Located on a busy main road in south London, it is the sort of house you wouldn’t normally give a second look at. But step inside and you are transported into another world – walls, ceilings and doors are adorned with elaborate wooden fretwork, painted motifs decorate the floor and the fixtures and furnishings of everyday life double up as ornaments to create a rich visual feast that takes time to digest, there is so much to see.
It is the work of the Kenyan artist and writer Khadambi Asalache who bought the house in the early ‘80s and spent the next 20 years re-inventing it as part of an artistic journey that took in African, Islamic and British art and design.
When he died in 2006 at the age of 71, he willed his home to the National Trust and, after extensive refurbishment work, 575 Wandsworth Road was opened as a museum seven years later, a celebration of art and design wrapped up in an apparently ordinary terraced house.
The tiny two-up, two-down has now gone on to inspire Khadambi’s House, an orchestral piece of music composed by Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian, whose two years as composer in residence has just come to an end.
The imaginative and at times haunting work, which includes extracts from Asalache’s poems, saw Horrocks-Hopayian selected as a finalist in the British Composer Awards last month.
“I was inspired by the beautiful visuals and colours of the house as well as some of its sounds,” she told Thomson in a recent online discussion.
Asalache, a relatively unknown figure in Britain, was part of the African literary renaissance of the 1960s, penning the best selling novel A Calabash of Life in 1967. He was also a poet and his collection Sunset in Navaisha appeared in 1973.
He arrived in Britain in 1960 having studied architecture and fine art in Kenya and continental Europe and, like many educated Africans, made ends meet by juggling a variety of jobs, including shifts on the BBC African service and teaching Swahili. After taking an Mphil in mathematics in the 1970s, he became a civil servant in Whitehall.
It was this job that led him to buy the Georgian property in 1981. “Its main attraction was that it was on the 77a bus route which could take him to the Treasury, where he worked,” his partner, the basket maker Susie Thomson, said.
“It had been squatted and was a bit run down, so it was also very cheap.”
Ironically, his labour of love was embarked upon for very practical reasons. “The basement was very damp and he decided to cover it up with decorative panelling, which he designed.” explains Thomson, who was instrumental in setting up the composer in residence scheme for the house.
Drawing on his knowledge of architecture and art and inspired by a poetic vision of the world, he began extending the scheme to the rest of the house, building up his skills as he went along.
For his raw materials, Asalache would walk the streets looking for skips that might contain discarded wood like door panels. Later, odd bits of furniture, wine boxes and small quantities of bought pine were brought into service
Then, using a humble plasterboard blade to carve with, he would create intricate friezes of geometric shapes, animals, flowers and birds, sometimes working up to 14 hours a day if he had the time.
“When I first saw the interior, I was completely entranced by its beauty, the effect was extraordinary,” recalled Thomson who first met the artist at one of his dinner parties. These had become regular events as word about the astonishing treasure trove got about. “People would ask to bring their friends around – even the man who came to read the gas metre.”
Asalache visited the Great Mosque of Cordoba in Spain on several occasions and particularly admired Moorish art for its balance and inclusiveness. Its inspiration is striking in every part of the house, mixed in with an array of other styles, from Beatrix Potter-like nursery motifs and bold African wall prints to the wooden décor found in traditional houses in Kenyan coastal towns.
Elsie Owusu, founder of the Society of Black Architects, believes 575 Wandsworth Rd to be of international significance. “It could be described as an embodiment of the social and political and artistic history of the British colonial experience in the 20th century,” she said. ‘In addition, the breadth of the interest in architecture and design ranges from African, American, to Moghul, European and Islamic. The fact that is hidden in an ‘ordinary’ English city terrace is all the more intriguing.”
Horrocks-Hopayian is considered one of Britain’s leading young composers. She worked with London Symphony Orchestra during her residency and ran a number workshops aimed at local people in her quest to interpret the history of the house and Asalache’s work.
“Khadambi would have loved the idea of [a composer in residence],” said Thomson.
“There would have been complete joy at the idea and he would have been beaming from ear to ear.”
Visits to 575 Wandsworth Road must be booked in advance. For more details ring 0344 249 1895
This article appeared in World Today Press on January 25