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Hollow memorials? the problem with artists’ houses

26 May 2014

Artists’ houses can often be disappointing places to visit. We go hoping to find a shrine to a life of art, but discover instead only mundane domesticity, the stuff of social rather than art history. Except in those rare instances when the contents of the studio remain, these buildings tend to be sadly devoid of the art that was actually made there, which will have long since been dispersed to museums and private collections. Hollow memorials to their erstwhile residents, we nevertheless invest artists’ houses with a totemic status, often far in excess of their genuine significance.

This problem is highlighted in contrasting ways by three artists’ homes in south London. Each tantalisingly promises an authentic connection with its former resident, but only one convincingly achieves this.

The first of the three is currently the subject of an Artangel-commissioned installation that exposes the almost mythical association of a celebrated artist with his former home. 87 Hackford Road is an otherwise unremarkable Georgian terrace in Stockwell, but was once graced with the presence of none other than Vincent van Gogh, who lodged there briefly as young man between 1873 and 1874.

‘Yes, these Eyes are the Windows’ is an audio installation in the house by Saskia Olde Wolbers, a Dutch artist who lives and works in London. Similar credentials to her illustrious compatriot, one might be tempted to think. Except Van Gogh was never an artist in London. When he lived at Hackford Road he had yet to take up his brushes, and was employed instead as an art dealer’s clerk. The Van Gogh of Hackford Road was every bit as unremarkable as the house itself.

Visits to Olde Wolbers’s installation are by appointment. We loiter around outside the house until our allotted time, admiring the blue plaque. Then we ring the doorbell, the door swings open and, uninvited, we tentatively step inside. There are no wardens to regulate the experience; it is as though we are intruding into an abandoned property. The house is in a derelict state, but the crumbling decor and discarded furniture belong to the 1970s, not the 1870s.

Then we begin to hear eerie noises and voices coming out of the decaying fabric of the building. The house seems to be haunted. The voices recount how the building was marked for demolition, but saved once the Van Gogh connection was discovered, and has since become a locus for obsessive fans. The narrative interweaves with stories about Van Gogh’s own experience here and his love affair with his landlady’s daughter.

A mixture of oral history, media speculation, neighbourhood gossip and wishful thinking, this is the dubious concoction of fact and fiction on which myths are created. As eavesdroppers we are implicated in this process, and find ourselves searching in the dilapidation for tell-tale traces of Van Gogh. There are none, of course; the only Van Gogh memories here are the ones we imagine.

The installation prompts us to question the celebrity status of Van Gogh, and how a run-down house with a slight historical link to the famous artist could become the focus of such obsessive attention.

A few miles away in Twickenham, another artist’s house is being encouraged to give up its secrets. Sandycombe Lodge was the country retreat of JMW Turner between 1813 and 1826, but also claims the unique status of having been designed by the artist.

It is now owned by an independent trust that is busily raising funds to restore the building to something like its original appearance. Removal of later accretions will reinstate Turner’s architectural intentions; authenticity regained is an essential part of Sandycombe’s heritage identity. But nothing beside remains of the long-departed Turner, and the circumstances of his life here may always lie tantalisingly out of reach.

Like 87 Hackford Road, 575 Wandsworth Road is another modest south London terraced house. From 1981 to 2006 it was the home of Khadambi Asalache, a Kenyan-born poet, novelist and civil servant. Over the years that Asalache lived in the house, he decorated the interior with beautifully intricate hand-carved fretwork, gradually transforming its intimate spaces into a remarkable work of art that he both created and inhabited.

Asalache left the house and its entire contents in his will to the National Trust. The Trust has since undertaken a painstaking conservation process: disassembling, cleaning, preserving and reassembling everything inside so that it can be presented to the public almost exactly as it was when Asalache lived there.

Visiting the house now you are struck by its strange tranquillity in this busy part of London, and the sense of a life lived here in quiet contentment. Khadambi Asalache does not have the fame of Van Gogh or Turner, and is not commemorated with a blue plaque, but he has left us an extraordinary home that is a lasting testament to his individuality and unselfconscious creativity.

‘Yes, these Eyes are the Windows’ is at 87 Hackford Road, London SW9 until 22 June 2014.

Turner’s House at Sandycombe Lodge, 40 Sandycoombe Road, Twickenham, is open to the public on the first Saturday afternoon of each month until October 2014.

575 Wandsworth Road can be visited by pre-booked tour.

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