Visiting the Geffreye Museum by Guest Blogger Jo Manning


Geffrye Museum frontage, showing extensive lawns…a serene place of an afternoon to wander about or just to sit on a bench and contemplate life…

Blogger  Margarita  Lorenzo (her blog is here) writes:  
“13 years I have been in London, and never have visited the Geffrye Museum before, that is bad!! considering it is a bus ride away from home, free to visit and about a subject I adore, interiors.  [I] decided to venture to East London to discover a bit more about this area and the Museum. The venue is the right size, have gorgeous gardens, entrance, and rooms exploring each period of the English Middle Class houses and their decorations, different styles, ways of living etc. … “ 

Main entrance to Geffrey Museum, with statue of Sir Robert Geffrye, who was a Lord Mayor of London and Master of the Ironmongers Company, over the door

Ms. Lorenzo's remarks are what one hears over and over again when the Geffrye Museum is mentioned in conversation… Yes, people have heard the name, but, no, they’ve never visited, and, gee, it’s so accessible using public transportation! 

And the exhibitions are always worthwhile.  In keeping with the dedicated educational purpose of the Geffrye, there are excellent demonstrations and talks.  Their holiday celebrations are not to be missed! (Though be warned that the herb gardens may not be open to the public at that time.) Click here for upcoming events. 
So, yes, if one has the time, walk…but take a good map.  There are some challenging blocks from the tube station to the Geffrye, many windings and turnings. (And some excellent Vietnamese restaurants, though I’d recommend eating in the brand-new, very nice restaurant at the Geffrye.)  This used to be the seat of the furniture trade and a Jewish area.  It was also home to Huguenot weavers. The little houses where the weavers lived and wove are now selling in the millions of pounds.

 Before lottery money, the Geffrye was these old almshouses bequeathed by a wealthy 17th century London merchant, a charming but rather modest low-key and free museum that was a must on school visit lists.  Its raison d’etre was the glimpse of the many rooms, by century and decade, depicting life in London.  Since my initial visit some dozen or so years ago, the Geffrye has blossomed.  Yes, that lottery money!  It enabled the museum to put in more extensive herb gardens (a joy!), expand the educational nature of the museum with gallery space and a large room for crafts and other activities, add additional period rooms, exhibition space, and, last though certainly not least, to install a gorgeous restaurant where once there was only a modest café.

(See for a virtual tour, or, using the search term Geffryre Museum, click on to Google Images. The new website is amazing!)

Below is a good aerial view of the 1998 extension to the Geffrye. You are seeing the windows of the restaurant that look out onto the new herb gardens.  If you could see further, there’s a wall and beyond that, the new tube station. The church spire is St Leonard’s, I believe, and you can just make out some of the tall office buildings (the famed Gherkin is one of them) in the environs of Liverpool Street.  Directly across from the museum is well-maintained council housing. The architectural firm responsible for the extension done in 1998 was Branson Coates Architecture.

The Branson Coates extension to the Geffrye almshouse, above.

In May of this year, the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded £518,500 to the firm of renowned architect David Chipperfield for a new, major development.  The resulting museum will be renamed Museum of the Home. (Surely not! Will they really eliminate the name of the benefactor Geffrye from the museum’s name? Methinks it will be along the lines of:  The Geffrye, Museum of the Home.)

schematic of the design

According to the Geffrye Museum website: “The total project cost is an estimated £13.2m and is due for completion in April 2015.”

Masterplan by David Chipperfield Architects, 2010

A view of Sir Robert Geffrye's almhouses, 1805

It was apparently owing to influential members of the Arts and Crafts movement in England, circa 1914, that the old almshouses became a museum.  One of the main ideas behind it was to honor the local furniture industry in the Shoreditch/Spitalfields area and “to educate and inspire the local workforce”.  The major consumers of such furniture were London’s middle-class, so the period rooms reflect middle-class taste and furniture affordable to them.  

1906 watercolour 
According to the Geffrye website:
   “The museum's collections are presented in the context of period      rooms…Their purpose is to show the changing styles and tastes of this  urban middle class at different periods of history. They represent living rooms, known in the past as parlours, and later, drawing rooms, and  show examples of the furniture, textiles and decorative a particular period. Clearly there were always a number of designs, colours  and patterns to choose from, and these displays can only show a limited  selection.”

1790 Parlour

Again from the Geffrye website:
            “The use of the parlour remained much the same as earlier in the  century… the room where the family … gathered, received guests and taken meals. However, the way it was decorated and furnished had  changed considerably.
            “In diaries, journals and letters of the time people often referred to rooms and furnishings that they liked as ‘neat’, which meant bright and stylish as  well as clean and tidy. This taste required lighter colours and more delicate decoration. Wallpapered walls were particularly useful for achieving this effect, replacing heavily moulded panelling.  
            “In the museum’s room the wallpaper is a modern replica copied from a  fragment dating to around 1780. The plaster frieze is copied from a house in Cross Street, Islington. Interest in classical design and decoration was increasingly widespread towards the end of the century.”
Keep in mind that the primary visitors to the Geffrye are school groups.  I think that this description is clear but does not make the mistake of talking down to students. The rooms are accessible, the descriptions brief, and every child can surely relate to the concept of a living room.

And the gardens!  These are my favorite part of the Geffrye, to be honest. (A word of caution:  they are not open all year around, so check before visiting if this is would be an important reason for your visit.) When I first found my way to the Geffrye, there was only this (below).  When more funds became available to the museum, period gardens were put in place, and they are brilliant.

Entering the first (and original) herb garden

 And here is the 18th Century Period Garden:

This is rose "De Meux" with a box hedge
 “Town gardens were increasingly seen as an extension of the house, a place for recreation and entertainment ... The evidence indicates that the prevailing taste was for simplicity and tidiness, with ornamental gardens featuring paved and/or rolled gravel paths, geometric beds with box edging and the use of evergreen shrubs, often clipped and kept distinct from  one another.”

Last year at the Geffrye  --  I am in the Period Gardens  --  over my left shoulder is the restaurant  -- to my right and behind the brick wall, is  the brand-new and spiffy Hoxton Station, on the spur line coming from Liverpool Street Station
What else is there to do at the Geffrye?  And you will have to dedicate at least 2 hours to the galleries and gardens; 3 hours if you decide to have lunch. (Wish they’d post the menus online! It’s great English food, the best.)

Well, there is a very fine shop.  (I’d recommend buying the beeswax polish, for starters, great for antique furniture!)  Nice ceramics and fun stuff for children like the Regency paper doll.  There are inexpensive and handy cutaways of period houses that can be very useful for writers of historical fiction, too.  Check here for items made exclusively for the museum.

 Above is a schematic map showing how to get there from Liverpool Street Station. The Geffrye stop is Hoxton Station. You won’t have to walk if you don’t want to do so. (Or, you could walk there, through that intriguing old East London area, and return to Liverpool Street by tube…)

I would also recommend walking around that Liverpool Street area, checking out all the (expensive!) trendy shops and restaurants, and don’t forget to take a photo under the famous Brick Lane sign.  You’ll be happy you did  -- Jo

* I assume everyone reading this knows what almshouses were…but, just in case, here is the definition, from the online Cambridge Dictionary:

“A private house built in the past where old or poor people could live without having to pay rent.”  

It’s as good a definition as any, but I would add that both private individuals and local towns, villages, etc., would erect such houses.  Their distinctive style of architecture can be seen all over England and many have been converted to senior citizen subsidized housing.

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