The Brooking Collection of Architectural Design

One of the things I notice most when I go to things around the capital – and indeed the world, is that I almost always manage to find some link with Greenwich. It’s so – well – omnipresent – that there always seems to be something curious I haven’t heard of before comes out of a day trip elsewhere.

And so it was with a trip I took on Friday to the Guildhall Art Gallery, a place you should visit if you get the opportunity. It houses some incredible works, many to do with the history of the City, and not a few of those gems you see incessantly reproduced on birthday cards – the sort where you think ‘blimey – I had no idea that was there…’

I hadn’t actually gone for the art (although I tagged onto a free ‘highlights’ tour which was well worth joining) or even the Roman amphitheatre which lurks eerily in the bowels of the building. I had gone to see a current exhibition of stuff which used to be in the City but now resides elsewhere, The City Beyond the Square Mile.

I had thought that the best Greenwich would do out of the exhibition would be a mention of the glorious stained glass from the Baltic Exchange, now rather stunningly displayed in the Maritime Museum, but then I saw a curiously dusty-looking little case with sundry items in, such as letterboxes and architraving, with an even dustier-looking (curious – the exhibition’s temporary and has only been open a couple of weeks) note next to it.

The Brooking Collection of Architectural Detail was started by Charles Brooking, at the age of 12, in 1966, in his parents’ shed in the back garden (I wonder if he and Robert Opie get together from time to time – they have much in common.) It is, much like the Opie Collection, a gathering together of the sort of stuff people throw away until it’s too late and we realise we’ve lost something visceral from our common history. In Charles Brooking’s case, that stuff is architectural detail – doorknobs and knockers, letterboxes and hinges, skirting and architrave, staircases and stained glass.

He’s been collecting and cataloguing it ever since but it long ago became a tad too big for his dad’s shed. In 1986 the Dartford campus of the University of Greenwich (yes, I, too am still trying to work out just what Greenwich University is doing in Dartford, but in this case, I don’t care) offered to take the collection and turn it into a museum, but it all went a bit pear-shaped in 2002 when the university sold the site.

So – guess where it languishes today? In storage at the Pepys Stable Block in the Old Royal Naval College. Apparently professionals and students can still gain access, but it’s not open to the public any more. Tsk. The label in the exhibition states, vaguely, that there, “it’s hoped that a national archive of period detail will be established for the use of architects, historians and the general public.”

We’ll see.

There’s one bright spot though. Charles Brooking still has his own museum, presumably in his latest garden shed, at Cranleigh, Surrey which is open by appointment, by phoning 01483 274203.


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