The Geffrye Museum specialises in the history of the English domestic interior
So says The Geffrye Museum - A Brief Guide and it just about sums up the raison d'être of this fine old building and its lovely garden surrounds, situated just off the Kingsland Road, Dalston in London.
The Museum describes itself as 'one of London's most friendly and enjoyable museums'. A visitor to the museum would be hard pushed to disagree. The museum itself is to be found opposite the Royal Standard Pub on the Kingsland Road, just as you're approaching the Shoreditch/Old Street area, past Dalston. It's free to get in - a real selling point if ever you needed one - and it opens Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm, and also on Sundays and Bank Holidays, noon to 5pm. It's closed on Mondays (except for the Bank Holidays).
The museum building was built in 1714 as a series of almshouses created for the benefit of poor pensioners. The almshouses were built thanks to a large sum of money bequeathed by wealthy London merchant, Sir Robert Geffrye, once Master of the Ironmongers' Company and formerly Lord Mayor of London. This part of London was once rural but gradually became an industrial hub, the centre of London's clothing and furniture trade. The poverty and harsh conditions associated with late 19th Century and early 20th Century urban factory centre were very much in evidence here in Shoreditch in the east end of London. The area was densely over-populated, and deemed too dangerous for the frail beneficiaries living out their final days in the almshouses.
As a result, the almshouses were sold in 1910, eventually evolving in to their present-day incarnation - an historical museum and gardens reflecting periods of English history, more specifically a history of London domestic interiors.
One could argue the case that the museum mainly specialises in the history of very posh domestic interiors (it's not until we visit the showrooms of the 1930s and 1950s do the period rooms on display suggest a more modest social standing) but this is perhaps being a bit picky. It's always interesting to peek into other people's rooms - no matter who they are - and especially if those rooms date as far back as the 17th Century.
The Museum offers a walk-through whereby the visitor passes several rooms, all of which are chronologically dated, all self-contained. And this is the real appeal of the place - a brisk walk through history. But not any old history. It's a more intimate, private affair as you're invited to literally step into a succession of different families' private domains.
The Period Rooms
The Elizabethan and Jacobean Room
The 17th Century Elizabethan and Jacobean Room (1580-1640) is showpiece room full of oak and walnut wooden panelling, and it's all a bit dark. The portrait paintings of ill-looking people who look like they need a good hot dinner add a touch of sickly sombreness to the place. And these were the well-off happy folk! Mind you, evidence of a healthy bank balance (or bulging straw mattress) is to be found in the lovely expensive Flemish tapestry that adorns the wall. The Museum Guide tells us that walls were often decorated in this way with imported textiles, not only to demonstrate affluence and for the purposes of decoration, but to keep the warmth in. Floors, however, were usually left bare.
The splendid looking furniture is supremely crafted and the majority of stuff surviving from this period was made of hardy oak, a wood not so susceptible to woodworm, greatly aiding the chances of its survival. The room reflects the wealth of a prosperous London merchant (not unlike our Geffrye) and the increasingly cosmopolitan make-up of the capital city meant that exotic imports were available. Rich Londoners, who prospered abroad, could afford the luxury of finely-crafted furniture and the exoticism of textiles from the Middle East.
And this is how the exhibition of period rooms progresses - room after room, a snapshot of a certain class at a certain period of English history. After the Elizabethan and Jacobean Room we come to the Stuart Room (1660-1685), the Queen Anne Room (1685-1714), the Early- and Late-Georgian Rooms (1720-1800), through to the Regency Room (1800-1830), the Victorian Room (1840-1870), the Edwardian Room (1900-1914), the 1930s Flat (1930-1939), and the Mid-century Room, (1955-1965).
It has to be said, the rooms are wonderfully done - very authentic - containing tons of genuine period pieces on loan from other museums and private collections1. It's a great museum for school kids, this. And for dreamers. If you're interested in history, but more specifically, in the history of interiors - what certain domestic rooms would have looked like during different periods of history - then the Geffrye Museum is for you. If you've also got a thing for period furniture, chairs through the ages - that kind of thing - then this place is perfect. If, however, this seems a bit boring - don't despair! There's always the herb garden...
The Herb Garden
Many herbs release their scent when touched, so we encourage you to feel the plants gently
- So says the sign on the wall.
A perhaps less obviously brilliant part of the museum is the Herb Garden. As you enter the grounds of the museum very helpful signs point you in the right direction, and it's mildly (though not massively) exciting - bit like walking into Tom's Midnight Garden, except that it's a dreary East London autumn afternoon. Anyway, as you descend a couple of steps before you eventually pass through the old brick portal that leads you in to the garden itself, you'll notice two large overground tombs, one of which contains the remains of Sir Robert and Lady Geffrye, our two munificent benefactors. It's a very big tomb, like a huge double bed - ample room for the pair of them.
The little herb garden was established in 1922 and it demonstrates the variety of herbs that were used, and still are used, in the domestic home. It is symmetrically designed and split into 12 sections: two dye plant sections; seasoning; salad, cosmetic; household; four aromatic sections; and two medicinal herb beds. In the middle of this neat plan is a lovely gurgling bronze fountain, in the shape of a vase or an urn. This fountain was commissioned from ceramicist Kate Malone. The garden is square-shaped and against each of the four walls is a wooden bench, set a little back from the verge, each covered in a canopy of foliage. It's quite lovely sitting down on one of these benches protected under a dark leafy shadow of green, looking out on to the bubbling fountain, watching the autumn leaves scurry by. It's very relaxing, too - especially if you've got a nice warm coat on.
The absolute best thing about the herb garden though, is the names of the herbs! They are so evocative and so 'olde-worlde' that you don't know whether to sniff them or stick 'em in a cauldron with a couple of bats. For instance, in the dye plants section you've got White Dead Nettle (Lamium album), Rose Madder (Rubia tinctorum), Woad (Isatis tinctoria) Horehound (aptly, Marrubium vulgare), and Lady's Bedstraw (Galium verum). Proceeding on to the seasoning herbs section we find the spectacularly named Angelica (Angelica Archangelica!2) and in the aromatic section the Curry Plant (Helichrysum italicum) when lightly rubbed between the fingers gives off a lovely, pungent smell of... curry! So much so, in fact, that when this Researcher lifted up a cup of Earl Grey tea hours later in the handsome Museum café, he got a sudden hit of curry vapour that curled up invisibly off his fingers, transporting him instantly in Proustian fashion all the way up the motorway to Bradford, curry capital of the UK...
The herbs and their goofy names are relentless. Yarrow, Golden Feverfew, Scarlet Trumpet Honeysuckle, Double Chamomile, Good King Henry, Sweet Joe Pye. They read like a stoner's list of psychedelic 1960s and 1970s hairy rock albums. In fact, it felt like reading off the entire back catalogue by early Genesis. Curiously enough, in the medicinal section (including the Peppermint Plant - Mentha x pipenta - which gave off scrumptious green minty vapours when rubbed) there were a couple of signs which read 'Poisonous! Do not touch', 'Warning! Harmful if eaten'. This didn't sound very medicinal at all (in fact, it sounded bloody dangerous) but it all added to the vague sense of mystery. Reading all these names out loud was like speaking the secret language of witches.
The herb garden is very small, but loses no charm for that. It's a lovely little place and in the context of the domestic theme of the Museum as a whole, it hints at an older time of resourcefulness and thought, when home-grown herbs were really used, especially as medicine.
Period Garden Rooms
The knotte garden serveth for pleasure
The potte garden serveth for profitte.
- 16th Century saying
Following on from the Herb Garden and still outdoors, we enter the wider space of the Period Garden Rooms that run along the entire back section of the old almshouse building. The knot gardens3, based on research into period middle class gardens and homes in London, are very neat and the trees which surround them are old and graceful. Like the herb garden, these gardens are small, so reading this enthusiastic entry and then actually going there, you might be a little disappointed. But think of the context - the Kingsland Road in Dalston in Hackney - and the fact that it's all free, absolutely free. This secret outdoor space is lovely, and comes genuinely recommended. Go on. Have a sit down. Watch the leaves go by.