I keep a pretty, fabric covered file box in which I collect all the pages ripped from magazines and newspapers of things I desperately wish to see. The write-up about the House of Dreams from Time Out is so old it is crumpled and the edges have ripped away. This incredible homage to life is tucked quietly away in East Dulwich and only open a few times a year, and never when I could make it. Until yesterday. Was it worth the wait? Oh yes. Was it what I expected? No. No, not at all. It was crazy and colourful and wild. It was also emotional, a house that has experienced grief, but ultimately it is a validation that life and love are worth celebrating.
Grief. Well there is certainly plenty of that going round London at the moment. Two terror attacks, the after effects of Manchester and then the Grenfell Tower fire. A tragedy so shocking, so horrific, it doesn’t seem possible in the year 2017, in a major world capital. And yet it happened. And the reactions of the politicians, of all stripes, has been mind blowing in its collective paucity. Only the Queen managed to give the people what they want, what they need. But then, that is why she is the Queen. People themselves, of course, have responded tremendously. Even pop star Rita Ora was lugging packs of water. But the full-scale of this misery hasn’t yet been realized. And years of questions, anger and grief await. This was also the weekend that the widower of the murdered MP Jo Cox, the one who said more unites us than divides us, asked the UK to hold street parties to show a little love to our neighbours. Apparently, over 100,000 such events took place yesterday and today. I am sure the fact that the weather has been unusually warm, sweltering actually, helped add to the good humour that comes of people being together. We seem to know the direction we need to go, even if our so-called leaders haven’t a clue. The House of Dreams was therefore a perfectly timed experience as it makes you realize that life isn’t always measured in the big and the grand, but more often in those small moments we make our own.
This house, the whole house, except for a tiny bit of personal space upstairs, on an otherwise nondescript south London street, is an art installation. It is the brain child of Stephen Wright, a successful fashion and textile designer who, in 1998, began creating a safe, magical space away from the overwhelmingness of London, with his then partner Donald Jones. Gaudi-esque mosaics inside and out, collages and assemblages using souvenirs, toys, relics of daily living. An Aladdin’s cave of things most of us throw away, but only after we have kept them preciously.
On Christmas Eve 2004 Donald died. Soon afterwards, Stephen’s father and mother also died. The 3 most important people in Wright’s life gone within the space of 18 months. How does one begin to rebuild after this grief? How does an artist begin to rebuild? By building, of course. Not a shrine to the dead, so much, but a shrine to life. To lives that have been lived, lives filled with laughter, filled with love. The entry hall is covered in writing. In fact there is writing throughout the house. Not horrible, pithy, meme-esque clichés, but thoughtful, often funny, sentences. In this front hall is a long passage, taken straight from Wright’s diary, about Donald’s death in hospital and subsequent funeral. To say it packs a serious punch is an understatement. He was asked if he was afraid to see Donald’s body laid out. Why, he responded, I was never afraid of him before. Why would I be now.
10 years ago, Stephen met his current partner, Michael Vaughan. Michael doesn’t contribute directly to the installation, but provides endless emotional and intellectual support, though, it might be fair to say that his thoughts on the project are sometimes different from Stephen’s. In a lovely 14 minute video about the house, there is a wonderful scene where Stephen brings home some old curlers from a car boot sale and Michael suggests they go straight into a strong solution of bleach. No, no Stephen insists, he wants them to retain the strands of hair, evidence of the person who has used them, proof of the life they touched. And that is what the house has become, evidence of being, of having been. People he has known, and recently, more often, strangers. Isn’t that what we all want at the end of the day, for someone else out there in the world to say: you lived and you mattered and I will miss you forever.
Stephen and Michael do all the meeting and greeting and chatting themselves. They are utterly, utterly, utterly charming, like men of a certain age often are. Welcoming and kind, they are a couple you could easily spend hours and hours with, sitting in their lush back garden, enjoying soft cheese and crisp wine and laughing, laughing and laughing while solving all world problems. The property has already been promised to the National Trust, and while it will no doubt preserve the House beautifully, the absence of these divine hosts will be noticeable.
I honoured their request not to take pictures inside, it is their home after all, though was allowed to snap away in the gardens. Truthfully, my feeble photographic attempts would not have done the interiors justice, and they deserve to be experienced first hand. The front garden is concealed from the street by blue boards. You push open the door and viola….you are in a magical land, made all the more so on my visit by the strong London sunshine which cast everything in an ethereal glow. Mosaics, sculptures, lush greenery and one of the best two lines I have ever read. In fact, if I were a mantra kind of girl this would be it:
I want an Adventure
My life could have been like that. But it’s like this.
The back garden isn’t as filled with art work, instead it is a garden so full you could be excused for forgetting you are in London at all. As Michael explained, there used to a garden centre at the end of the road and obviously it was nearly impossible to walk by without seeing something irresistible. Perhaps that captures the essence of the House of Dreams, and of the artist himself. Wright can’t walk through his days without seeing something irresistible, extraordinary, dreamlike, sentimental in things we otherwise might no longer notice. Baby dolls, ceramic tiles, reading glasses, glass beads, old shoes, his father’s false teeth, and I swear, as you walk round you can hear them whispering…look at us, look at us, look at us. WE REMAIN.