A couple of weeks ago I had to drive down to Hertfordshire on a Sunday as zi was working down there on the Monday. An 8 o’clock start meant a stay over on Sunday evening. Rather than just belt all the way down the Motorway I decided to break the journey, pulling off the M1 at Northampton, with a view to visiting 78 Derngate, a house where the interior had been designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
The house was owned by a local industrialist, W J Bassett-Lowke a man of Progressive ideals, Fabian politics (he knew G B Shaw who visited the house and stayed in the guest bedroom), had, for the time (the early 20th Century), rather modern tastes.
One of a row of Georgian houses in the centre of Northampton, Bassett-Lowke’s father bought the relatively small house for him in 1916 when he got married. Being right in the middle of WWI it wasn’t possible to build a new house (which I guess he would have preferred) so he set about getting it modified so it would be more in line with his Modernist inclinations and he hired Mackintosh, who was living in Chelsea at the time, to help with the interior design.
The Bassett-Lowkes lived in the house 1926 when they moved to a newly built Modernist home designed by Peter Behrens. It passed through several owners until 1964 when it was bought by Northampton High School for Girls who initially used it for offices and then later as classrooms. When the school decided to sell off the house it was bought by Northampton Borough Council. A Trust was formed who restored the house and it was opened to the public at the end of 2003. The house itself is quite small so the Trust has also bought No’s 80 and 82 which houses the reception desk, gift shop, museum, restaurant, art galleries, meeting rooms and offices.
Although visitors can explore the house and garden on their own, there are regular guided tours, which take just over an hour, and it’s well worth joining one. I arrived about 45 minutes before the next tour was due to start so I spent some time looking around the small garden (it was a fine, sunny, autumn afternoon), the museum and the galleries where there were exhibitions of works by a local artist, Roy Holding, and the Northamptonshire Guild of Designer Craftsmen. The guided tour, which started with a short video, was led by a knowledgeable volunteer and was excellent. After the tour I had about 45 minutes left to have a quick look round on my own to take a closer look at the rooms and furnishings.
Bassett-Lowke had a number of structural changes made to the house. A rectangular extension was added at the back to enlarge the kitchen and the dining room and creating balconies for the two bedrooms. It isn’t clear how much of these changes (and, indeed the décor) Mackintosh designed.
Mackintosh was hired during a period when his architectural and design work had largely dried up, so he must have welcomed the commission. Bassett-Lowke must have been a difficult client to work for, though. He had had some architectural training and had his own definite ideas about what he wanted and certainly didn’t leave mackintosh to get on with it, organising the work himself. His wife, who it seems had more conventional tastes, didn’t get much of a look in! But Mackintosh’s touch is clearly evident throughout the house. The décor is a little different to his earlier work, being more angular and almost prefiguring what became known as “Art Deco” style.
After watching the video which covered the history of the house and an overview of the interior, the tour started in the garden. We could see the rear elevation which looked very Modernist and nothing like a Georgian property.
This planter looks very “Mackintosh”, but it’s not certain he designed it.
Moving inside the house, first stop was the kitchen. No Mackintosh touches here but quite modern for the early 20th century. Bassett-Lowke was very keen on having all the latest electrical gadgets including an electric kettle and other appliances, many which had to be specially imported.
The kitchen would have been the domain of Lotte, the Bassett-Lowkes’ servant. She was Austrian so an “enemy alien” during the war, so I don’t know how they managed to keep her employed.
Moving upstairs to the dining room
Mackintosh’s main contribution to this room was the walnut cabinets to either side of the fireplace.
Across the stairwell and we were in the living room (the house is only two rooms wide)
This screen beside the staircase is probably Mackintosh’s “tour de force”.
He designed the décor, an angular pattern representing trees, which is predominantly black, making the room rather dark.
Mrs Bassett-Lowke did not like it so it was changed to a much lighter design, which was shown in a display on one of the rooms on the top floor of the house
Up another floor and into the main bedroom. There wasn’t much furnishing in here.
but the guest bedroom on the next floor has been recreated. This is where G B slept when he stayed in the house. The striped décor is very striking and must have looked so radically different in 1917. It could easily have been designed in modern times.
Mrs Bassett-Lowke did not like it at all.
Across the corridor the bathroom had all the mod cons for the time
I spent almost 3 hours in the house, much longer than I expected. It was certainly well worth the diversion!