This London National Trust property is not a large house with a cafe serving tea and scones nor does it have a gift shop selling flowery garden gloves and scented candles. No, this is something quite different.
575 Wandsworth Road has no fancy name - it's just known by its address - and it looks remarkably plain from the outside. A simple terraced house, set back on a busy road. You would be very unlikely to notice it at all so what makes it so extraordinary?
This small Georgian house, built in 1819, became the home of Khadambi Asalache (1935-2006) in 1981. Originally from rural Kenya, Asalache moved to London in 1960 and was working for The Treasury when he spotted the house for sale from his bus route to work. The location was good for his daily commute and he wasn't put off by the poor state of repair inside. The property had been lived in by squatters, and there was talk of various farmyard animals kept in the garden, but this didn't discourage this amateur craftsman.
Asalache was an educated man. He was the eldest son of a local chief and read architecture in Nairobi before studying fine art in Rome, Geneva and Vienna. He came to London in 1960 and spent the 1960s and 1970s working on a literary career. He joined the Civil Service Department in the mid-1970s and later The Treasury and Cabinet Office.
He started carving in 1986 and declared the house finished in 2005.
Where It Started
It all started in the basement Dining Room that had a persistent damp wall from the commercial laundry next door that couldn't be fixed so he decided to disguise it instead.
As the neighborhood was improving there were lots of home renovations going on in the area and he took seasoned wood from skips/dumpsters, particularly old floorboards, and boarded up the wall. But he didn't like the plain wall and found it oppressive so decided to add some ornate carving and simply didn't stop for nearly 20 years. He worked on one room at a time and only he knew when it was complete.
Asalache left the house, and all it's contents, to the National Trust and it was taken on for its artistic merit. It is now conserved for prosperity as a work of art. (See the National Trust blog during conservation.)
Asalache bought only one piece of wood, used in the hallway, from Travis Perkins - a local builder's merchant, but he found it too soft and it warped too easily. He didn't like it as much as the seasoned wood he could find being ripped out of houses nearby so he salvaged old pine doors and floorboards for his project. Later he also used wine crates and reclaimed furniture.
All by Hand
He didn't design on paper but drew on the wood and adapted to respond to the wood's characteristics. (For example, he painted a duck on the Sitting Room door as a knot in the wood looked like a pond.)
He used a pad saw to cut the intricate patterns and was entirely self taught. You can see his influences from across Africa including big game animals, Egyptian and Moroccan images and symbols, and Moorish influences from Andalucia and particularly The Alhambra. There are animals 'hidden' everywhere including elephants, giraffes, squirrels, butterflies and a peacock on the inside of the front door.
While many of the repeated patterns looks alike he didn't like symmetry so look closer and you can see the subtle differences.
All of the carving was done in the back garden on the bridge over the 'Crocodile Pit', his name for the concrete path from the back of the house to the garden.
I'm confident you could visit 575 Wandsworth Road many times and find something unseen every time as the multi-layers of fretwork have many secrets only uncovered by keen eyes. Do notice the chain of ballerinas over the fireplace in the Sitting Room - a scene he wanted to capture from Act III of Swan Lake - but then don't miss the elephants above the doorway or the theatrical paired masks carved into the window frame. Or the carved dancers that look like something by Matisse. Look up to the ceiling, which is also covered, and down to the freehand painted floorboards that echo the carving patterns.
And once you can see beyond the carving do notice the antiques such as an ornate coal scuttle in the Sitting Room or the pink lustreware porcelain on display. You can read the spines of his book collection or his CDS and records. Even the food has been left in the kitchen cupboards, and his toothbrush and toothpaste in the bathroom.
And do notice the open fireplaces and the candles which were used regularly. That seems brave with so much woodwork!
A Dog Was Made Welcome
Asalache's partner, Susie Thomson, had a Tibetan Spaniel and a bedside kennel was included in the bedroom. A painting at the top of the staircase was also done to add interest for the dog (a tiny scene of Thomson Gazelles).
Asalache and Thomson did not live together but their initials are entwined in the fretwork on one of the bedroom windows and he did add carving to her home too.
You have to book in advance for a tour to visit 575 Wandsworth Road and visitor numbers are limited. This is a small house and you can only visit, with a Guide, in small groups. There were 6 on the tour I joined and yes, it was tight.
The Trust uses part of the old laundry next door for visitors to leave their bags and to sell a guidebook and postcards as no photography is permitted.
Then you are led inside and down to the dining room and take a seat at the table while the Guide tells you the story of the house. Here you must leave your outdoor shoes and either wear provided National Trust socks or your own before being led upstairs to explore.
One visitor commented that the finish was quite rough and it is somewhat crude and naive. It doesn't look as if the cuts were smoothed with sandpaper at all and the pins attaching the carvings to the walls are not all hidden; some are protruding and you have to be careful not to snag your clothing as you pass.
The Guide who showed us around resisted using the word 'eccentric' and chose 'individualistic' instead.
I found it whimsical and felt it represented a freedom to express himself that only real artists ever embrace. I saw it as liberating and inspiring and was grateful for my hour at this wonderful oddity.
My friend, Patrick Baty, visited in 2011 to assist with the paint restoration and has more photos to share.
Address: 575 Wandsworth Road, London SW8 3JD
Tel: 020 7720 9459
575 Wandsworth Road was opened to the public in 2014. Tours are limited to 54 visitors a week, in tours of a maximum of six people at a time. The house is not open all year round (March to May for 2015).