Called The Homewood, this modernist 20th-century property was designed and landscaped by renowned architect Patrick Gwynne in 1938, when he was a mere 24 years of age. He later moved into the residence and continued to renovate it throughout his lifetime. Located just outside London in a town called Esher, it’s been maintained by Britain’s National Trust since Gwynne’s death in 2003.
The Homewood heritage
Patrick Gwynne was just 24 when he built the Homewood for his parents. His father called it ‘the temple of costly experience’ but it was a modern masterpiece.
You don’t get more stockbroker belt suburban than Esher, a small, wealthy town 25 minutes on the train from London Waterloo. It’s home to Sandown racecourse, known for its civilised early evening meetings. There’s even a fur shop on the small high street. But now, Esher has become a destination for architectural enthusiasts in love with modernism, since the National Trust opened the Homewood to the public last year.
The Homewood was built in 1938 for the Gwynne family by their architecturally precocious 24-year-old son, Patrick. He’d done only a couple of years in a traditional firm and then a short stint with British modernists Wells Coates (whose Embassy Court in Brighton has just been refurbished). But when the rumbling of increasingly heavy traffic on the nearby A307 began to disturb the family’s peace and rattle the crockery, Patrick’s father, Commander Alban Gwynne, agreed that their large Victorian house should be knocked down and a smart Modern replacement built on a more favourable part of the eight-acre estate. He sold some property in Wales to finance the staggering £10,000 bill and, though he loved the new family home, liked to refer to it as "the temple of costly experience".
The Homewood is a piece of typically British modernism. It borrows the Modern look evolved in Europe of an almost detail-free architecture, with long, horizontal windows and a gleaming white exterior – intended to be a new form of non-hierarchical design. The central part of the house floats above the ground on stilts, and a dramatic open-plan living space is in unadulterated Modern style. Even so, there’s a plant room between the garden and the hall, and you don’t get more country house than that.
The timing of the house was unlucky: war broke out just after its completion. Commander Gwynne resumed his naval duties, Patrick joined the RAF and his sister, Babs, went off to the Wrens. Patrick’s mother Ruby let the house, but died along with her husband in 1942. After the war, Patrick returned along with his sister, who soon married and left. But Patrick wasn’t alone. His long-term companion, pianist Harry Rand, occupied an adjoining bedroom, kitted out identically to Patrick’s, with a single bed and washbasin concealed behind sliding panels.
The Homewood, like many of the houses Gwynne went on to build for celebrity clients, including actors Jack Warner and Laurence Harvey, was a party house. During the 40s and 50s, the large sitting room was furnished with light, movable furniture that could make room for dancing on the sprung maple floor. In the 60s, one wall of the room was remodelled with fibreglass sheeting to improve the acoustics. Hi-fi equipment is integrated into the room’s design, as are facilities for making the perfect cocktail, down to a serving table that pivots out from the wall.
Gwynne loved his gadgets. An aluminium, wall-mounted clock has numbers drilled into its face. A magazine table has a little pull-out shelf on which to put a glass. An aerodynamic desk has cine film editing equipment built in. Gwynne designed them all. In the dining room, the flick of a switch could change the colour of the lighting. Rumour has it that if he changed it to green, you’d been branded a bore.
Gwynne "loved to cook", says the architectural historian Neil Bingham. "That’s why the kitchen is so fabulous." With its brown vinyl walls, deep-fat fryer, barbecue/griddle and storage for three different types of rice, it must have seemed state-of-the-art when it was redesigned in the 70s.
Decor at the Homewood never stood still. Gwynne liked the new, particularly plastics. "He even liked Ikea," says the house’s curator, Sophie Chessum. The walls were originally covered with Japanese grass paper, which was replaced by vinyl imitations of grass paper when that first appeared on the market. "By the 60s, he was using hessian in bright, primary colours on the walls. And everything would match: towels, chair cushions, the lot," she says.
Purists visiting the house now may be dismayed that it is not a shrine to late 30s design. "But that’s what’s so great about the place," says V&A curator Gareth Williams, who visited just before Gwynne died. "It’s a 30s, 50s and 70s house in one. There are layers of living there, and all the many things he made over the years."
In 1993, Patrick Gwynne began negotiations to sign the house over to the National Trust after his death. He spent his last years overseeing repairs and was responsible for every decision. Before he died, in May 2003, Gwynne insisted it be open to small groups for one day a week for six months of the year. Those who visit will get a glimpse into the world of a man who quite simply lived for design.
The Homewood today
The current tenant David Scott explains how he came to live here, “In 2006, I was at a career crossroads. I was looking for something unusual and wanted to be around more for my daughter. I have always been interested in 1930s architecture, so when I saw a National Trust advertisement seeking a tenant for The Homewood, it fitted the bill perfectly.”
What makes the property particularly interesting is that Patrick used it as a testing ground for new ideas throughout his career, so rather than capturing a moment in time, it continued to evolve in the spirit of Modernism. In the 1960s he designed the beige sofa in the living room, using the very latest material, ‘leatherette’. His downstairs office looks more like a 1980s James Bond set than something Le Corbusier might have designed. Towards the end of his life he worked closely with the National Trust on a complete restoration, specifying some very contemporary colours.
“The biggest challenge is the cold,” says David. “Four-inch concrete, plate glass windows and warm-air heating mean that the average temperature is 16 degrees in the winter. Patrick hated the look of radiators and would have loved underfloor heating, but the technology wasn’t available then. That’s the only thing I would change.”
Cold as it may be, the dramatic wall of glass that lines the living room is one of the defining features of the house. Three identical floor-to-ceiling windows are each divided into three panes, framing the view of the grounds perfectly. “The garden is constantly inspiring,” says David. “Its ten acres include woodland, heathland, shrubbery, formal beds and water features. I love how intensely you experience each season here.”
It’s a house that demonstrates not only what Modernism was, but through Patrick’s continual experimentation and his insistence that it remained lived in, what Modernism aspired to be. “I didn’t meet Patrick when he was alive,” says David “but if I could say one thing to him, I would tell him how much The Homewood continues to inspire people.”
Tagged: , Vintage , interior , modernism , museum , architecture , famous , design , 30s , 50s , 60s , 70s , 1938 , Gwynne , architect , Living , Livingroom , Chairs , sofas , London , The , Homewood , Modernist , Masterpiece , Patrick , Gywnne