diamond geezer

 Monday, September 17, 2018

Well this is absolutely splendid.

The studio/home of a nonagenarian sculptor, a deer's leap from Richmond Park, now open as a museum.
And really quite splendid.

Its owner, Dora Gordine, deserves a quick timeline before we go inside.
1895: Born in Latvia.
1912: Moved with the family to Estonia. Started sculpting.
1924: Moved to Paris to study. Became an acclaimed sculptor.
1930: Moved to Singapore to marry a doctor. Still sculpting.
1936: Moved to London to marry an aristocrat. Still sculpting.
1936: Dora and Richard built 'Dorich House' to sculpt in.
1966: Richard died. Dora distraught, but sculpted on.
1991: Died in Kingston.
It was a condition of Dora's will that her house be preserved complete with its contents, although the usual heritage parties weren't interested. Thankfully, after three awkwardly empty years in which squatters and a BBC film crew damaged the building, Kingston University stepped in. To pay for the restoration they flogged most of Dora and Richard's collection of fine Russian art, annoyingly just before certain Russians became immensely wealthy and would have paid a fortune for it. Today the house is open as Dorich House Museum three days a week - Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays - and is, as I may have mentioned, splendid.

Dorich House is on Kingston Vale, near the Robin Hood roundabout on the A3, but up the road so substantially quieter. Originally it was an orchard. Richard and Dora liked the spot for its high ground and open aspect, and it's still remarkably secluded. The back wall of Richmond Park runs along the back of the garden. An ancient law decrees that no building may infringe within sixteen feet six inches of the park wall, a distance known poetically as a deer's leap - the distance beyond which an escaping animal could no longer be hunted. Alas the real reason is more mundane - ensuring access for routine maintenance. One corner of Dorich House nudges up as close as it can.

Dorich House Museum is a "ring the doorbell for entry" kind of place. Be patient, someone'll come. From the hallway it looks much like any slightly well-to-do interwar home. But it's a cleverer design than that, a functional stack of rooms, with studios and utilities on the lower two floors, then living quarters on top of that, then stairs to an open roof terrace.

Dora's downstairs studio was her 'messy' one, where clay was moulded and bronzes cast, including the crowd of sculpted heads staring out from the shelves on one wall. This is now an orientation room, with display boards detailing Dora's life, as well as somewhere to sit down and watch a biographical video. Blimey, her history is a lot more fascinating than my sketchy timeline suggests. Unexpected acclaim, astute Nazi-dodging, Far Eastern Grand Designs, a mysteriously unconsummated first marriage, appearing on the BBC Home Service in the 1940s to give tips on home design, and getting locked in while burglars stole choice Russian artefacts from her collection, to mention just a little of it.

On the first floor there are only two rooms, both large, facing each other across a central landing. To the north was Dora's main sculpting studio, where models slipped off their clothes and posed, and all the hard creative work took place. Dame Edith Evans looks particularly svelte as a Standing Female Nude, and you'd never guess the workman in the bronze relief for Milford Haven oil refinery started out as a flamenco dancer. Meanwhile in the saloon on the southern side she displayed her finished work for potential sale, including several ethnic heads, some headless torsos and the occasional neighbour's buttocks. The room still has the feel of an elegant classical gallery.

After climbing a further flight, I defy you not to find the couple's living quarters attractive. The dining room and the living room are individually very stylish, with sculptures and other works of art dotted carefully around. But it's the Chinese Moon Doors which steal the show, a circular opening between the two rooms with sliding woodpanelled doors that disappear into the walls as if you're aboard some kind of Art Deco spaceship. The doors are echoed in the semi-circular windows to either side, so you can line up some particularly aesthetic shots in either direction, or just plonk on the sofa and admire.

In Dora and Richard's bedrooms are what's left of their Russian art collection, a couple of cases of painted eggs and figurines and the Tsar's best crockery, plus a rather fine collection of religious icons. It makes a nice extra treat, just after you think you must have seen everything already. And then it's up one one final flight to the roof terrace, which is probably the most Modernist bit of the house, although not especially alluring in itself. The view must have been amazing before all the surrounding trees grew higher, and I'm told Richmond Park is easily seen after autumn's leaves have fallen, and all just a deer's leap away.

I went round Dorich House as part of Heritage Open Days, for nothing, and you can also visit free next weekend for Open House. But probably better to come on a day when you'll have the place to yourself, for a barely begrudgeable fiver. I highly recommend taking advantage of the guided tour option, that's Fridays and Saturdays at half eleven, because being shown round for ninety minutes is hugely more informative than wandering around alone. Only Dora and Richard ever lived at Dorich House, but being a volunteer here must be the next best thing, inside this startlingly personal memorial to a formidable talent.

Also visited by...
» A London Inheritance
» The Ladies Who Bus
» Look Up London

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