Inigo Jones’s Loo

Inigo Jones was a man in demand in the 17th century. Britain’s first Palladian building – The Queen’s House – had been a a massive hit and he had consequently become a bit of a status symbol.

Charlton House, down the road to Royal Greenwich was already twenty-something years old, and built in the old Jacobean style. It was grand enough, but The Dean of Durham was always looking for new ways to fancy-it up. And what better way than to get the most famous architect of your day to build you a nice little summer house? Stick it in the front garden so that everyone can see it, make it pretty as possible and bish-bosh – you’re well-in with the nobs…

It was built about 1630, which makes me think it must have been for the Dean’s wife – he died in 1629 – and it is very girly. It’s also known as The Orangery – but I confess I’m not totally convinced. I can’t see that it would have been much cop as a greenhouse – there just don’t seem to be enough windows. My humble guess would have been that it was a banqueting house – a place to enjoy your pudding with a handful of your most important friends, apart from all the general hoi-poloy.

Sugar was ridiculously expensive. Only a few selected toffs would have been allowed to have dessert – so a banqueting house didn’t need to be any bigger than a very cute shed. If my culinary history is vaguely accurate, it was an ever-so-slightly outmoded idea by then, but still popular among social climbers. And who better to get than Inigo Jones, who, after all, had built the grandest banqueting house of all, at Whitehall.

I have no idea if I’m right and Charlton’s was a banqueting house rather than just a nice place to take tea – but I cling to my romantic notion of candlelit after-dinner frivolities with velvet-clad gentry stuffing their faces with candied fruits, spiced comfits and marchpane…

A gorgeous little place, with fancy brickwork and a high, vaulted roof, the flats opposite wouldn’t have been in the way in the 17th Century, so guests would have had a fantastic view across the river while they were scoffing their sweeties.

It’s in the shadow of a massive old mulberry tree, one of James I’s bright ideas. In the first years of his reign, he got all his nobles to plant mulberry trees in their back gardens so that Britain could have a silk industry of its own. Sadly he wasn’t much of a botanist and he picked the variety that silk worms don’t like…

But banqueting was on its way out, and fashions were changing. The Brian Sewell of the 18th Century, Horace Walpole, quite liked Inigo Jones, but couldn’t help himself from being sniffy even about people he rated. “Overdoing ornament,” he wrote, of Jones’s “supposed” work at Charlton House, and it is true that we can’t be absuloutely sure that Jones actually built the little kiosk. Slowly forgotten, the dusty Summer House saw a bit of use as a base for Charlton Village Guard for a while in the early 19th Century, and it even managed to retain some of its dignity until the mid 20th Century when everything went horribly wrong.

Some bright spark turned it into a public loo. I guess a few people in 1937 would have been delighted, but it was an ignoble end for such a fine little building. Or it would have been. There was one final indignity. The loos were closed a few years ago. It’s bad enough being a public bog, but a dead public bog? Not even useful in a lowly way?

But I am an optimist. I harbour hope for this lovely little place. It’s Grade I listed, so it can’t be pulled down. Maybe – just maybe – it can live again. Charlton Village is a gorgeous little enclave, maybe enough cash will be found to turn it into something lovely again. A sweet shop, perhaps…

One Comment to “Inigo Jones’s Loo”

  1. [...] which side their bread was buttered when it came to the toffs, I’ve decided to twin it with Inigo Jones’s Loo in [...]