House Histories: The Secrets Behind Your Front Door by Melanie Backe-Hansen
A bit late on this one, a book which was published quite some months ago at the least. The reason for this is that the houses featured are country-wide and not just in London. But I get a bit silly about such things, sometimes, and in fact, there are loads of London properties featured in this book, 45 out of the 100, to be precise. They are all dwellings which the author has investigated in her former role as in-house historian to the posh estate agents, Chesterton Humberts.
The Introduction – the “Your Front Door” bit if you will – tells us how to source primary documents to investigate a dwelling, tips which probably apply to other types of building too. What they are, where to look. Many these days are available on-line of course, but you’ll always have to hit the libraries, local archives and museums to do in-depth sleuthing.
We then get straight into the properties themselves and there is a huge variety – from quite modest cottages to country manors. Each is given two or three pages, is image rich (photos, documents, records and best of all, old map sections), and is given interesting break-out sections such as Architectural Highlights, nearby shops and industries. Best of all for the through-the-keyhole prurient, which is all of us, are former notable residents. So we have Disraeli, Somerset Maugham, Pitt the Elder and others. Similarly, the properties bear the dabs of some of our best known architects – Soane, Norman Shaw, Gropius to name just a few.
Hardly any of these properties are famous as such (Harrods Depository anyone?) which is the strength of the book, almost the point of it, actually. But I’m sure you’ll recognise a fair number of the urban ones at least. For me it was the pretty row of brick houses on the Talgarth Road near Earl’s Court with the enormous upper windows. I’ve driven past them hundreds of times. Turns out they were conceived and purpose-built as artists’ studios in 1891. As I suspected, then, but it’s nice to have one’s guesses confirmed. And being a former denizen of the neighbourhood, I enjoyed reading about the 18C post office in old Chiswick, that’s to say the bit near the Thames and Hogarth’s House rather than what people today call Chiswick around Turnham Green.
This is a dip-into book, a present book, a thoroughly enjoyable book on all sorts of levels. Well researched and written, beautifully illustrated and produced.
House Histories, the Secrets Behind Your Front Door (240pp) by Melanie Backe-Hansen is published by the History Press with a cover price of £16.99 but available for less.