effect.

The rear of the house has a more pleasant aspect, and here are the dining room and bedrooms. Renovation work has concentrated more on Mackintosh's design than Bassett-Lowke's furniture, so some of the rooms look a little empty. Concentrate instead on the walls and fixtures, and the ahead-of-their time fitted carpets. Those are Mackintosh lanterns above the dining room fireplace, and the hinged coal scuttle hidden alongside also bears his mark. But it's the guest bedroom that's the most striking, with miniature chairs and a bold ultramarine and white colour scheme. Wake here in the morning, as George Bernard Shaw once did, and your eyes would have faced the optical illusion of a precisely-striped ceiling. The Bassett-Lowkes had an eye on making a splash in interior design magazines such as Ideal Home, and rooms such as this ensured they succeeded.

I'll not give away any of the other secrets in the house (those mosaic tiles in the bathroom are what?) because Mackintosh designed it to surprise. But I will recommend, ladies, that you wear flat-soled shoes because you're going to be asked to don blue plastic slippers before setting foot inside. Make sure you hang around to read all the background information in the stairwell display area, and check out the gallery space alongside. Maybe stay for a meal if you want to make a day of it - any restaurant that serves twice-cooked chunky chips can't be bad. And before you go, return to the back garden to remind yourself how compact number 78 actually is. It doesn't take a lot of space to create a home of beauty, just a dash of Scots genius.

Between 19th February and 6th March, London Midland are offering return rail tickets anywhere on their network for £10. Euston to Liverpool, Shrewsbury or Hereford, or vice versa, or any point inbetween. Download a voucher and check conditions here. And go on, how about Northampton?

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