Rainham Hall is the only National Trust property in zone 6, and fills a useful space on the eastern edge of their London tea towel. A fine example of a Queen Anne style house, it was given a much-needed £2.5m refurbishment in 2015 and reopened with a gorgeous community garden alongside. Rather than focus on the building itself the Trust has chosen to celebrate its residents, picking one as the inspiration for an immersive experience replaced on a two-yearly rolling basis. Previously they've done Captain John Harle, the merchant who built the Hall in the first place, followed up by some babies from a postwar nursery. But in 2019 they're playing their trump card - a photographer for Vogue - and hoping very much you'll be inspired to visit.
Anthony Denney was born in Norfolk in 1913, studied at the Royal College of Art and worked for British intelligence during the war. Afterwards he started working as Staff Photographer for Conde Nast, featuring in Vogue and House & Garden, and started up his own business "principally concerned with the interior design of luxury steam yachts". After expanding his portfolio via advertising agencies and the Tate, in 1964 the National Trust nodded him into the role of tenant/custodian at Rainham Hall. They hoped he'd bring some style to the run down property, and they were right. A copy of Denney's business card, dispensed in the Stables cafe, gains you access to the exhibition in his honour.
It's called The Denney Edition. What the curators have done, which is very clever, is kit out the entire house like a glossy magazine. The entrance hall is the contents page, the first room is Editor's Notes, the kitchen is the cookery section and so on. The exhibition notes have also been published as a glossy magazine, a genuine beautifully-produced 100-pager packed with photos, history, in-depth articles and louche photoshoots. "You can recycle it at the back door on the way out or take it with you in return for a £5 donation" they said, safe in the knowledge that nobody has a hope of reading it properly on the way round.
On the ground floor we meet Denney the man, including his CV, his address book packed with socialites, a couple of his Jaeger bowties and various internationally-sourced objets. Some of these have been provided by his widow, but don't come expecting a full retrospective, more a tantalising flavour. In the kitchen we learn that Denney did most of the photography for Elizabeth David's groundbreaking series of cookery books, sometimes jetting off to snap French provincial spreads, occasionally utilising Rainham. It also turns out he only ever graced the cover of Vogue magazine twice, once with a shoe and once with a hat.
The two upper floors are more about Denney's tenets of interior design and interpretations of his work, many of these by local groups and artists. Various quirky interiors are recreated, including his advice that the best thing to do with a small dark room is make it darker. Denney's former bedroom has been decked out by modern aesthete Jermaine Gallagher, whose presence very much impressed two young visitors whose banter confirmed they were well-conversed with London's fashion scene. Two more typically grey-haired souls enjoyed the opportunity to sit in front of a Queen Magazine backdrop, lit as if in a photographer's studio. The magazine had sprung to life.
You could argue the exhibition is a triumph of style over substance, but Denney would probably have considered that the perfect review. It's certainly the case that if Rainham Hall were in Chelsea the local populace would lap this exhibition up, whereas being on the fringes of Essex provides the National Trust with more of a challenge. What's certainly the case is that if you are ever planning to visit Rainham Hall, The Denney Edition is as mainstream as it's ever going to get.
Peer out of one of the few unblocked upstairs windows at Rainham Hall and the view is now of pylons, wind turbines, an industrial estate and the Bexley incinerator. Local shops include an army surplus store, a cold-blooded reptile house, two fry-up cafes and a soulless megaTesco. But the heart of Rainham, aka Rainham Village, is a minor treat, as a hardcore of local residents know well. Last week they were out sprucing up the square around the clocktower and picking litter from the 13th century churchyard in readiness for the visit of the London in Bloom judges. They take this competition extremely seriously out here in RM13, what with arch rivals Walthamstow, Ham and Petersham to vanquish, and very nearly won the title of London's Best Village last year.
Here's the text of Sue Ospreay's poem posted up in the antique shop window.
For every hole dug & dead heads lopped
For all the hanging baskets outside our village shops
For the recycling walls from the fab Horticultural Society
And to those who planted bulbs in a tremendous variety.
Poppies on railings, flags on walls,
Cascading pocketed hessian with floral waterfalls,
For all the debris swept with our knackered yard brooms
So that Rainham could enter London in Bloom.
For all the litter pickers who filled up every bin,
You may well ask yourself well! What did we win?
Well Rainhearts be proud and behold,
Not bronze, not silver but a shining great GOLD.
Fingers crossed when this year's result are announced on September 20th, Sue.