I was in need of a break and some fresh ideas this week, so on Monday I set off to visit Decorex, the international interior design fair at Olympia, followed by a trip to a gallery that I’d been wanting to see for a very long time: Town House in Spitalfields. I’ll write a separate post about Decorex, but first, I can’t wait to share my experience at Town House, which was everything I had hoped it would be – and a lot more besides.
This is such an atmospheric part of London, even though it is very close to the impersonal financial district with its shiny buildings, cranes, crowded pavements and construction everywhere. Step into Fournier Street and you can feel the history. The silk industry thrived here after Charles II offered the Huguenots (Protestants) sanctuary from persecution in France around 1670. Many of the 40-50,000 who came across the channel settled in in this area, bringing their weaving skills with them. As the industry grew, the wealthier ones built large houses with distinctively large attic windows so the weavers could carry out their intricate art. Some of the streets still have French-sounding names, and some of those gorgeous houses are still standing.
Elegant without being fussy….
The stamp of industry from different eras is now on some of the houses. This one was up for sale. I hope whoever buys it keeps that beautiful old signage….
Finally I came to Town House. I had read about it, and seen photos, but I wasn’t prepared for just how charming it would be inside.
A gallery, antiques shop and cafe, it is just beautiful. I really felt that I’d stepped into another world.
It reminded me of the time that I was helping my friend Ruth to find a flat back in the late 1980s, before house prices in London went mental. We’d gone to view a maisonette in Dalston, which, from the outside looked just like any other ordinary Victorian or Edwardian terrace. But the property belonged to a group of theatre set designers and when we went in, it just knocked my socks off. It wasn’t like any house I had ever seen. The imagination they had used, the unusual, rich colours and the rough, rustic antique furniture – I realised that extraordinary things could be done with smaller spaces. Since then, I’ve loved houses that spring a surprise when you open the door, and Town House has that dream-like quality.
There are works by a number of contemporary potters in the shop, as well as French antique pieces, such as ceramic platters and heavy old wineglasses. Paintings crowd the walls. There are statues, busts, and simple pieces of furniture with an aged patina. At the back in the gallery space, there is currently an exhibition of about 80 watercolours of London shopfronts by artist Eleanor Crow. These form a new book, Shopfronts of London, which celebrates small neighbourhood shops. Each of Eleanor Crow’s beautifully detailed watercolours is accompanied by text about the shops, their history and their owners. It’s fascinating – and captures a fast disappearing world of true independents.
Anyone who loves Eric Ravilious’s iconic work High Street, will love this book, which is published by Batsford.
I could spend hours looking at the detail in these paintings and they are even more stunning in the flesh. It is absolutely worth a visit, and the original paintings are for sale.
I was footsore from trekking around the exhibition at Olympia, so I was delighted to find that the cafe downstairs was still open. There are just a few tables, and a completely charming kitchen, which I didn’t photograph as I was too focused on having a pot of tea and a plate of flapjack. Everything is home made, and there was Bakewell tart and a fresh loaf of Bara Brith, amongst other traditional treats. I sat at a battered old table with my sketchbook and pens, although I was too daunted to draw anything. I just scribbled some written impressions of the Town House. It is owned by Fiona Atkins, who took on the property when it was near derelict in 2002. She sources many of the antiques and art that is sold here and there are exhibitions several times a year. She also owns and rents out an apartment above the shop.
Some of the wonderful old glasses for sale in the shop.
British made ceramics.
If I’d had a sleeping bag, I probably would have been happy to have bedded down for the night! But it was time to leave…
I will definitely be back in the not-too-distant future.
5 Fournier Street
Spitalfields E1 6QE