With the house almost empty there is a clear view of all the painted surfaces and of course all the fretwork, so the measuring and cataloguing of this can start in earnest.
Stephen Massil, book cataloguer, describes 575 as a house in which we can sense ‘the overwhelming personality of one occupant’. All the books and records in the house belonged to its creator-owner, Khadambi Asalache, and Stephen has therefore gained unique insight into the artist’s cultural interests and possible influences on his work.
Stephen has been making his way through glossy art books, English and American literature, modern poetry and a collection of East African literature, of which he has catalogued more here than at any other property. Khadambi, a poet, kept copies of publications in which he was interviewed or his poetry was published. Stephen explains that one gets knowledge not only of his career but also of his contacts and friends, as, for example, there are books containing dedications from poets with whom Khadambi was clearly acquainted.
Stephen has also been cataloguing vinyl and 78 records, including a lot of jazz and African music, as well as Beethoven, Bach, Handel and Mozart. One item he recently came across that caught his interest was a vinyl record of Beethoven’s Mass in C, a record he owns himself, which contains inside the sleeve a Christmas concert programme of the choir of the Treasury, Khadambi’s employer, which one can assume he attended.
Alex Solomon and Geoff Lowsley, who have been working together on the inventory along with Project House Steward Fern Ryan, share some of their experiences. See the Team page for more information on their roles.
A Mountain of Work
Alex had high expectations of 575, and had lobbied to work on the property after hearing all about it from other Trust staff. Her expectations were exceeded upon entering the house, and she explains it was quite overwhelming, both in terms of its beauty and the sheer amount of work to be done.
Geoff explains that working on the inventory has been ‘like a hike – it has its false peaks, and you gain a better perspective as you go through’. He says his first impression was that ‘there really was not that much stuff’. However, on his second visit to the property, he opened a kitchen drawer and, finding it brim-full of cutlery, promptly asked for another batch of inventory tags!
On a surreal note, Geoff describes sitting in the bathroom on a chair with his laptop perched on top of a boxed printer, in turn stacked on top of the toilet seat (his makeshift desk), while holding a painted ostrich egg, thinking, ‘How did I get here?’
Alex and Geoff agree that each time you enter the house, you notice something new. A moment neither will forget was finding a Victorian kaleidoscope in the living room and discovering the magical effect it has on the fretwork.
Alex is grateful for the privilege of gaining ‘such an intimate view of what one person worked so diligently at’, Geoff concluding that ‘it never leaves you, the feeling that this is my job, my office’.
Alex and Fern hard at work
The contents of the house must be removed while building and conservation work takes place. Each item in the house is an integral part of the total work of art, and so the team must ensure that everything is accounted for and will be reinstated to its original chosen position.
Labelled Dressing Kit
The team has been assigning each object a unique number, noting its materials and dimensions, photographing it and adding it to the Collections Management System. The items are labelled with their number and room and shelf location using a tag or special pen. No item can escape, from postcards to each part of this gentleman’s dressing kit, including the stoppers!
Alex Solomon, Conservation Intern, mentioned the inventory of the chinaware as one of the more daunting aspects of the process so far, saying that one learns quickly not to describe something simply as ‘tea set’! The two living rooms contain a large collection of pink lustreware which is mostly of the same type and has certain recurring motifs, but is not necessarily of the same make. Moreover, special care needs to be taken when, as Alex explains, a tea cup posed on a non-matching saucer is not a mistake but a carefully considered aesthetic choice which must be respected. As they work, the team is developing a greater and greater appreciation of the complex, unique aesthetic of the house.