Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Charterhouse, London

I used to live almost opposite the Charterhouse at one time, when I was working in London. I knew the area around Smithfield, and Saint Bart's, and all the little streets of old houses and ancient pubs that both the Great Fire and the Luftwaffe had failed to reach. But I'd never visited the Charterhouse itself, till Friday last week when I was walking from Barbican down towards Holborn to catch a bus, and found myself in Charterhouse Square facing a sign that pointed to a 'Museum (free)'. Either one of which words would have been appealing, but the two together made a visit irresistible.

The Charterhouse has had a mixed history. It was founded as a monastery; became one of the most luxurious houses in London after the Reformation; then became a school and almshouse. Now, the school has moved out and only the almshouses remain, sheltering gentlemen* of a certain age. What's remarkable is that the flavour of the Charterhouse incorporates all these strands of its rich and complex history.

In the chapel, the ornate Renaissance tomb of Thomas Sutton, (re)-founder of the Charterhouse, tells the story of the self-made man who left his entire fortune to charity. (It was contested, of course.) It fills practically the entire wall, soaring up to the roof on columns with beautiful gilded capitals; at the top stands the figure of Charity with her cornucopia, and besides two men in armour, a cherub blowing golden bubbles (the fragility of which represents mortality), figures of the virtues, and the heads of spotted hounds (Sutton's crest), there's also a frieze of Jacobean gentlemen listening to a sermon - perhaps actually here in the Charterhouse. Not a space is left unfilled by this exuberant, if not always polished, work.

The chapel is a wonderful space, with its high white ceiling, particularly on a bright summer day when the sunlight pours in. The other memorials may not all be tasteful, but they're interesting if you have a historical bent - I spotted composers Tobias Hume and JC Pepusch (a friend of Handel's), as well as the writer Thackeray, the Methodist John Wesley with the motto 'the world is my parish', and Lord Ellenborough whose statement that "one must not put manacles on science" was instrumental in developing the concept of fair use in copyright law.

Go into the museum and you're in a much smaller, almost claustrophobic room, giving on to dim corridors with faintly lit exhibits. Here is the original founder Walter de Manny's bulla, found in his coffin - a papal seal, probably from the document that gave him the privilege of selecting his own deathbed confessor. Here is a skeleton, not de Manny's but that of a plague victim. Then there are views of the spectacular carvings in what was Lord North's splended house, before it passed through the hands of the Howards to end up with Thomas Sutton; there are pots, and Bibles, and a splendid English alabaster carving of the Trinity, and a Communion Cup in silver,and most splendid of all, a water map of the Charterhouse showing how water got from Islington to the monastery, dating from 1341 and rolling out on three metres of parchment across the wall.

Perhaps most touchingly, there's an ancient chair - added to, restored, repaired, much like the Charterhouse itself. 

Why did I never visit the Charterhouse before? There's a good reason; from 1348 to 2017, the Charterhouse guarded its privacy. It was never open to the public. Since the beginning of 2017, the museum and the chapel have been open to visitors, and guided tours (£10) offer a chance to see the inner courts, Great Hall, and part of Lord North's great mansion. Or you can take a tour with one of the Brothers - a more intimate tour, since each Brother gives the tour from his own perspective, talking about his own life and interests as well as the Charterhouse's history.

* I understand the Charterhouse now also accepts ladies as residents.

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