Philanthropy | For Goodness’ Sake

Why a south London terrace is being preserved for the nation

Preserving a poet’s wooden paradise

Why a south London terrace is being preserved for the nation

Image: David Humphries @ Monster

October 10 2009
Claire Wrathall

With more than 300 historic houses in its care, the National Trust is in many ways a custodian of the UK’s period interiors. A conserver of splendid stately homes as well as more modest dwellings with unusual features – the “rammed” floor made from chalk and sour milk at Alfriston Clergy House in Sussex – and ones with exceptional former residents, such as Paul McCartney’s childhood home in the Liverpool suburb of Allerton, or the house that arch-Modernist Ernö Goldfinger built for himself at 2 Willow Road in Hampstead, north London (complete with the architect’s collection of works by Henry Moore, Max Ernst and Bridget Riley).

Added to these, though not yet open to the public, is a fine, if fairly ordinary, 19th-century terrace house in south London on Wandsworth Road, Lambeth, bequeathed by the Kenyan-born Treasury civil servant and writer Khadambi Asalache, who lived there from 1981 till his death in 2006.

So far, so unexceptional. Inside, however, its walls are decorated floor-to-ceiling with exquisitely delicate fretwork of rococo complexity. Almost every surface, from the architraves to ceiling roses to shelves to radiator covers, is covered with intricate pattern. Some of it is geometric, recalling motifs from Islamic art; other sections depict birds, animals (never carnivores), plants, people on their way to market or dancing figures from Swan Lake. Every image is distinct, for, as Asalache wrote in a handwritten explanation of his scheme, a document that references Einstein and the Fibonacci Sequence: “There is no symmetry in nature.”

He goes on to explain “the kinds of designs [that] have left a lasting impression on me: traditional African houses, such as those in Lamu and Mombasa that contain carved niches incorporating Chinese porcelain plates that were believed to be ‘capable of absorbing evil spirits’; [the] Moorish architecture of Andalusia, particularly the Alhambra and 10th-century mosque at Cordoba; and Ottoman architecture, such as the wooden houses of Istanbul.”

More remarkable still, all of the carving was designed and made by Asalache himself from floorboards, doors and pine boxes. The son of a Masai chief, he trained as an architect in Nairobi before coming to London aged 25 to work for the BBC’s African Service, and initially started carving panels to conceal a patch of damp in the kitchen. As his surviving partner Susie Thomson has said, he preferred to improvise, making pencil drawings directly on to the wood, for he “didn’t like to be dictated to by previous thoughts”.

The National Trust has committed £1m to restoring the house but, given the fragility of its interiors, a further £4m is needed to open it and establish a visitor centre where people can learn about Asalache and “deepen [their] understanding of UK heritage and the ongoing debates around migration and Britishness”. Indeed, without at least £2.4m the National Trust won’t be able to accept the bequest. Let’s hope the money is found, for there are few terraced houses with rooms as beautiful as these. As Asalache put it, “I don’t know or believe that one needs to bother with concepts from quantum mechanics when doing interior design… [and] I can’t say I live up to the intellectual rigour, but the result is one I can live with.”