Issue Number: 113
Landscape architect and historian Todd Longstaffe-Gowan gives Ariane Bankes a glimpse of the cabinet of curiosities that is Malplaquet House, a Georgian home in London’s East End. Photograph by Tessa Traeger
“Our house was built in 1741 in what was then the salubrious suburb of ‘Mile End Old Town’, an area close enough to the docks at Wapping and Limehouse to attract prosperous merchants and sea captains. When we bought it in 1998 from the Spitalfields Trust it had been uninhabited for 100 years, so it took a great deal of time and effort to refurbish the pile, restoring its original floors and windows, limewashing its walls and recreating its early colour schemes. The green here in the dining-room was called ‘arsenical’ and glows in the crepuscular light that comes in from the garden.
The dining-room at Malplaquet House, the home that Todd Longstaffe-Gowan shares with Tim Knox in London’s East End. Photo © Tessa Traeger.
I share the house with Tim Knox, Director of Sir John Soane’s Museum, and like Soane, we’re inveterate collectors with similarly eclectic tastes. As a boy, I began to amass fossils, feathers and skulls. Neither of us can resist a new discovery. We are both omnivorous and catholic in our tastes, acquiring objects that excite, intrigue or amuse us. We scour auctions and sale catalogues and spend every available Saturday on Portobello Road, where, with persistence, one can still find treasures – a terracotta by the eighteenth-century Flemish sculptor Michael Rysbrack and a Renaissance bronze of St John the Baptist were particularly exciting finds. It’s like beachcombing. Happily, we usually agree on what to buy and where to fit it in to our ever-burgeoning collection, but we are endlessly rearranging rooms as a result. Our wonderful housekeeper comes in almost daily and dusts everything – otherwise we would be lost. We record our acquisitions – with drawing, price and description – in ledgers, and there are filing cabinets full of additional research on provenance. Our most recent acquisition is an exceptional limewood carving of a goose wing which resembles the work of Grinling Gibbons.
This corner of our dining-room is pretty typical of our collection. I’m very attached to the boar’s head soup tureen from Strasbourg on the table; it’s probably 1930s, which makes it one of our more modern acquisitions. I purchased the giant elephant skull (far left) from a neighbour to celebrate my 40th birthday. Tim, too, marked his 40th with old bones: he bought a Victorian ostrich skeleton, which is a bit like owning a dinosaur skeleton. These souvenirs of the natural world are surrounded by early Victorian portrait busts by Peter Turnerelli, Henry Weekes and others. The large white marble Crouching Venus in the centre is an eighteenth-century copy of a famous Antique original. Ours is charmingly battered and lacks most of her fingers.
Above the chimney-piece hangs a double portrait from 1638 by Sir Anthony Van Dyck of Sir Arthur Hopton and his brother Thomas. Sir Arthur was sent to Madrid by Charles I to drum up support for the King against the rebels, and it is hard not to read into the brothers’ anxious expressions a premonition of the disaster to come. We found it in a sale of the antiquarian contents of a Norfolk rectory; it was terribly dirty and overpainted but we had it cleaned. The large portraits that flank it are probably by Thomas Phillips of Sir Charles and Lady Des Voeux of Indiaville, Queen’s County, in Ireland; their raffish, rather flashy quality appealed to the Anglo-Irish blood in both of us. On the mantelpiece are fragments of British funerary sculpture, and Gupta, Ghandara and Chinese artefacts. We both grew up abroad – South America and the West Indies in my case, Fiji in Tim’s – so they recall the exotic things in our parents’ homes.
We occasionally buy contemporary art too. Downstairs is Christopher Le Brun RA’s Ziggurat from 2007 that has just returned from Tate Britain’s ‘Watercolour’ exhibition.”