There was a knock at the door. I answered it to a tramp who said, ‘Please tell Miss Kennedy the vagrants are outside.’
Marianna heard the message herself, and out down her gilding brush ,to give the men a couple of quid.
‘Oh Marianna’s mother to us all’ said Peter Hone, from where he was styling the new showroom at Marianna Kennedy’s Fournier St house. ‘She’s very bossy, of course.’
Peter Hone, the Peter Pan-like antique dealer who buys for the Rothschilds, now makes resin plaques and lamp bases for the Spitalfields ‘factory’, as the house is known in the neighbourhood.
While other Spitalfields houses have mostly been given over to gentrification, Marianna runs hers in the live/work tradition that has been common to Spitalfields since the Seventeenth century. Huguenot weavers fleeing persecution in France, settled in the area, and began making cloth. The Jews and the Bengalis, looking for refuge and a place to work, continued to use the houses in the same way, whacking up chipboard partitions and stacking the sewing machines upstairs.
Marianna’s own house, built around 1750, was used by a banana trader before she bought it. At the back is a workroom, where bananas were ripened. The old boxes and crates are now part of the restoration, including a fifteen foot banana tree, the best I’ve seen outside Kew Gardens.
The house itself was completely derelict on the upper floors, and without plumbing or any heating ,apart from the fireplaces, Marianna and Charles lived in it while they worked on it. Lath and plaster has been re-done, moldings made, and floorboards and panelling fitted, from the mysterious collection of salvage that Marianna somehow seems to have about her person.
The roof looks like a traditional Pitch tile from the front, but behind it, Marianna and Charles have created a secret garden – rather like Mr Riah’s roof-garden in Our Mutual Friend. Here you can gather beans and nasturtiums and look straight across at the bell tower of Hawksmoor’s Christchurch.
When Marianna first came to Spitalfields, fifteen years ago, the Fruit and Veg market was still running; lorries started up around 4am, there were rats everywhere, and tramps burning bonfires of chucked pallets.
‘It was a wonderful place’ says Marianna ‘Gilbert and George were across the road. Everyone who was poor, like me, came here to paint or to make things, because for normal people it was a nightmare!’
Spitalfields has always been a place for people on the outside. It was built outside London’s city walls, and its energy is of the restless, untamed kind that suits enterprise and creativity. Tracey Emin has moved in a few doors down from Marianna, and Sarah Lucas recently took over Marianna’s ground floor for an exhibition of phallic birthday cakes.
‘There’s endless change and movement here’ says Marianna ‘We make things to sell, and so sometimes we don’t have any furniture ourselves, because someone has bought it.’
Marianna’s partner, the book-binder Charles Gledhill, also has his workshop in the house. He admits that their non-stop working life can be exhausting as well as exhilarating; ‘I sometimes say to Marianna, ‘Why can’t we live in a house we can just sit down in?’
‘We tried’ laughs Marianna. ‘It didn’t work.’
It was Charles’s bookcloth that gave Marianna and her long-time collaborator, James Howett, the brilliant idea of using the stuff to make blinds and lampshades. Working with Miranda and Matthew Eden, they now produce the sexiest blinds you can find. They can be made to order in any colour or size you fancy, and matching one with a couple of their resin lamps, is much more satisfactory than a trip to IKEA.
‘The trouble with mass-produced objects’, says Jim Howett, ‘is that they have no life. When you buy them they are already dead. The best furnishings have something of their maker in them, and then they take on the life of the owner too. People like antiques because they sense this living quality. That’s what we try to offer with our new work,’
But isn’t it all horribly expensive?
Marianna explains that one of their best ideas- the gorgeous resin lamp-shade bases – came out of their desire to produce their carved wood lamp more cheaply. That’s when Peter Hone discovered the call of his ancestors, and began making the molds.
‘I had always made plaster casts of the some of the things I buy and sell – then Marianna decided I had to start making lamps – fortunately Gaylon Hone used to make the finest stained glass windows of the seventeenth century, and before the War, Eve Hone made the windows for Eton College chapel – so the deep colours and glass effect of the resin really run in the family.’
‘I like to push people to use their skills in different ways’ says Marianna, describing her latest project, which is a selection of tables based on Chinoiserie designs. She got excited when she met Pedro da Costa Felgueiras, an expert lacquerist trained in restoration. Together they sand, polish and build up about thirty layers of lacquer on the tables Marianna has painted, then they sit the tops on metalwork legs designed by Jim Howett, and made at the local foundry.
‘These days people call anything shiny, lacquer,’ says Pedro, but the real thing is incredibly beautiful, and has a soft velvety finish. I grind my own pigments for the colour because I hate the flat feel of made-up paint.’
There is nothing self-conscious or pretentiously arty in any of this. Marianna and Jim are both driven by love of the work, and a desire to make contemporary objects using traditional techniques, and developing those techniques where necessary.
‘We want to keep skills alive, but we want to do modern work,’ says Jim. ‘We never make reproductions. We use the past as a guide and then we re-invent it.’
When Jim isn’t designing furniture, you’ll find him drawing up plans to help people in Spitalfields restore their houses in a way that is neither slavish nor garish, Marianna is likely to be nearby, in her old apron on her hands and knees, messing with lime-wash. She laughs, and shows me the stains on her hands,
‘I guess when I’m 70 years old, I’ll still be painting someone’s ceiling with gesso,’
I hope she will. Marianna and her factory is the real centre of Spitalfields. Its energy and its excitement cluster here, outside of anything that can be called normal life. Thank God for that; in our mass-market consumer world of ready-made and disposable objects, we need a few people with different values.
‘Buy one or two things you love and don’t buy anything else’ says Marianna, putting on her lipstick but not taking off her old apron, as she goes to meet a client.
On the way, one of the tramps hails her,
‘Hey Marianna -take a rest! But not for too long, because if you stop, everything stops.’