Khadambi Asalache: The terraced house hand-carved into a real beauty

The National Trust has come up trumps with Khadambi Asalache's glowing gem of a domestic interior, says Rupert Christiansen (Daily Telegrapgh, 25 March, 2013).

London is a city which seems to become less romantic and more sordid by the minute, but behind closed doors it can still work magic. One of them is opened to the public for the first time this month: a glowing gem of a domestic interior, masked by a bleak terraced façade alongside a thunderous main road – the work of a remarkable man called Khadambi Asalache, who died in 2006.

His is a story of the British Empire at its grandest, his life the stuff of a novel by VS Naipaul. Born in 1935, he grew up in rural Kenya, where reading Shakespeare while herding cattle inspired his dreams. He studied art and architecture at university (RTC) and made his way to London in 1960, where he worked for the BBC African Service and published fiction and poetry, before joining the Treasury.

In 1981, he bought 575 Wandsworth Road, for no better reason than its proximity to a bus stop which took him straight into Whitehall. A dilapidated two-up, two-down, with a basement and a small garden, previously occupied by squatters, it was so bleakly charmless and mouldy that – almost as a self-challenge – Asalache felt impelled to turn it into a place of extraordinary beauty, with books, pictures and furnishings all bespeaking his wide range of interests and warmth and dignity of personality.

But what makes the house unique is its decoration. For 25 years, starting with a damp patch in the kitchen, Asalache spent his evenings and weekends single-handedly covering all the walls with an intricate reticulated fretwork, cut with a pad saw from pine and wine crates, much of it salvaged from skips.

Asalache was only an amateur craftsman, but his creation is none the less enchanting for its crudity. In style, it is bizarrely eclectic, reflecting Islamic and rococo influences, as well as those of his native Africa:some of it looks like a child’s party decorations, some of it like the Alhambra in Granada or Mezquita in Cordoba. You can even spot a little chain of ballerinas in tutus, the result of a visit to a performance of Swan Lake. The overall effect is sumptuous and sensual, but also touchingly naive.

I reported briefly on the National Trust’s acquisition of this property a few years ago, but since then the hatches have been battened down for a major restoration project, guided and blessed by Asalache’s delightful widow, Susie Thomson. This is now complete, and the house can be visited by small parties (strictly to be booked in advance via the National Trust’s website).

The restoration, costing more than half a million pounds, is exemplary. Aside from the introduction of necessary measures of security and proofing, the lightest possible touch has been applied, and the house’s authenticity has been honoured right down to the ubiquitous thin layer of dust, the sealing tape on a cracked window pane, and the greasy fingermarks on the plastic light switches. “There’s no set dressing,” Susie Thomson told me. “If Khadambi walked in now, he would recognise absolutely everything was just as he left it.”

This is an Aladdin’s cave, a treasure trove, a gingerbread house and a thing of wonder, imbued with the quiet ghost of a profoundly civilised man. We all love knocking the National Trust and its ghastly good taste, but at 575 Wandsworth Road it really has come up trumps.

Against the grain: the Kenyan poet Khadambi Asalache covered his home with fretwork over 25 years

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