21 March 2014

Bricks: The Building Blocks of London Shh...

London Shh is a collection of a diverse group of properties, built over a long period of time (1686-1939). But all of them have something in common; they were, like most of London, built with bricks.

Bricks have been used as a building material in Europe since the Roman period, but this was not commonplace until the seventeenth century. Before 1666, London still looked like a medieval city with most of its buildings made out of wood. The process of rebuilding London with brick had started before the Great Fire of London but the conflagration accelerated this change, as from then on all new buildings had to be made from brick or stone. Since then the material of choice for London and the surrounding area has been the dependable London Stock Brick, with its varying shades of brown and yellow coming from the clay beneath our feet.

Fenton House was built circa 1686 in a style that was to remain typical of London for over 200 years. The bulk of the brickwork is brown London Stock, which was both aesthetically pleasing and cheap. In an age when transport was prohibitively expensive, local materials were essential. London clay can be found throughout the Thames basin, and could therefore be dug up and made into bricks in a neighbouring field, thus eliminating transport costs.  The house is not all London stock, the quoins and window arches are made from red brick, which was most likely imported at greater expense. The window arches in particular are made from gauged brick; soft red brick which is then cut and rubbed into very precise shapes to form an arch above the window with incredibly fine joints of pure lime putty. Most of the houses in the London Shh group are built with London Stock; some of them make use of red gauged windows including Burgh House (c.1704), Dr Johnson’s House (c.1700), and Handel House (c.1723),  whilst others make use of yellow window dressings, for example Kelmscott House (c.1780) and Wesley House (c.1779). This basic formula was used and adapted for most London houses during this period.                                             

The best quality and most expensive brickwork would typically be situated at the public facing front of the house, while the back of the house would be made from cheaper bricks with simpler windows. Some of the houses are stuccoed, for instance Benjamin Franklin House (c.1730) and 7 Hammersmith Terrace (c.1755), or rendered such as Keats House (c.1814). This was done to imitate the look of stonework and sometimes even to cover up any shoddy brickwork underneath.

With the advent of the railways, transport costs plummeted and it became more fashionable to use red brick, so that by the time that the property now home to the Freud Museum was built in around 1920, it was made entirely of red brick. The impact of brick on architecture in London was so great that even Erno Goldfinger used brick, in a non-structural way, for his home at 2 Willow Road (c.1939).


By Christopher Curtis, Operations Volunteer at Benjamin Franklin House

March 2014

Image: Fenton House, Benjamin Franklin House and Freud Museum (Clockwise)

03 March 2014

Dr Johnson's House Blog - March 2014

Time for a good ol’ spring clean at Dr Johnson’s House


SPRING n.s. [from Springen, Dutch]

1.      The season in which plants rise and vegetate; the vernal season.


“Come, gentle SPRING, ethereal mildness,

Come, and from the bosom of yon dropping cloud

Upon our plains descend.”                              Thomson’s  Spring


Though it may not feel like it, Spring is nearly upon us again. Throughout the cold winter months in Dr Johnson’s former basement (now our office), we’ve been going through our fine and varied collection, coming up with ideas of how best to share some of our favourites with our visitors. The collection has been acquired, mainly through donations, since Lord Cecil Harmsworth rescued the House and opened it as a museum in 1911. He was adamant that Dr Johnson’s House should not be filled with ‘irrelevant 18th century bric-a-brac’ or be a ‘stuffy museum’, and that the items in our collection had to be relevant to Johnson directly, appropriate for the ‘cheery home of an impoverished writer’. Thus, Harmsworth turned down some donations, including Johnson’s death mask (too gloomy) and Chippendale furniture (too fancy). The Harmsworths also donated many early items themselves and the Johnson Club transferred their entire collection to the House.

Over the years, many generous donations of relevant books, paintings and artefacts have entered the collection and we’re pleased to say our Library collection of lexicography and many other works by the Great Cham of Literature, his contemporaries and predecessors is now available to browse online. The easy-to-use digital catalogue [http://www.drjohnsonshouse.org/library.html] allows users to browse the fascinating collection of books amassed at the House where the literary colossus and creator of the first comprehensive English dictionary once worked and indeed read many books indeed. We’d be delighted to welcome visitors wishing to view specific items from the collection at the House (by appointment only just drop us a line on celine@drjohnsonshouse.org).

The House library and archives comprise more than 1,200 volumes and 100 pamphlets and essays. Highlights include first editions of Johnson’s Dictionary, a 1670 copy of Seneca’s Tragedies, a 1730 copy of Universal Etymological English Dictionary by Nathaniel Bailey and a 1772 copy of The Works of Abraham Cowley. Some were even owned by Johnson himself, at least one of which was clearly much–used judging but the ring mark left on the cover, presumably by one of his many cups of tea!

Throughout the course of 2014, Dr Johnson's House Library will be exhibiting a number of these rare books, not usually on show to the public, in a series of special temporary displays. Items that once belonged to Johnson, his circle of friends and various editions of dictionaries, books and pamphlets will be showcased to reveal Johnson's views on a number of prominent themes, including religion and slavery.  

Our current display marks a rather special event: this February 250 years ago Johnson (along with Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith and six other ‘eminent men’) founded The Club (later known as The Literary Club). So, we have decided to celebrate this momentous occasion at the House by displaying some items from our archives which reveal more about this event and its legacy, including menus for supper at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and even a manuscript in Johnson’s own hand. Pay us a visit soon to catch our current display before we contemplate Johnson’s views on religion ahead of Easter celebrations in April.

Spring will also bring with it the inevitable need for a jolly good spring clean. So, in preparation, our Locum Curator went on a course at the Museum of London to train in conservational cleaning techniques (a lot more fun than it sounds and highly recommended! - http://blog.museumoflondon.org.uk/clean-clean/). So, raring to go, there’ll be a programme of collection cleaning at the House in the coming months check our website or call if you’re interested in what we’ll be up to and ways to get involved. (http://www.drjohnsonshouse.org/index.html).


By Celine McDaid, Locum Curator at Dr Johnson’s House

Image: Johnson’s own copy of Seneca’s Tragedies, cup-stain and all (reproduced by permission of Dr Johnson’s House Trust).

March 2014