Art, Past & Park

ba-obj-14682-0001-pub-print-lgWanstead House by Richard Westall (1765–1836). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Historian and author Dr Hannah Armstrong talks about her earliest memories of Wanstead Park and her personal journey to writing Wanstead House: East London’s Lost Palace

My mum tells me that she took me to Wanstead Park just days after I was born. We lived in Langley Drive, just a stone’s throw away; in fact, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t going to the park as a child! I have a very vivid memory of looking up at the Grotto and my mum telling me about a house. I remember thinking the Grotto was the house and then later feeling surprised at how large it actually was. My dad’s job took us overseas and I left Wanstead at eight years old, so it was not until about 15 years later that I was reunited with this interest.

I have always loved art and design, so it seemed only natural to me to apply to art school. I studied at Camberwell, specialising in textile design, specifically embroidery and screen printing. In my second year, I wrote a dissertation about William Morris and his ideology of art for all. That really set something alight for me. From that point, it became clear I wanted to turn my attention to the history of design and so applied for the MLitt in Decorative Arts and Design History at Glasgow University. That year changed everything for me.

During my Masters, I developed an interest in 18th-century interiors and domesticity, specifically, how they were represented in conversation pieces (informal group portraits). I would occasionally come across references to Wanstead, and I was amazed and excited to learn that such a significant house once stood in the park I used to visit as a child. Realising it was relatively understudied in academia, I applied for funding and was delighted to be accepted to study for my PhD at Birkbeck College, University of London. I was incredibly fortunate to be supervised by Kate Retford, a wonderful historian who has written much on Georgian conversation pieces and the country house.

The part of my PhD I most enjoyed were my archive days at the Essex Record Office and the Wiltshire and Swindon Record Centre. It is an incredible experience to hold a letter in your hands written by someone you have spent so much time thinking and writing about. I find those moments very moving, as if we are connected in time through one artefact. Other highlights included having access to visit a house in Hills Road, Cambridge where I could finally encounter real fragments of building fabric from Wanstead House.

If I could go back in time, I would love to meet Richard Child, 1st Earl Tylney, and watch Wanstead House being constructed and see its interior flourish. I would be really interested to see the Elizabethan manor that stood on the site prior to the building of Colen Campbell’s classical mansion. And I wouldn’t mind being a fly on the wall when Richard and Campbell met!

I have really enjoyed writing about the furnishing of Wanstead House, transporting myself into Wanstead House and imagining how it must have felt to experience the house. It was great fun piecing together its interior through reading visitor accounts, studying floor plans and analysing famous portraits by Hogarth and Nollekens.

My plans for the future include giving some talks later in the year at St Mary’s Church, Wanstead, the Copped Hall Trust and at Wanstead Fringe. I am also excited about the new developments at Wanstead Park, in particular, the restoration of the Grotto boathouse structure. I hope my book will help to generate interest and support for the park’s long-term preservation.

This article was based on an interview with Nigel Franceschi of the Friends of Wanstead Parklands, which commissioned the book.

Wanstead House: East London’s Lost Palace will be published in March 2022. Pre-orders receive 40% off the £45 retail price. For more information, visit swvg.co.uk/palace