The Homewood in Esher is an unusual National Trust property
With the much-anticipated reopening of The Homewood in Esher, PAUL MURPHY discovers that there's far more to the National Trust these days than just Chippendales and chintz
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine May 2008 Photos: Dennis Gilbert /NTPL
After two years of being closed to the public, The Homewood, in leafy Esher, is back on public display, albeit only to small pre-booked groups on one day a week. One of the very good reasons for this limited access becomes quite clear to me a couple of minutes after I am admitted to Patrick Gwynne's 1938 masterpiece. "Hello," says little 22-month-old Isabella, quickly adding "toasty!" while dancing in her stockinged feet on a warm air floor grille. It's not the usual welcome you get in a National Trust property, but then The Homewood is just about as far removed from the typical NT pile as you could possibly get.
The drive through the wooded mature garden promises the usual grandeur, but my initial thoughts about the boxy concrete-and-glass architecture of this house on stilts take me back to my childhood of the Sixties and Seventies - the decades that, architecturally at least, taste forgot. Meeting the tenants Any misgivings are immediately swept away by my ebullient host, David Scott, who with his partner Louise Cavanagh, are the new tenants whose recent arrival has enabled the house to be re-opened to the public. "Let's have a coffee, you'll like the kitchen," he says. I do. It may have started life in 1938 but hardly a cupboard or drawer would have looked much out of place in 2008 - a theme that would recur throughout my tour of the house. "It's very neat, rather like a ship's galley," I observe. "Absolutely," replies David. "And the design is very radical for its period."
A very natty spiral stairway, reminiscent of a ship's staircase - a recurring motif in the architecture of the age - brings us to a landing adorned with a Venetian-style chandelier (a rare example of non-functional frippery). Floor to ceiling windows look out upon the garden, but that's only the appetiser for the main course of the living room. The living room This is the principal space of The Homewood: it is large, going on huge, multi-functional and open-planned. There are two seating and lounging areas for day-time near the windows, another for the evening centred on the fireplace, as well as two work spaces. The maple floor, specially sprung for dancing, is not only at one with the current trend of stripped wooden flooring, but again puts me in mind of nauticalia - lacking only the deck quoits and the cry of seagulls. The views, even on the foggy morning I visit, are extraordinary: the light simply pours into this room, bringing the garden with it. How ironic that while many NT properties draw the drapes to protect their treasures from the sunshine, the attitude here is unmistakably "bring it on". But would you want to live here? "Cosy, it is not," declared David Dimbleby while filming How We Built Britain. Clearly, he hadn't been invited to sit in front of the fire (gas with flame effect, but you can't have everything) on the surprisingly comfy Sixties sofa with a cup of coffee and shortbread biscuit. Ahead of its time "Discovering The Homewood is rather like finding a classic Rolls-Royce in your garage," says David. "Patrick Gwynne was a remarkable man who was many years ahead of his time. Do you know, he was so single-minded that at the age of 24 he persuaded his parents to demolish their house and sell some other family property so that he could build The Homewood for them! He had a vision and followed it." In fact, Gwynne was inspired by the great French modernist, Le Corbusier, and above all by the enigmatically named High and Over house in Amersham, which is closed to the public. "Thanks to the likes of IKEA we're just about getting used to the sleek lines and minimalist fashions of modernism," continues David, "but think how revolutionary all this would have been back in 1938, when the horse and cart was still delivering the milk in Esher High Street." Patrick Gwynne lived the rest of his life (he died in 2003 at the age of 90) in this house and specified when handing the property to the NT that the tenants should be a family. "Definitely not a rock star," he apparently once said, though I muse that it would be the perfect pad for Eric Clapton. A machine for living "Above all, it's a home where the family lives in all the rooms," says David. "You can't say that about many historic houses open to the public. Patrick was very conscious of Le Corbusier's principle that 'the house is a machine for living' - he certainly didn't want it frozen in time and was continually refining elements. He also loved the latest electrical gadgetry. Not that we'll be showing off all the rooms on open days - just the most interesting ones!" Another thing they won't be doing is hiding all their stuff away either. "We like the fact that our music system is next to Patrick's hi-fi," says David. "Our CDs are next to his gramophone records and our family pictures are next to his." "So, if The Homewood were a piece of music," I ask, as a parting shot (thinking to myself that the traditional historic house would be a Vivaldi or Mozart), "what would it be?" "Oh, perhaps a Gershwin, stylish and intelligent, and we often play Glenn Miller tunes - it's the period and, like the house, it's fun!" says David.
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The Homewood is open every Friday until October 31. Admission: �10 (NT members �3). Access is via Claremont Landscape Garden in Esher, via minibus. Booking essential. Tel: 01372 476424.
Need to know
Not all National Trust properties have tenants. The reason that The Homewood does is that it was the wish of architect Patrick Gwynne. He offered The Homewood to the National Trust in 1992, and worked in a unique collaboration with the Trust on its restoration for the next ten years. He died in 2003. The Homewood was first opened to the public in 2004 and 2005 via guided tours, but was closed again until a suitable tenant was found. Access is via a minibus from Claremont Landscape Garden, and be warned, there is no public toilet at The Homewood so be prepared!
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