The exit from Wandsworth overground station in south London faces an unusually quiet dual carriageway, lined on either side with drab modern apartment blocks and tired houses whose front gardens have been built over to create betting shops, nail bars, takeaways and tattooists. I am stopping there to visit a National Trust house. The desolated streetscape makes me wonder if I’ve misunderstood the directions.
The one person I encounter is a community safety officer. He doesn’t know of any ‘ “public” house around here’. I continue looking for a Regency house named for its address, 575 Wandsworth Road, the former home of the Kenyan poet, Khadambi Asalache (pronounced ‘Hadambi Asalachay’) (1934?–2006), which has recently been restored for the sake of preserving the extraordinary fretwork inside created by the owner. When I find what should be the reputedly tiny abode, its front garden looks unloved. There’s no signpost; I fear I’ve come to the wrong place.
Just as I am about to reach for my mobile so that I can ring my contact, a woman comes out of the house. ‘Are you one of the people for the tour?’ she enquires. She has long, wavy red hair and pale, translucent skin; she wears a rich sage green tweed collarless jacket over a long, loose, matching high-waisted dress. She reminds one of the Pre-Raphaelite Arthurian heroines, though she’s ever so slightly older, less willowy, her demeanour more purposeful than Rossetti’s muses. This saviour is Susie Thomson, Asalache’s endearing partner. In minutes the curator, Tessa Wild, the conservator, Vicki Marsland, and the other tour members arrive.
Once inside the house I feel as if I’ve just stepped behind the leather gilded cover of a life size book which, rather than thick, hand cut, cream coloured pages, reveals a glorious interior of fretwork with geometric and rounded shapes and figures. There are animals frolicking, people walking, marching and dancing, birds stretching their wings, trees and flowers. In between a few of the fretwork panels I glimpse murals – African deserts and fertile gardens perhaps – painted in soft toned colours. There is fretwork on the ceilings, doors and sash window frames. Furniture and shelves are ornamented with fretwork. The floors are decorated with flowing shapes and designs. A sense of lyricism and whimsy flows. The fretwork flirts, makes you laugh.
The honey-coloured fretwork is very much a personal creation – a tribute to a fine menu of different cultural artistic influences: Islamic, in particular Moorish, African tribal, western European. It complements the other folk treasures in the house, the lustreware, glassware, paintings, prints, pewter candlesticks and snuffboxes, and what appear to be African tribal textile rugs, wall hangings and cushions, all resting where Asalache left them. This is quite simply the most enchanting National Trust house among the many I have ever visited.
We begin the tour downstairs in the dining room by gathering round the table while Tessa Wild explains clearly and concisely, with a little bit of help from Susie and Vicki, the story of Asalache, his house and the restoration. As Wild speaks I recall details of what my research (some conflicting) has revealed. There is admittedly little information available about Asalache, perhaps because he was a very quiet, self-contained man, as Susie reveals.
Asalache, the son of a local chief, was born in Kaimosi, western Kenya, where some sources, such as the BBC and The Times, say he would be seen herding cattle while reading Shakespeare. He attended the highly reputable Catholic Mang’u High School, which is also where the former Kenyan President, Mwai Kibaki, and Cardinal Otunga studied. Afterwards he joined the Royal Technical College in Nairobi, now the University of Nairobi, to read architecture. He also studied architecture in Rome, where his new surroundings inspired him to visit Geneva and Vienna.
In 1960 Asalache moved to London, which became his permanent home for the rest of his life. He undertook a variety of jobs such as teaching Swahili and working as an architect and landscape gardener. He helped to produce and write an instalment of the BBC television series Danger Man that was set in an African city. In the late 1970s Asalache studied for an MPhil in the philosophy of mathematics at Birkbeck College, London University. Eventually he joined the Treasury as a civil servant.
In 1981, Asalache spotted his house to be while on the number 77 bus. As he did not have enough money to remedy the damp seeping in from the neighbouring house, he used a ‘head in the sand solution,’ as Susie explains, to mask the stains – the evidence – on the walls. He mounted floorboards on them, finding the boards in skips and at roadsides. To enliven the monotonous, austere look of the planks he adorned them, as well as other parts of the house, with fretwork, over a period of 19 to 20 years. For this project he used thinner wood than floorboards, such as door panels or pieces of furniture; he burned the remains on the hearth.
Purposely, Asalache did not contrive an overall scheme or theme for the entirety. He did not use a template. Cartoons were imprinted in his mind. He resisted symmetry, because he wanted to evoke more true-to-life, balanced and complementary artistic relationships. He believed ‘there was no true symmetry in nature’, Susie elaborates. For days he would think about what he wanted to portray before he drew on the wood; he never talked about what he was going to do. Once he was sure of his intentions he would carve ‘as a sculptor’, using a long, narrow (‘pad’) saw, and a drill as a means of carving from within the border of the wood. He did not sand the edges and he pinned or glued the fretwork to the walls using ‘ordinary’ wood glue (PVA). He worked in the back garden. After an intense and exhausting period of weeks of work, he would stop for a while to rest. Asalache never intended his work to be a homage to showmanship; he created for his own aesthetic pleasure.
When Asalache was found to have lung cancer in 2005, he bequeathed the house to the to the National Trust. It was in a very poor state of repair; fortunately the Trust was able to raise sufficient funds for restoration and maintenance.
About 100 people were involved in the two-year conservation project; all determined to preserve the personal character of the house – to put the spice racks, moth balls and biography of the poet’s friend the travel writer Wilfred Thesinger back in their rightful places, for example. Some adjustments and additions for the sake of safety and conservation were unavoidable, such as the installation of fire detection systems, rewiring, and applying ultraviolet film to the windows to safeguard items from light damage.
The work began initially with photographing and describing the collection items and fretwork in situ (4000 images in all) and then removing the contents to store off site. The fretwork was lined to protect it while structural work was undertaken. This entailed removing a mimosa tree that was causing subsidence, replacing the roof with Welsh slate, substantial ceiling, floor and widow repairs and replacing cement pointing with lime mortar. A boiler with a humidistat instead of a thermostat was installed. Unstable cracks in the ceramics had to be remedied. Vulnerable kilim floor coverings were rewoven. The work had to be phased; the house was too small and fragile for all the conservation to be undertaken at the same time.
We can imagine for ourselves what the project must have involved when we are led upstairs to the sitting room and the bedroom and encouraged to wander at our own pace. When we say goodbye at the entrance, I feel as I have just woken up from a magical dream.
Fretwork is intricate, interlaced shapes and designs cut out from thin wood or sometimes metal, made using various types of saw and/or a knife. To work from within the wood a space or a hole may be drilled within the borders of the wood to allow entry for the saw. (Asalache used a long, narrow saw, fixed to a handle.) Fretwork can ornament furniture, musical instruments, and various internal features. In architecture, fretwork may characterise gables, eaves, and porch trimming. Many craftsmen fix the pattern to the wood for guidance, sand both faces with a sanding block, smooth the fine cuts with a needle file, and seal the surfaces with oil. For mass production, manufacturers use computer-directed laser cutting.
Asalache wrote poetry and prose. His first novel The Calabash of Life was published by Longman in 1967. A reviewer in the journal Books Abroad described the book as a charming historical novel of ‘high adventure in a feudal kingdom… in western Kenya and the knights and damsels are members of the Abaluhya tribe, a group identified by the author as Bantu’. The Companion to African Literature notes that the book ‘received a fair amount of favourable critical note’ and that Asalache ‘has a place among the pioneers of modern Kenyan literature in English’. The book was published in 10 editions worldwide. His second novel, The Latecomer, was unpublished, although the BBC African Service presented extracts in 1971.
Asalache’s poetry has appeared in various publications s. In 1973, Eothen Books published a collection , Sunset in Naivasha. The poems are remarkable for their elegant and restrained use of words to convey images and insights. They reflect the unassuming dignity of the author.
For information about tours of the house, please visit http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/575-wandsworth-road.
This article first appeared in Cassone: The International Online Magazine for Art and Art Books in the June 2013 issue.