BACK FROM THE DEAD
A decade ago, Danson House at Bexleyheath in Kent was shuttered and abandoned. Built by Robert Taylor between 1762 and 1767, Grade I-listed, and empty since the 1970s, it was a prime casualty on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk register - a real 'shock horror story'. But slowly a rescue plan took shape, which architect Purcell Miller Tritton brought to fruition, and it has just won a Georgian Group Award for its work.
'The house came within a hair's breadth of being lost - a fairly modest arson attack could have finished it off for good, ' says Brian Anderson, the practice's partner-incharge at Danson. Adding to the significance of the project is the body of knowledge on which the architect has been able to draw, the product of intensive activity by members of EH's Historical Analysis and Research Team (HART). Their discoveries had a major impact. What began as 'a repair job' would become something else.
Robert Taylor was a key figure in 18thcentury architecture: one of the second generation of English Palladian architects who succeeded pioneers like Colen Campbell, Lord Burlington and Roger Morris. Campbell and Burlington both built their own versions of Palladio's Villa Rotonda, at Mereworth and Chiswick respectively, while Palladio himself had looked to precedents in ancient Rome.
It was this interrupted but live tradition that Taylor (and contemporaries like James Paine and John Carr) went on to extend.
The son of a stonemason, Taylor trained as a sculptor and began practising as an architect in about 1750, obtaining important commissions in the City of London - not least for the Bank of England. Well-off City men were the clients for a series of villas that he designed around London in the 1760s and '70s: Asgill House at Richmond, Mount Clare at Roehampton and Danson House.
The client for Danson was John Boyd, whose money came from sugar plantations in the West Indies. Though Danson House today is much as Taylor first designed it, apart from the bays to east and west being raised by a storey, Boyd quickly asked Taylor to extend it, linking the central block to two substantial wings by curved quadrant walls.
A painting from about 1766 records this enlargement, but the additions were demolished in the early 19th century and there's little trace of them. What survives is quintessential Taylor: an austere, near-cubic, stone-faced form, made more plastic by three canted bays; with a compact plan in which the principal rooms are disposed around a central top-lit stair - this piano nobile sitting on a strongly-rusticated base.
The canted bay was not a novelty but, at Danson and elsewhere, Taylor made the most of its potential. 'Where he revolutionised its use was in making it an integral part of planning, producing octagons, bowed rooms, circular ones and his unique double ovals, ' says Marcus Binney, arguing in Country Life for a re-evaluation of Taylor 1. So, at the same time as the bays break out of the box to animate the house's exterior, they create a varied sequence of internal spaces - for the most part, entirely practical.
Danson House stayed in private hands until Bexley Urban District Council bought it at auction in 1924; the main changes in the intervening years being a Victorian update to its decoration and furnishing. Bexley duly opened Danson to the public but spent little on maintenance and by the late-1950s was eager to offload it. The council finally shut the house in 1970, balking at the cost of repairs; which, together with its listed status and position in a public park, put off private purchasers too.
A private offer arrived eventually from a plausible couple who wanted to restore Danson as a showcase for their plasterwork business. However, their fraught occupancy ended in an abrupt departure for Antigua.
Fortunately the chimneypieces, doorcases, and other fixtures that they had removed, were finally tracked down - some to a container in Dagenham.
So the house was Bexley's once again, but now EH became more actively involved in its rescue, taking it over from Bexley on a 999-year lease in 1995, not to be part of its own portfolio but to help make it viable for another long-term user. With the present arrangement, a local amenity group, Bexley Heritage Trust, will manage Danson House and open it to the public on a regular basis from spring 2005.
Filling the gaps 'The stench of guano and sound of pigeon chicks is still very vivid to me, ' says Brian Anderson, recalling his first visit to Danson House. The roof was no longer intact, so birds had colonised the building in their hundreds. With all the missing fixtures, the ravaged surfaces, the rot, there was a sense of incipient ruin, but structurally the house was sounder than this first sight of it suggested. Moreover, says Anderson, 'despite the condition we found it in, we were amazed by how much extant material there was in the building. So when it came to, say, deciding the profile of an architrave, it wasn't a problem - there was plenty to guide us.' Which is where the work of the EH researchers comes in, for they were able to study Danson House in unusual depth.
Architectural historian Chris Miele and building archaeologist Richard Lea are the authors of a forthcoming book that describes this process in detail 2: 'It was a question of looking really closely at the building and having enough time to do so, ' says Lea.
By dendrochronology, microscopic paint analysis (see paint analysis, page 36), and the close attention to structure, fabric and decoration that Lea mentions, they brought into focus Danson's evolution over time. They were able to resolve questions which had previously puzzled historians - the extent of William Chambers' involvement with the interiors, for instance - while clarifying details of the original design that had since been altered, erased or overlain.
One unexpected discovery was especially significant: some watercolours by Sarah Johnson, daughter of Danson's owner in the early 19th century, which showed the interior before its Victorian alterations. With these as well as the 'extant material' that Anderson mentioned, the argument for restoration to the 18th century became compelling.
'As our understanding deepened, and the cost of putting back Victorian fittings in the main interiors became clear, the case for just conserving the building as found, as EH would normally expect, didn't seem to make sense, ' says Lea. 'Why strain to recreate a second-rate Victorian interior inside a magnificent Georgian villa, when there's enough Georgian evidence to fill in any gaps?' So repair became restoration, but not ruthlessly: both inside and out, original fabric - always legible as such if you look closely - is combined with the newly-reconstituted. As Anderson maintains: 'It's not a facsimile, like Uppark, and you see this in the little things. The subtle loss of definition in a moulding, for instance, or imperfections in the joinery, or surface texture. You just know this is an early piece of material.' It is surface texture that first strikes the visitor to Danson, in the patchwork of smooth and pitted stonework on the exterior. The brick-built house was originally faced with an Oxfordshire limestone described by Anderson as, 'like Weetabix, a similar colour and about as durable, a lousy stone' 3. A coat of Sandtex applied in the early 1960s hardly helped, especially when the then-lessee tried to remove it by sandblasting in the late 1980s. 'What we inherited was very pockmarked, with cavities up to two inches deep, ' says Anderson.
The architect kept as much of the original as possible, repairing some stones with lime mortar and replacing the most damaged ones with a more robust subsitutute that is close in colour (Bath Westwood Ground for the ashlar, Bath Combe Down for the plinths and string courses, etc). It then applied a limewash shelter coat to give greater unity to the facades; and the entrance front, which was coated most recently, is certainly more homogeneous as a result. On the south side of the building, however, the shelter coat has already largely worn off, and while the contrasting textures it exposes will be readily understood by the professional, many visitors to Danson may be puzzled.
It has not been decided yet whether to renew the shelter coat on a regular basis; its effect is purely aesthetic. Taylor's Richmond villa, Asgill House, was completely refaced in the 1950s, and Lea imagines that Taylor himself 'would now prefer the way that looks - but then all the historic fabric is lost'.
Inner world You reach the front door of Danson House up a flight of steps which seem disproportionately broad, though when the wings were in place that might not have been the case. Inside is the entrance hall, the first of the suite of four piano nobile rooms, each markedly different in character, which surround the enclosed central stair. The hall, says Anderson, was 'relatively unscathed', so 'there's been little recreation here'. Together, the relative austerity, the Naples yellow paint scheme (approximating the colour of the exterior), and the stone floor, imply that this is a space between inside and out.
To the east is the dining room, where dry rot had been pervasive, much plasterwork had been lost, and only half the ceiling survived. What gives this room a special appeal now are the newly reinstated allegorical wall paintings of 1766 by Charles Pavillon, in which the main narrative panels - Ceres and Bacchus are the mythical protagonists - alternate with slender vertical ones of foliage and fruit. The paintings are predominantly blue-grey and the walls off-white, while gilded mirrors gleam in the recesses at each end of the room; all contrived to make the occupants lighthearted.
Off the entrance hall to the west, the library strikes a contrasting note, with its mahogany bookcases and verdigris wall colour. The verdigris, a copper resinate green, would have been very expensive in the 18th century - it probably cost more than the paintings and gilding in the dining room. It was a way for Boyd to signal his wealth; for status was certainly one of his concerns, as with the outside steps and now-demolished wings. By 1800, though, this green was out of fashion and the walls were painted light blue.
The chimneypiece here, as in the dining room and saloon, is by William Chambers, whose contributions to Danson reflect Boyd's wish for greater enrichment; but in essence the interiors are still Taylor's. Restoration of the library has largely reversed the many Victorian alterations.
The most opulent room, and most unexpected, is the octagonal saloon to the south. A sale catalogue of 1805 mentions 'Walls hung with Blue Silk Damask', but EH's wallpaper specialist Treve Rosoman and consultant Mary Schoeser concluded that it was in fact papered - a residual pattern on the wall giving a partial clue to its design. When Purcell Miller Triton started work, the room was largely intact but the plaster was bare and fixtures were missing.
Today it is covered in a bold blue paper embellished with Chinoiserie motifs - the nearest match to the surviving pattern. Though EH would not argue that this exactly replicates the original scheme, it's known that the saloon at Taylor's Ottersaw Park, Chertesy, now demolished, did have Chinoiserie decoration.
The paper, though dominant, is integrated with paintings, mirrors, and doorcases beneath a beautifully refined plaster ceiling, comprising eight radial panels around a central rosette.
The arabesque decorations in these panels have now been restored, but this room well illustrates Anderson's point about the retention of fabric, because its anthemion frieze still has the original gilding - muted in comparison to the new.
Furthermore, the saloon demonstrates something fundamental to Danson House in the function of its canted bay, which dynamically engages the house with its landscape and beckons you to multiple views of the grounds.
At present those views are obstructed by a hedge from Danson's municipal past, but this will soon be removed.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the house, however, is the cantilevered stone staircase around which all the principal rooms are marshalled. It forms a tight oval - there's a strong sense of spatial compression - and climbs to the colonnaded upper floor beneath a timber dome; a dome in which EH found trompe l'oeil painting, retained as a pale presence overhead. At this upper level you discover that Taylor had squeezed-in a dog-legged service stair immediately beside this main one. This arrangement was welcomed by the practice, says Anderson, 'because it gave us a philosophical basis for the disabled lift', which emerges on the landing on the other side of the oval.
Although there will be public access to this level, and some indication of how the Boyd family used this part of the house, the real focus of the restoration has been on the rooms below. How does Anderson assess what's been done? 'Robert Taylor's work is not well documented, 'he says, 'but we've been able to salvage a lot of what he put into this building, so it will now be an excellent vehicle for reviewing his achievements. The plan is a delightful conception, carried through with great conviction - I'm sure Le Corbusier would have loved it.
The embellishments that Chambers added give an extra layer of delight.' In the London area, 'first generation' Palladian villas such as Burlington's Chiswick House and Roger Morris' Marble Hill House are already open to the public; Danson House takes their story on further, and though Taylor's Mount Clare and Asgill House can't usually be visited, it's easy to see their exteriors for comparison. Miele and Lea's forthcoming book goes further, situating Danson House in a history of the villa that begins in Roman antiquity and stretches past Palladian revival to 19th-century suburbs and the concept of the Garden City.
In his Country Life articles on Taylor, Marcus Binney stressed the villas' 'frankness and simplicity of style', their lack of external adornment (no columns or pilasters) and their austerity. Pevsner's adjective to describe Danson House in the London: South volume of the Buildings of England is 'crystalline': just right for a building so sharply-faceted and self-contained.
At a time of infatuation with computerdriven distortions of form, which are often just wilful, Danson House presents a disciplined alternative. The imaginative plans that Taylor devised, both to make his villas functional and to enrich life for their occupants, prove that such restraint need not suppress creativity. For that reason alone, the fastidious rescue of this near-ruined building is something to celebrate.
Danson House opens to the public in spring 2005. Details 01322 526574