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At home with history in London

Noteworthy museums are housed in centuries-old structures. Some have been renovated; others retain that haunted feeling.

June 08, 2003|Susan James | Special to The Times

London — The sun was shining, birds were singing and daffodils were in bloom. Not a cloud marked the blue sky. Could this be London in March?

It was hard to believe. Even harder was resisting the urge to play hooky from the research I had been doing in the public records office at Kew. I couldn't, so I decided to take a three-day holiday from study and visit some out-of-the-way museums scattered through London and its suburbs.

I was lured not only by the collections, but also by the buildings they are housed in. Many are historically important; the Guildhall Art Gallery stands on one of the oldest inhabited sites in London, and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology contains a gem of a collection on one of the oldest inhabited sites in all of Britain.

Sutton House

With sunbeams raining down, I took the Underground to Hackney, which was once a village on the outskirts of the city. At the heart of Hackney is Sutton House, the oldest house in London's East End and one of the few Tudor buildings left in the city. The three-story brick structure, laid out in an H, was built in 1535 by Sir Ralph Sadleir, Henry VIII's reluctant ambassador to Scotland -- he deplored the country and its residents. It was originally known as Brick Place, and Sadleir and his family lived there until 1550, when it was sold.

Over the centuries, Sutton House was also used as a girls' boarding school, an apartment house and a recreational club for "men of all classes." Now it belongs to the National Trust, a nonprofit organization that preserves Britain's historical buildings and their contents. In 1990 Sutton House underwent a three-year restoration that returned most of its interior to a mid-1500s look, with some rooms that reflect its Victorian past.

In the depths of the dim, dank cellar were samples of the bricks, made from local clay, that were used to build Brick Place. Back then, brick makers were a superstitious lot, and they inscribed magic symbols into some of their products. Upstairs, the front parlor was wrapped in magnificent linen paneling, which, a docent told me, the owner would have stripped from the walls, along with the glass in the windows, when he sold the house.

Above the parlor was the Little Chamber, formerly a small sitting room for the family. Its floor was covered with a painted oilcloth in medieval patterns of red, green and yellow, and a hooded wooden cradle was displayed by a hard straight-backed chair in the corner. Passing through the Little Chamber, I entered the Great Chamber, whose shadowed, wood-paneled corners looked as if they held a ghost or two.

The haunted feeling followed me into the next, smaller room, which was decorated like a Victorian study in terra-cotta red and royal blue. In a display case rested a pair of tiny gloves that once belonged to a Miss Hooker, a student at the 19th century Mrs. Temple's School for Girls. In 1851, 26 girls boarded at Sutton House, and their worn gloves and well-darned socks were found under the floorboards during the restoration.

One pleasing feature of Sutton House is the glass-walled cafe in the back garden, where, for $8, I lunched on mushroom soup, whole-grain bread and a dessert of sticky apple caramel tart with vanilla ice cream. I'm sure Sir Ralph never had it so good.

Guildhall Art Gallery

My next stop was the Guildhall Art Gallery, which opened in 1999 to display paintings and sculpture belonging to the Corporation of London, which runs the city of London. Next to the imposing 15th century Guildhall and only a five-minute walk from London's commercial heart, the gallery was designed by contemporary British architect Richard Gilbert Scott to blend in with its Gothic neighbor. During construction, a Roman amphitheater, dating to about AD 70, was discovered, and a basement display was built around its cobbled eastern entrance and two adjacent rooms, which may have been used for pregame religious rituals or as holding areas for wild animals or gladiators.

As I walked down the narrow corridor that once led to the arena, the din of a crowd's shouts, jeers and applause filled the space from hidden speakers. Against a green-lighted wall of etched glass, schematic gladiators stood frozen in battle stances. It was an eerie feeling to find echoes from a world that still seemed to live beneath the foundations of Guildhall Yard.

The paintings in the galleries above continued the theme of the exotic. Nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelite artists William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Sir John Everett Millais dominate the collection. My favorite painting, done by Sir Edwin Landseer in 1827, was "The Travelled Monkey," which depicts a sophisticated, world-weary monkey in a velvet coat and tricorn hat, carrying a cane and gloves, describing his international adventures to a group of stay-at-home relatives.

Ham House

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