Every house is a museum. Through its style, fittings and furniture, its knick-knacks and its art, a visitor can read a life, a lifestyle, a series of aspirations and influences. Even the most apparently banal house can become, after a couple of centuries have passed, a charismatic capsule of a moment in time.
The domestic interior is a remarkably direct medium, communicating so much about how lives have been lived. So it is not surprising that an artist’s or writer’s house might become a kind of temple, a conduit to creativity and the closest we can come to a spatial rendering of a life.
The most moving displays in contemporary culture rarely occur at the grand scale of the gallery but, rather, in the intimate confines of the domestic. The much-admired Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, for instance, was intended as a space to make contemporary art approachable. Jim Ede (1895-1990) thought that if visitors could experience art and craft in an ordinary domestic context, it might become less alienating. Others, such as Sir John Soane (1753-1837), used their houses to weave elaborate historic fictions and as shop windows for their abilities.
The disconnect, however, is that many creative figures worked at a grand scale intended for mansions and public buildings, the desired effect of which is to impose and to impress, while their own dwellings remained modest. That was the issue confronting the house museum of one of Britain’s most perennially popular artists, Sir Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88).
Gainsborough’s house in the small Suffolk town of Sudbury is an accretion of elements, continuously altered to suit changes in use and taste. Gainsborough was born and grew up here, the son of a weaver. As a successful artist he lived in Ipswich, then fashionable Bath and, finally, London. But as a child he would have looked over the fields and hills beyond the town. And it was this landscape that formed the background to arguably his finest painting, “Mr and Mrs Andrews” (c 1750).
That unusual double portrait (hanging at the National Gallery in London) with its landscape (rather than portrait) format, encapsulates the bond between the people and the place, wealth and heredity, the ownership of the earth. And it embodies Gainsborough’s own internal conflict between the landscapes he so desired to paint (along with Richard Wilson, he effectively established the British landscape genre and became a huge influence on John Constable) and the portraits through which he made his (very good) living.
Because it was increasingly constricted as a museum, it was decided to expand the building on to the grounds of a neighbouring former labour exchange. Architects ZMMA won a competition and have built a handsome extension in local red brick that treads carefully between the domestic and the public, the scale of the street and the scale of the landscape, between interiority and the embrace of the panoramic views in Gainsborough’s own work.
That the delicate brickwork appears to be woven as much as laid is no accident. If you look at the luxurious sheen of Mr and Mrs Andrews’ clothes, you’ll find a clue to Sudbury’s wealth. It derived from its status as the centre of Britain’s silk-weaving industry, the successor to Huguenot Spitalfields once taxes destroyed London’s own industry. One floor in this house attests to that history, its large windows and industrial austerity still suggesting its silk-weaving workshop past.
The new gallery next door (which also features temporary exhibitions of works by other artists and from other eras) has allowed the house itself to breathe a little easier, lifting the responsibility of displaying the entire collection of Gainsborough’s works in those modest rooms. Instead it can relax into being something more like a house again.
And, with a history stretching back to the early 16th century, it is a seductive millefeuille of layers of fashion and domesticity embodying half a millennium of taste. The old half-timbered house was, as many were, dressed up in brick to make it more modern, becoming a Georgian house with a fashionably Gothick garden facade but retaining many of the timber beams and doorways that reveal its roots. During the 20th century, it served as a tea-room, as a guest house and as an antique shop. A more exquisitely English history would be difficult to imagine.
Since 1961, though, the house has been dedicated to its most famous resident. With an array of elegant 18th-century furniture (some on loan from the V&A), books, fittings and works by Gainsborough and his contemporaries, the rooms exude a quiet domesticity.
A recreation of an 18th-century artist’s studio complete with desk and paints could have been recently vacated, lightly haunted by a large, adjustable lay figure missing a leg and a hand, and sprawled in a wooden chair. The room features Gainsborough’s own copies of a Rubens and a Van Dyck.
But the room is in a part of the house built a few decades after the artist himself had died. Another room is dedicated to music, with superb antique instruments, creating atmosphere but not authenticity — Gainsborough loved music but these artefacts have little to do with him.
Another room revolves around printmaking. Découpage prints line the stairwell walls, while in the gallery gorgeous green silk wallpaper (donated by Sudbury firm Humphries Weaving) proves the perfect foil for Gainsborough’s paintings.
The new extension, where a wider range of works can be displayed in more conventional and climate-controlled conditions, is pivotal in allowing the museum to become a cultural institution rather than “just” a house. This conundrum is at the heart of all house museums. How do you keep visitors coming back? The small house museum can tend towards the mausoleum, capturing a moment in domesticity and a connection to genius that inevitably must otherwise remain unchanged.
Even those house museums with the densest and most illustrious of collections (which could keep a visitor occupied for a lifetime), such as Sir John Soane’s Museum, have felt the need to expand and open galleries for temporary exhibitions to keep them vital as public institutions.
Intriguingly, this is no time capsule. Instead, this is a house that kept evolving well after Gainsborough had gone. Yet despite the incessant alterations, perhaps most remarkable of all is that in the garden stands a mulberry tree — planted to accommodate silkworms, though apparently it turned out to be the wrong kind of mulberry — that Gainsborough would have looked at as he grew up.
There are threads of place here that connect us deep into history, just as the art gives us a glimpse of an age when England was rising from a provincial to a global force, driven by revolutions in agriculture and industry, and its artists were called on to capture an image of place, personality and power.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture and design critic
Cartography by Liz Faunce, map based on Mapcreator.io | OpenStreetMap data