Friday, 6 December 2013

The Dorich House Museum - A Hidden Treasure You Should Discover

This Friday (6th December 2013) presents a rare opportunity to visit a unique museum in a marvellously unusual house with views over Richmond Park.  I finally managed to get there during one of its summer open days after planning to do so for the past year.  A friend told me it was a fascinating wonder, and it topped my expectations.

You may perhaps have driven past it, or wondered why ‘Kingston University’ is marked on maps in a residential area bordering Richmond Park.  The University, thankfully but surprisingly, took over the derelict house when its artist designer and owner died.  They remarkably restored it in the 1990s and opened this quiet museum almost 10 years ago.    
The museum is the Dorich House Museum, which was the home and studio of sculptor Dora Gordine and her husband Richard Hare, the younger son of an earl.  The house is named after a combination of the couple’s first names, a precursor to ‘Brangelina’.  Even if you have never heard of them, and I had not (despite Gordine having been hailed in 1938 as 'possibly the finest woman sculptor in the world'), the house will interest fans of sculpture and Russian art, and people who, like me, love Modernist architecture, 1930s culture, and Art Deco and décor.  Also, those who just like to be exposed to new and interesting things, beautiful sights, and oddities like a shelf unit crammed full of plaster heads looking like a crowd of extraordinary, irritated and stern characters, will enjoy it.

I made my way to Dorich House from Putney Station in 86°F heat and seemed to be the only person present who did not work there. In the summer, there is more than just one monthly open day, so I was spoilt by having all the rooms to myself as I climbed the three stories, delighting in all I found.  I then joined the free tour (the tours are held at 1130am and 2.30pm, and booking for them is advised as most open days aren’t so quiet.)  Our tour of only four visitors was led by volunteer Ian, who rather than orating in a booming Thespian’s voice whist histrionically delivering rehearsed speeches, had an endearing Bill Nighy way of nearly muttering warmly to us lucid, informative thoughts and observations about a house for which he clearly has a true fondness. 
The tour began in the Plaster Studio, which was immersed in rays of sunshine pouring through the grand windows that reminded me of NC Wyeth’s studio in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Ian pointed out that the sink in the studio had no drain so as not to clog up the Kingston sewer system with discarded plaster, and there was an open lift (a sculpture hoist) to transport massive deliveries of clay up to the floor above using a slow hand crank without, as Ian noted, any health and safety locks for the gearing, which meant it could all come crashing down on someone, but thankfully never did.

Marvellously, several shelves against one wall were crammed with the aforementioned  variety of plaster heads, each with tremendous character because they were, of course, based on real people with personalities, carved by the hands of a skilled sculptor.  I love how they seem tossed higgledy-piggledy on the shelves as Dora may have stored them, some on their side, rather than reverently presented as busts in a museum.  A would-be obvious thought struck me that, whereas painting masterpieces are one-offs with possible sketches and studies available, bronze sculptures can be cast more than once and they leave behind a plaster cast, partly discarded marvels that are art in themselves.  Meanwhile, the valuable bronze final product, or another cast of it, stands in a grand building, gallery or home somewhere out in the world.
One head on the shelf caught my eye as it was the spitting image of the Spitting Image Margaret Thatcher puppet.  Ian told us it was actor Dame Edith Evans, and that Dora and Edith had fallen out over it as Dame Edith thought Dora made her left eye looked skewed in the work.  However, an artist painting her portrait at the same time convinced her that her eyes actually were a bit wonky, so she returned to let Dora finish it and they became firm friends, with Dame Edith even posing in the nude for Standing Female Nude, which I believe greets you as you enter the house.  Dame Edith had posed shortly after her husband died and when she was having an affair with her As You Like It co-star Michael Redgrave (dad of Vanessa, Lynn and Corin), and she said that the sitting sessions with Dora were more valuable than psychoanalysis.  I was intrigued by the portrait artist who dared to convince Dame Edith, perhaps best known in film for her Lady Bracknell (seen here: ), that she had crooked eyes. Given the time period, I think it may have been Walter Sickert (see his 1938 painting: ), who some people, such as author Patricia Cornwell, believe to be Jack the Ripper.

Although numerous nuggets of detail came from our guide Ian, the tour began usefully with a quick film that we watched while seated in the bright and airy Plaster Studio. Rather than being tedious, the film was an enormously useful guide to the artist who designed the house in which she lived. You can appreciate a collection more with such an educational grounding, and too many homes and galleries assume all visitors are experts on the person who created them, which is rarely the case with me. (I visited the remarkable Strawberry Hill House without having any idea who Walpole was; I was just intrigued by the architecture and the oddity of such a place appearing in a quiet neighbourhood.) 
Set to soothing baroque music, the film told of an Estonian woman who lost most of her family in the First World War and ended up in Paris, where she didn’t correct people who wrongly assumed she was a Russian aristocrat, and through contacts and coincidences ended up mixing with the Bloomsbury set in London.  She became a British citizen and moved with her first husband (the physician to the Sultan of Johore in Malaya) to Malaysia and Singapore, the local culture of which influenced her work, which she created under a palm frond roof. She also designed her homes and studios, including a round house that her estranged husband had built after she left.

‘Words are not my medium at all,’ her frankly slightly annoying  bolshie voice—or that of an actor that you hope is a bit over the top—told us, from lines based on interview transcripts.  Ian told us that the actor was only slightly exaggerating Dora’s forceful tone.  It reminded me of a Simpsons episode where a lost Lisa flees in fear when some men in the Russian sector brutally shout at her after she asks for directions, although the subtitles tell us they are simply saying ‘what a cute little girl’ and conversing casually but in a scary East European way. 
Since the émigré who reinvented herself  later married her true love, Richard Hare, a scholar and connoisseur of Russian art, the house is a delightful mix of Russian empire line furniture with gilded icons and fascinating figurines beside imposing bronze nudes and eastern-influenced sculptures.  Everywhere, pieces of admired works of art are scattered about, but not in an overwhelming setting as in busy museums where every inch is covered with something so old and important, it’s exhausting to contemplate seeing it all.  Some pieces have been separated. In the Plaster Studio is the plaster mother from Mother and Child, and a bronze of the child can be found on the fabulous roof terrace clutching a toilet float ball disguised as a balloon.  The 1964 bronze cast of both together is at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in Indiana, still being appreciated, whereas I think the original casting commissioned by the Queen for the entrance of the Royal Marsden Cancer Centre in Sutton that she unveiled it in 1963 may no longer be there.    

During the tour, Ian pointed out other bronzes, including a young Dorothy Tutin in The Wild Duck, telling us of her mother who could not bear to display it as it was too moving with connotations of death (Tutin, incidentally, played Cecily to Dame Edith Evan’s Lady Bracknell in aforementioned film of Earnest).  He also told us just enough about the process of casting bronze to bring understanding without boredom.  I spotted on the magic shelves of the discarded, unloved but colourful cast of characters a plaster head that made me of Lord Kitchener in the old army recruiting posters or someone from Pepperland in The Yellow Submarine film.  I also enjoyed an unusual one of a mother and baby’s head joined together.  I later thought (wrongly) that it might  have been for Happy Baby, made for the Holloway Prison’s new maternity ward in 1948 as solace for the women who could not then keep their babies, which was then moved to offices and forgotten until a Kingston University academic recently found it. However, that sculpture is a baby on its own.  We passed by the entrance of the house, one of the few dark areas, where a variety of silly slippers are lined up against a wall.  Ian told us that Dora was so protective of the lovely wooden floors throughout the house that she made every visitor wear slippers. Happily, the granddad-plaid and bunny slippers at the museum entrance are an illustration of what visitors in her day would have seen, and thankfully visitors today are not forced to don this humiliation.
By contrast to the dark entrance, the stairways—and the main upstairs rooms—are glorifyingly bright thanks to the huge windows.  On the first stairway, Ian showed us a wooden mould hanging on the wall, which was used for Russian gingerbread (or Pryanik), which would be presented to a bride on her wedding day and then passed around to guests later as a sign that they should go home.  The Museum has the recipe should anyone wish to implement this marvellous hint at their own dinner party. Ian said that he liked to sketch the mould some days, revealing the apparently pleasant life of a volunteer tour guide in a peaceful but intriguing place of quiet treasures. 

Although he spoke so naturally and fluidly that he never gave the sense that there was a script, Ian warned that he might diverge from it to input his own opinion, such as contrasting the film’s reference to a tribal hunter being sheltered in Dora’s Singapore home because he had nowhere else to sleep, as though he’d knocked on the door and the Europeans put him up for the night on the four-poster featherbed in the guest room. Ian suggested that it was more likely that they trapped him and forced him to help with jungle clearance.  His observational interjections were always welcome and he held up a figurative flag to make it clear when he was expressing a view rather than reporting an official fact.  This method painted an intriguing portrait that sucked us into the story of the life of the home and its owners rather than giving us a dry lecture before a cold stark wall that might have been less absorbing.
The next floor was breathtakingly bright and beautiful, and we entered the studio through tasteful fire doors that had replaced the originals.  A high chair where Dora sat to work is positioned on a raised platform like a stage and at one end, the floor of which can be lifted to reveal the destination of the sculpture hoist.   Ian told us the house was designed so that the wonderful windows (no longer the originals) faced north to get light that didn’t create changing shadows throughout the day, the sort of thought an artist must consider.   In this room stood a massive plaster cast of the bas-relief Power, which was commissioned by Esso for their then new refinery in Milford Haven, Wales, and unveiled in 1960 by, as we see from a photograph, a young Duke of Edinburgh.  The focus is an incredible physique of a muscly male torso from the back (I speak of the sculpture, you understand, not Prince Philip), to represent the power of the workers and the refinery as a source of energy.  Ian told us that the model was an actor whose biography was once featured on Radio 4, and who also worked as a Flamenco dancer to develop that impressive torso, sketches of which were framed on the wall.  We also saw a splendid charcoal of a Surrey Home Guard (Private L.G. Young, 1943), whom Dora chose to paint as a great example of the typically English sardonic smile.   It is a remarkably fun work full of character built from simple lines scrawled around the page. 

Ian showed us a fun cabinet in the corner that Dora was said to have designed, but which Ian thought represented something like an Ikea-type of ordering where you could choose which elements of a design you wanted added to your piece. He pointed to an area where she could keep her records, and I pictured paper files, before I realised that he meant those big musical vinyl thingies, and I felt like I had betrayed my generation by forgetting.  
We then moved into the next sensational room where Ian painted a vivid picture of moneyed clients being given a spectacular unveiling of their commissioned piece in a thrilling coup-de-theatre as she pulled back the curtains to reveal her creation glowing angelically in the light from the surrounding windows.  He gave us background on various splendid pieces displayed in the room, including the changing perceptions of them (eg one thought before the war to look too aggressive, but after the war seen to show the resilience of human spirit).   Another striking modern sculpture of a torso in the room had been named by builders working in the museum as ‘Laughing Buttocks’,  Ian told us, but which he aptly described as ‘not a beautiful dancer but a dynamic body that can dance’. 

This room included what looked to me like a fairly unremarkable (albeit neat, nearly African styled) head that apparently is one of Gordine’s most widely praised works, which made her famous nearly overnight: The Chinese Philosopher (1925-26), based on a student she met in Paris.  Ian said he later moved from philosophy to become director of the Chinese national bank and possibly also something to do with the undergarment business.  That’s the sort of titbit that makes you think but which museums rarely print on the little title cards on the bases.
On this quiet afternoon, there were only three others on the tour with me. They were a likeable Hampshire couple and a clearly intellectual man, all of whom undoubtedly studied the classics at Oxford, where they also got their doctorate [in some dead language and another ethereal field with little practical use that stretches the mind], and listen to nothing but Radio 4.  Which is a fine enough sort of person (and I listen to a lot of Radio 4).  If they noticed me at all, they would have seen me as the quiet philistine, as I did not join in with their cooing comments about the lovely patina of every piece, nearly murmuring ‘yah, yah’ as they all saw the same mysterious layer that extended to a plane above the simple shapes in bronze that I could see.  However, they really were delightful and excellent companions for the tour.  I briefly studied Art History as a young student but was sorry that we delved heartily and seemingly endlessly into the Mesopotamian period when I was more interested in Impressionism and Cubism, which that course never covered, so I simply looked at all this fine work and thought, ‘Neat. I like that one.’  Along with wisdom I stirred up, as you know, such as ‘that looks like a rubber Margaret Thatcher puppet.’  But I was clever enough not to say it aloud.

Ian pointed out the Art Deco finish to the hair of another portraiture head.  It took me a moment to realise what he meant, as he pronounced it ‘AHR de-KOH’, which is probably how it should be said given that the movement started in France, but I have to stick with my harsh American ‘ART DEK-oh’.  There were glorious examples of AHR de-KOH furniture upstairs, which was a large reason for my being there, but first we paused to admire a fantastic head based on a Kingston boy from the Italian restaurant located down the street at the time, as well as an important bronze of Sir Kenneth Clark.
The Sir Kenneth Clark bronze had just been acquired from somewhere in Canada and placed beside the plaster cast, and it was even the first time that Ian had seen them together.  Not a very good likeness, I thought, picturing the only Kenneth Clarke I knew, the past (and heftier) Tory Chancellor.  It transpired, as my cooing compatriots all knew, that this was a different Kenneth Clark, a different Chancellor (of the University of York), also a Tory and the father of the late diarist and controversial politician Alan Clark, which made more sense in the Gordine timeline.  He was later Baron Clark of Saltwood, known in Private Eye as Lord Clark of Civilisation, as he wrote and presented the 1969 BBC Civilisation series, and had a stronger link with the art world, as a Trustee of the British Museum.  

He was director of the National Gallery when he sat for this work, when Gordine broke her wrist.  When she returned months later expecting to have to start over, she found that Clark had ensured that ‘his underlings’ had kept the original clay work under damp cloth for months so she could continue where she left off.  My fellow visitors gathered around the two heads in confusion as to how the plaster could seem bigger than the bronze (shrink in the heat? Chiselled down? Optical illusion?). They looked dubiously at them and tried to measure with their hands but agreed to accept that they were the same as the marks were identical; I thought more obviously the ears were, but I was The Quiet Philistine.  It’s good to have something to mull over and work together to solve. 
This glorious room filled with 20th century art included an empire line sofa that had been beautifully restored by a western college.  The room was understandably a mix of the passions of both inhabitants, as you would expect in the home of a balanced, happy married couple.  Richard was determined to bring Russian art to the attention of more people in Europe.  The house is filled with Russian furniture, art, trinkets, plates and icons, which are wonderfully mixed with Gordine’s work—albeit in happy clusters rather than scattered madly across each room.

The icons covered one wall in the corner.   These Russian church icons usually showed Christ or a saint in gilt, often with a cross, and Ian was enthralled by them as we were once he imparted his notable knowledge upon us.  He explained how you could pull the cross out from the travelling icons, like reaching into a painting and pulling a 3D useful object from it to use in a service. Neat.   He related the stories that some of them illustrated, stories from the apocryphal rather than the King James bible, which are more along the lines of prising open the jaws of hell so Adam then the Virgin Mary pop out.   My fellow tour peeps nodded along as they had presumably all, in their English boarding schools, read the Russian Orthodox Bible.  I stare quietly and philistinely with my American educated brain (where religion and state must be separate) but start to enjoy these icons, which I might have just dismissed as alien religious gunk on the wall initially, albeit with respect.  After all, Ian was a storyteller and voiced the story that each icon told.
We moved up to the superb Art Deco dining room, with lights Dora designed and some beautiful green tiles on the fireplace.  Ian told us that the room could be hired for dinners, which everyone agreed would be an outstanding setting, particularly with musicians playing in the gallery downstairs.  They have even done weddings in the garden, which has retained a few of the apple trees from the original orchard.  

Dora and Richard nearly built their house in Hampstead, we learned as Ian pointed to some framed house plans on the wall.  Godfrey Samuel, a co-founder of the radical Tecton Group of architecture (‘the Richard Rogers of his day’ suggested Ian), designed a house for them, subject to Dora’s fixed ideas, but couldn’t get planning permission to build it by Hampstead Heath, so they came to Kingston instead as Richard had relations there. The orchard originally covered the whole plot,  and the couple apparently built a budget home using a local builder and surveyor.
Although the outstanding house is chock full of work by Dora and 19th Century Imperial Russian art collected by Richard (a delightful mix of the two, like the name of the house), Ian refreshingly picked out a few of the better known or more fascinating works, rather than reeling off lists of tedium about every single piece, although he answers questions about any others.  Fifty minutes in (including the film at the start), Ian bemoaned the time and asked if we were okay for him to continue, and we were perfectly happy to carry on for what became nearly 90 minutes, and one chap stayed behind and sat and chatted with Ian afterwards.

Photographs on the walls showed Dora sculpting as models sat before her, or the loving couple, the Dor and the Rich of Dorich, enjoying the home where we were now doing the same.  We learned that she liked to clean because it gave her time to appreciate her home, a philosophy that wrongly suggests that I severely dislike my own, and as I gazed over the many little Russian trinkets around, I couldn’t imagine how she could bear to dust them all.
We got to sit in the lovely AHR duh-KOH chairs in the living room, which seemed a luxurious pleasure as I expected them to be roped off like much of Eltham Palace, and Ian explained with fascination how the couple met.  A friend asked Janet Vaughan to put Dora up when she arrived on the boat train, instantly providing useful connections as Vaughan’s mother knew the Bloomsbury Group such as Virginia Woolf.  Vaughan’s father had been the headmaster at Richard Hare’s ill-fitting school Rugby, who had given Hare support and encouragement, so Hare visited him in London after surviving the school and thus met Gordine.   Although he fell for her right away, she went to the Far East with her wealthier husband, Dr George Garlick.  When Richard inherited more than expected on the death of his father, the Earl of Listowel, he visited Gordine and Garlick in Malaya, then returned to commission the ill-fated Hampstead house for Gordine.   (I had actually never heard of the Earl of Listowel when I went to Dorich House, but he has been following me around ever since. Not in a scary, stalkerish way, nor even in a human form way, but he keeps popping up in curious coincidental ways, and my goldfish brain keeps thinking, ‘Hmm…Earl of Listowel, I’ve not heard of him’ only to find that I had, in fact, wandered around his Uncle’s house and simply forgotten the title. )  When they failed to get planning permission and Gordine’s marriage failed, she returned to Europe, and Hare financed and project-managed the building of Dorich House to Dora's design, and they were married in 1936, when they settled in Kingston.

Ian told us a great deal about Richard as well, as he is half the house.  We learned that he hated sports but won a language prize at Rugby, worked in the Secret Service in the war, and was later Professor of Russian Literature at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London.  He died suddenly in 1966, at which point Dora faded away from the art world and the world in general. She lived alone in the house for 25 years as an eccentric recluse, letting the house fall to ruin thanks to her age, several cats, and schoolboys throwing rocks at the windows, although the neighbours tried to help her and apparently suffered her ringing them in the wee hours for a cup of tea.   When she died aged 96 in 1991, a friend of Richard’s who was, I think, Vice Chancellor of Kingston University miraculously persuaded the University to take on the house and make it a gallery for their collections, although a great deal of Richard’s enormous silver collection was apparently sold to pay for the extensive restoration.  The Trustees of the estate were uncomfortable with doing so but had no choice, and perhaps he would have approved, as his money built it in the first place. 
Other artefacts  included some beautiful blue plates in a huge glass case full of other trinkets, and some plates with a ‘posh’ Russian Imperial porcelain mark painted with a revolutionary scene. Ian told us that revolutionaries (the Kommisars, which makes me think of that fun 1980s Falco song) once broke into a Moscow porcelain factory and decided to add their own ‘mark’ on the back of these imperial plates and so painted them with revolutionary themes (eg a Kommisar).  How sweet to think that some revolutionaries paused to be artisans with a delicate touch, to bring a portrait for their mission to plates rather than destroy everything in sight. One such plate was in the British Museum’s recent list (and Radio 4 programme) of A History of the World in 100 Objects.   Bread and salt trays were also displayed, which were curious greetings as people enter big Russian houses, in a pre-revolutionary bourgeois style. Ian pointed out the Russian double-headed  imperial eagle motifs that appeared in various objects throughout the house.

‘Richard liked the more modern Russian avant garde’ one of my fellow tour peeps comments about his collection.  ‘Hmmm, yah’ (they didn’t really say yah, but those who I can only guess have done their thesis in Russian avant garde all coo in agreement, while I just stare and attempt to smile admiringly but no doubt actually smile blankly.  I am not actually mocking them; I enjoyed their company and input).
Apart from the marvellous mix of museum of heads and torsos, Art Deco and Russian ornaments, the house has surprises such as rayon from 1952 that to me looked like a truly hideous curtain made of fabric better suited to be worn as a 10-year-old boy’s pyjamas in a picture book, but the non-philistines accompanying me thought it was a treasure and admired its find in the ruin of the house.
In the stifling July heat, it was such a thrill to get to the roof terrace, simply to get some air.  We were surprisingly high up, overlooking the edge of Richmond Park, as Ian told us about the regulation height of the original wall that was being restored, as it either had to be high enough or low enough for deer to jump over; probably the former so the King could shoot them.  Other lovely houses trickled up a huge hill before us, their lovely roofs and a few windows peeking out of the solid greenery of grand ageing trees  The terrace itself was fairly unremarkable, apart from the aforementioned Boy with Toilet Ball Float, but there is space either side for a group in a party to admire the glorious view, with a covered part in the centre. One could easily imagine the couple putting a mattress up there in the height of summer and sleeping in the open air, as they did, gloriously cool and safe from being mugged or stomped on if they’d done it at ground level.  Ian told us how the house had been built at an odd angle to avoid the orchard. I looked down to see a woman seated on a bench beneath one of the lovely orchard trees, reading a book, and thought what a heavenly way to spend the afternoon,  and how joyous to live here and be able to do any time, even in Spring when the trees would be full of gorgeous blossom.
Ian had been repeatedly apologetic about the tour, which he meant to be an hour long. I think at most, it was only 20 minutes late finishing, wholly with our consent.  We had lapped up Ian’s every word, the only distraction being the surprisingly loud chatting from the workers downstairs.

At this stage, the surely Oxford graduate Hampshire couple muttered about traffic worries and thanked Ian as they had to depart, then astonished but impressed the Londoner in me by turning to shake my hand as well (I had a similar shock in my local shopping centre the other day when a girl passing me as I sneezed said ‘bless you’. What is London coming to?).  I found their kind farewell warmly welcome, and despite being the Quiet Philistine, I had enjoyed first my solitary exploration and then joining the small group for a delightful day together in our hidden treasure.
On Friday, 6th December, the museum holds a special open day with an annual popular Christmas Café (costing £6.50); there is not normally a café on site.  Check the website (which seems to be down at the moment but is normally found at ) for other open days if you cannot make it today.  The next open day is Thursday, 12th December.  

On some rare weekend open days, they also have a Children’s Trail and Art Workshops, and the garden is open for picnics when the weather is fine.  The Museum is open from 11am  to  4pm on their Open Days, with guided tours (where booking is recommended, and which adds amazing value) at 11.30am and 2.30pm.  Apart from the Christmas Café day, admission to the museum is usually £4, concessions £3 (Children under 16 free).
This warm and welcoming museum is located at 67 Kingston Vale, London, SW15 3RN, and can be followed on twitter: @DorichHouse . It is definitely finding time to get there on an Open Day, and following it with a stroll through Richmond Park.