diamond geezer

 Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Having once described Sutton as the most boring borough in London, I'm always on the lookout for the opportunity to find it more interesting. Chalk up another big tick, in Carshalton Beeches...

You may have done a bit of DIY this weekend, doing up your house, adding a few design tweaks of your own. But you probably haven't created something quite as astonishing as craftsman Frank Dickinson, artist and designer. He created Little Holland House from scratch, both structure and interior - "a house with beautiful things inside, a house solid looking and not showy". And a century on it still stands, up an unlikely suburban backstreet, occasionally open to the public. Don't expect where you live to be awarded the same honour.

Frank was born in Paddington in 1874, but sought to move away from the slums to start a better life. Inspired by John Ruskin he came to Carshalton, bought a plot of land amid the cornfields and started to build. He didn't have a lot of cash so drew up the plans himself, created the furniture himself and employed the bare minimum of labourers to assist. Frank and his bride Florence moved in on their wedding night in 1904, then spent the honeymoon sanding window frames and staining the floors, as you do. Over the next few decades they added further furniture and features and made Little Holland House into a home, a place for gatherings and festivities. And they lived here together for six decades until 1961, when Frank died, leaving Florence alone until she was forced to move out in 1972. That's when the London Borough of Sutton stepped in, recognising they had something special on their patch, and duly opened up the house (occasionally) to visitors.

Beeches Avenue has built up somewhat since 1902, no longer a quiet lane poking out into fields. Walking down from Carshalton Beeches station past a bakery and several pleasantly ordinary houses, you do wonder if you can possibly be in the right place for a visitor attraction. It's not even the most attractive house in the street, indeed number 40 looks slightly ordinary... apart from an exceptional carved gate, and a bespoke letter box... and they're clues enough.

You have to ring the bell to get in, where a self-portrait of the great man hangs on the door to the downstairs toilet. From here it's only a few steps to the living room, and that's when the scale of Frank's project hits you. Downstairs is finely decorated throughout, as befits the home of a Ruskinite with an eye for beauty. Almost everything's by Frank, from the coal-box by the fire to the herringbone parquet floor - ideal for dancing on. There are Doulton tiles from the factory where Frank used to work, and inscribed joists over the opening to the sitting room. Wooden and chunky would describe a lot of the furniture, which is mostly in pine, although the chairs (and the cake stand) are walnut. As a budding artist all the paintings are Frank's own too, including the triptych over the fireplace depicting the dignity of the working man. A small landing a few steps up the stairs provided a mini-stage for in-house entertainment, while the gramophone is still poised to play The Blue Danube.

Upstairs the master bedroom is a lovely space, from the carved inscription on the bedstead to Florence's embroidered curtains. Most striking is the painted frieze in green and blue around the top of the walls, illustrating lines from Longfellow's poem The Spanish Student. I can almost imagine 1970s Habitat selling this on a peel-off strip, although Frank's design is a little too tasteful for that. In the boxroom are further accoutrements, from an oak dressing table to the couple's Singer sewing machine, plus one of Frank's paintings that almost made the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1946. A further bedroom is locked and marked 'private', while the bathroom has just a couple too many modern tweaks to be entirely Frank's...

...because the house is still lived in. The downstairs kitchen is the biggest clue, the cupboards and work surfaces stacked with healthy wholesome food that can't possibly be 1960s vintage. The council have arranged for someone to live here full time to help sustain and maintain the property, and that's who'll greet you at the door, and maybe try to sell you a souvenir from a temporary table in the living room. They don't have to open up very often, just the afternoon of the first Sunday of the month, plus bank holiday Sundays and Mondays. That's how I got inside last weekend, and how you could get inside next. It's free, and by the looks of things the visitors book could do with a lot more names in it. You'll spend longer getting here than you will looking around, but never mind that. Frank's gem of a property deserves more awe and attention, and maybe you'll gather some ideas for doing up your own place too.

Little Holland House
40 Beeches Avenue
Carshalton SM5 3LW

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