THERE are some buildings to which a mere visit makes tourists feel they have travelled back in time, and 78 Derngate in Northampton is just one of them.
The 19th century building – and adjoining 80 Derngate – has been open to visitors in its current guise since 2003, following an elaborate £1.4 million restoration project.
Visitors can not only explore the old house and garden but also enjoy modern exhibition areas and find out more about the creative minds which made the property famous, namely the well-known Northampton model-maker Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke and the designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
When Bassett-Lowke met Mackintosh in 1916, the artist’s career was dwindling but Charles was commissioned by Wenman (commonly known as Whynne) to remodel the house at 78 Derngate.
The house had been purchased for Wenman by his father for £250, but more money was spent on a plot to allow the garden to be extended and to pay for a remodelling.
The house’s later history saw it pass out of the hands of the Bassett-Lowkes. By 1964, it was the base for Northampton High School. When the school sold the site, a campaign was launched, backed by the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, to enable its preservation and restoration; a dream which came true thanks to the work of the 78 Derngate Northampton Trust and financial support from Heritage Lottery funding.
Visitors to the building can choose from a guided tour or self-guided walk. They can stop to enjoy a 12 minute film, presented by Antiques Roadshow legend Eric Knowles, before pursuing a path into a garden, complete with Rebecca Newnham’s striking modern sculpture entitled Seedlings.
A tour around the house then includes visits to some gloriously restored rooms, most of which really demonstrate Mackintosh’s individual flair for style and Bassett-Lowke’s love of modern gadgets.
Original photos have helped experts to sensitively restore the site and the pictures also reveal to visitors the “mod-cons” such as electric ovens which Bassett-Lowke once had in place in the kitchen.
One of the most eye-achingly striking rooms is the hall/lounge, which would have been the first vision to greet the eyes of the family’s visitors. With original decorative glass panelling – which fortunately for Northampton was never sold to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum despite its requests – the space is full of typically Mackintosh design features. Although, as I remarked to the guide, the heavy use of black and stark patterning would have been hard to live with.
A walk upstairs takes visitors into even more gorgeously restored rooms, including the bold patterned guest bedroom – where George Bernard Shaw was believed to have spent the night as a visitor in 1920 – and the dining room which contains original Bassett-Lowke tables.
The bathroom, which also contains many original features, really shows how modern and advanced the Bassett-Lowke’s home would have been for its time, with hot and cold running water and a functioning bath and shower.
A final stop for visitors is a modern exhibition area made up of cases with items personal to the Bassett-Lowkes. Not only are there model ships from Wenman’s collection, but one can also glimpse his dress buttons, tie pins and even the original front door to the home of which he must have been so proud.
Other attractions on site include a chance to stop for a bite to eat at The Dining Room, as well as shopping opportunities at 78 Derngate’s gift shop.