Sutton House is listed in the NT handbook as Sutton House and Breakers Yard and the second half of this description certainly got my attention when I was planning this visit. However, I have to admit that it was only several hours after my visit, while sitting on the number 38 bus in central London that I realised we never saw the breakers yard! Having dug a little deeper on my return home, I’m assuming that the delay in opening up this new outdoor space is probably due to a little of the Trust’s own digging, this time of the archaeological kind. During our visit, a very friendly member of staff (who also makes a good cup of tea!) encouraged us to look out of the windows of the house – in fact, the windows of the ladies’ toilet, which appears to have the best view – to see the dig going on alongside. This has already revealed some of the Tudor brickwork from the old tanhouse that sat alongside Sutton House in Tudor times so it seems that whatever the Trust had planned for their added outdoor space, it is on hold for now.
Certainly, the combination of the Tudor with the Breaker seems more than a little incongruous but that is Sutton House all over; it is a mass of contradictions and surprises both in its architecture and its human stories. To start with, its location is something of a surprise. With all due respect to Hackney, it didn’t seem the most likely place to find a Tudor-built house and I later learned that this is in fact the oldest domestic dwelling in the East End of London. The next surprise was that it was a brick-built house, very different from the traditional wooden-framed buildings of Tudor times, and this distinction was clearly recognised at the time as it was originally known as ‘the bryk place’.
For anyone with an interest in architecture, Sutton House is a fascinating mash-up of Tudor and Georgian. A remodelling in the 1740s altered the entire face of the house and covered over many of the Tudor features. However, the Trust now offers the visitor a chance to see both periods, with several of the rooms having hinged wall panels which you can open up to reveal the original building behind. Some of this panelling is in itself pretty special, including the linenfold panelling in the Linenfold Parlour, the first room on the tour. In another room, the panelling has been removed completely and you can see pencilled graffiti left by one of the builders who worked on the house in 1904 – a sort of ‘I woz ’ere’ and a nice little touch to highlight the many varied stages of the house’s development.
While architecture fans may be satisfied with their visit, furniture or art connoisseurs will be less impressed with Sutton House as the contents are relatively sparse. However, I would advise any visitor to buy the guidebook and read up about the chequered history of the building as it will make you realise how lucky we are that the building still exists in any shape or form suitable for visitors. It has certainly had its fair share of diverse owners and occupants – including one James Deane (unfortunately, not the James Dean!) – and although I couldn’t possibly list details of them all here, I will just run through a few: the first owner was a prominent Tudor statesman and he was variously followed (among others) by a wealthy silk merchant, a school for girls, a series of Huguenot merchants, a Navy Office clerk, a school for boys, an institute for the social, mental and spiritual development of young men, Hackney Social Services and eventually squatters. After this, some of the panelling and fireplaces were removed by thieves but most were recovered and put into storage before the house was boarded up to protect what remained.
What exists today at Sutton House owes a lot to a local pressure group, the Sutton House Society, which was founded in 1987 and worked closely with the Trust to devise a scheme to refurbish the property. Today, as well as being open for the general public to view, the house is also used as a focal point to promote the heritage of Hackney and as a cultural and social centre for the local community. There was a meeting going on in the Wenlock Barn during my own visit, while the house is currently staging a project about influential black Londoners aimed at children, with each room featuring a postcard written from Sutton House to a prominent historical member of the black community. The house is also being used as a gallery at the moment, displaying a range of contemporary horticultural artworks. It really is very different from a traditional NT property so I would only advise the trip across London if you like surprises and can open your mind beyond what you would normally expect from the NT experience. For myself, I admit to being a little disappointed in the contents of the house (although some of the panelling was striking) but I was thoroughly impressed with the idea that an NT house could have such a prominent role in its local community and in the education of local children.
After a very long and extremely shaky bus ride back through London (I’m not sure what was wrong with the engine but it definitely needed a tune-up of some kind), I got home to read the guidebook and fill in further details of some of the former occupants I had read about during my visit. The most interesting of all is the first, Ralph Sadleir, a friend of Thomas Cromwell (who had his own house in nearby Clapton). Sadleir is notable in several ways, first of all he worked as a diplomat during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I… and survived with his head on his shoulders, which is no mean feat! His wife was also the first person to be granted an annulment due to abandonment, having married Sadleir after her first husband disappeared, only to have him reappear at a later date and threaten the legitimacy of the seven children from her second marriage. I’m happy for the seven little Sadleirs but have to wonder what status her two children from her first marriage were granted after the annulment; it seems to me that they drew the short end of that particular straw.
While the film buff in me was briefly tantalised by the mention of James Dean(e) in the guidebook, my inner bookworm was much more satisfied at being told that Victorian writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton was one of the pupils who attended school at Sutton House. Although it appears his stay was cut short after ‘disagreements’ with the masters, it is another surprising fact that Sutton House threw at me just when I thought I finally had its measure.
Highlights: The linenfold panelling, the community spirit
Refreshments: Cup of tea
Purchase(s): Guidebook, ‘The Black Arrow’ by Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘The Swan Thieves’ by Elizabeth Kostova