Sutton House: A Tudor gem in trendy Hackney

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Hackney was once a genteel retreat with many houses for the nobility, and even one of the many Royal Palaces of Henry VIII stood here, now sadly lost. Once the railway arrived in the middle of the nineteenth century it lost its reputation as a genteel retreat. Even though soaring property prices have ensured a renewed wave of gentrification of the area it currently still retains much of its multicultural and trendy appeal, though for how long this will last is anyone’s guess.

Tucked within this borough lies Sutton House, now run by the National Trust. Though the façade might not show this directly this is a survival of Hackney’s Tudor past.

Sadler Holbein

Sadler, painted by Holbein, Metropolitam Museum of Art

Above: Portrait thought to be of Sir Ralph Sadler, painted 1535 by the workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger, now in the Metropolitan Museum

The house was built in 1535 for Sir Ralph Sadler (or Sadleir, or Sadlier according to the more relaxed attidute towards spelling in the Tudor period). Sadler was placed in the household of Thomas Cromwell and by all accounts received a well rounded education there. He went on to serve both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I as Privy Councillor, as well as amsbassador to Scotland on several occasions. Sadler is a major character in the books Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hillary Mantel which charts the rise and fall of Sadlers protector Thomas Cromwell, and the character therefore also features in the recent BBC adaptation.

The ownership of the house reflects the social changes in Hackney itself . Courtiers gave way to merchants, captains, silk-weavers, local clergy, and prior to its restoration squatters who used it as a music venue. All these occupants have left their imprint on the house. At some point the house was devided in two, which explains the different treatment of the two halves, both in the interior as the exterior.

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The Linenfold Parlour, the wonderful panelling was at one point removed and sold to a reclamation yard who thankfully recognised the importance and returned it to the house. 

In Hackney Sadler built himself a comfortable mansion with some great interiors. The magnificent linenfold parlour on the ground floor is wonderfully atmospheric. Behind the panelling there is an intriguing survival, the walls have colourful polychrome paintings in the same linenfold pattern executed in hues of yellow and green. The actual panelling itself was apparently painted in the same bright colours with the frames between the panels executed in a mahogany colour enriched with gold leaf decoration. The overall effect must have been stunning and merits far more attention, perhaps a wall could be re-created in one of the empty rooms on the upper floor?

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The painted staircase

The house is rich with traces of original polychrome decoration, the staircase is no exception. The chunky strap-work paintings uncovered on the walls here are painted to suggest more expensive carving. Earlier conservation treatments seem to have left the paintings with a rather glossy varnish, hopefully this can be undone in a future treatment that might also do more to connect fragments of wall painting that currently seem to be floating in an expanse of white wall. The staircase dates to the early 17th century when the house was owned by Captain Millward, a wealthy silk merchant. This new staircase replaced a rather steep one that used to connect the LLinenfoldparlour directly with the Little Chamber.

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The Little Chamber

Directly above the Linenfold Parlour is yet another elegantly panelled room. The traces of marbling, gilding, and polychromy on the stone fire surround hint at a more colourful past of this interior as well, although the re-created wax-cloth on the floor does its best to compensate for this loss. The room has been furnished to reflect its likely use as the main room for the Lady of the house, although one would expect to find a bed in such a chamber as well.

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The Great Chamber

The largest room in the house is the Great Chamber which has the same footprint as the original Hall on the ground floor which has been subdivided over the years. The many windows make that light is as much a feature in this room as the furniture and portraits.

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Another view of the Great Chamber

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The Georgian Parlour

The left ‘half’ of the house has seen more remodelling in the past than the right, although the proportions of the rooms remain similar on both sides. The Georgian Parlour mirrors the Linenfold Parlour on the other side. Though elegant it is a rather anonymous room, and the National Trust could surely do more to make the best of it. Of course this simple interior will never be something to rival its grander relatives that the Trust takes care of, but it could do with a bit more of the atmosphere focussed approach they successfully used at Ightham or the faded glory approach at Calke Abbey.

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The Victorian Room

The Victorian Room slightly better than the Georgian parlour but could also do with an update to its interpretation. Both of these spaces look rather like period rooms created with some leftover pieces of furniture in storage. The house suffers from ‘Installation sickness’ throughout, my term for a profusion of inappropriate lighting, exit signs, and fire alarms that break the suspension of disbelief that one looks for when visiting such places.

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The Period Room Caravan (The Grange), a creation by Daniel Lobb who designed the Breakers Yard Garden that it sits in as well. 

In the adjacent garden there is a magnificent selection of adapted vehicles that are now part of the whole Sutton House experience. My favourite is an enlarged caravan (in  fact two caravans stuck onto each other) with a brilliant interior created from period elements found in skips. The result is perhaps the only caravan I’d voluntarily like to stay in, complete with a grand staircase, moulded ceilings and an impressive fireplace.

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The grand caravan interior, up-cycling at its best. 

There is a lively community involved in the management of the house, and the activities seem to ensure that it is embedded in the local community. This is a great place to visit, and it has a lot of potential for future improvements if funding can be found. Perhaps they could cash in on the Wolf Hall connection, taking a leaf out of the excellent set design work on that production could do this house no harm at all. Of course these reflections on possible improvements are beside the point, this is a brilliant house to explore and spend some time, and it has overcome one of the most important challenges faced by historic house museums; it has remained relevant and has local support.

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The Squatters Mural, a remnant of the period the house was used by squatters as a music venue, thankfully preserved and now part of the rich history of this house. 

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