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Old Battersea House (1961)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Old Battersea House (1961)
For Monitor, BBC, tx. 4/6/1961
17 mins, black and white
DirectorKen Russell
Production CompanyBBC
CommentaryHuw Wheldon

With: Mrs Wilhelmina Stirling

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Mrs Wilhelmina Sterling shows her vast collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings, pottery and other artefacts at her home in Battersea.

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Old Battersea House is the actual name of 30 Vicarage Crescent, Wandsworth, South London, a Grade II listed building that houses a remarkable collection of Pre-Raphaelite art across several media.

At the time the film was made, it was owned by the writer Mrs Wilhelmina Stirling (1865-1965). Despite being in her mid-nineties, and obviously frail, her sprightly personality comes across in a series of interviews as she tells curious tourists about alleged sightings of ghosts and about a toad who modelled for the devil in a picture of the angel Ithuriel (the toad was apparently very friendly, and paid frequent visits to the house thereafter). She also passionately believes that the ideals of the Pre-Raphaelite movement will once again be revived, as she considers most modern art to consist of "ghastly monstrosities, only fit to hang in the lunatic asylum."

Mrs Stirling has a family connection over and above personal enthusiasm, as she was the younger sister of the painter Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919), a member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Her husband, William De Morgan (1839-1917) was a potter and ceramicist whose work was championed by the great Victorian designer William Morris, though at the time by few others, and his experiments in rediscovering the technique of lustre glaze nearly bankrupted him.

Huw Wheldon's typically concise commentary supplies brief biographies of the couple, before going on to explore the Pre-Raphaelite philosophy in more detail, with particular reference to Evelyn De Morgan's highly symbolic paintings. What initially looks like a visual conceit on the part of the director turns out to be part of the tour: Mrs Stirling's manservant Mr Peters carries a lamp around to illuminate the darker corners of the collection. In fact, Ken Russell's direction is uncharacteristically restrained, presumably because the house's collections are quite exotic enough to get by without any additional visual or conceptual flourishes.

Mrs Stirling died in 1965, just short of her 100th birthday. A few months before, she had founded the De Morgan Foundation, to which she bequeathed her collection. The house fell into disrepair until it was bought by the American publishing millionaire Malcolm Forbes, who restored it to its former glory. His son Kip, a devotee of Victorian art, added substantially to the collection over the following decades. Meanwhile, Ken Russell would return to the subject of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood six years later, in the feature-length Dante's Inferno (BBC, tx. 22/12/1967).

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Ghostly rapiers (2:12)
2. Evelyn De Morgan (1:27)
3. William De Morgan (1:18)
4. Pre-Raphaelite philosophy (1:32)
Russell, Ken (1927-2011)
Ken Russell: The Monitor Years