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"This is an early-18th century window from St Paul's Cathedral. Oh, and here is a gothic window from Windsor Castle. Ah, and you must see the doors from Wembley Stadium."
OK, that's not an exact quote. Such was the quick-fire, erudite patter of Charles Brooking that any notes we might have been taking quickly fell by the wayside.
Charles is the founding member and chief collector of the Brooking National Architectural Museum in Surrey. For more than 50 years, Charles has collected fittings, fixtures and architectural details that might otherwise have ended in the skip.
We've never seen a museum remotely like it. For starters, it lurks behind the family home, on a quiet suburban back street of Cranleigh — a town miles from any train station.
The highlights of the collection are displayed in an out-building, to the rear (though much more sits in storage in a nearby barn). It is a wonderland of windows; a den of door frames; a burrow of balustrades, banisters and builderly baubles. Every item comes from a building of architectural note; many from London.
We ask Charles to nominate his most treasured item. "Without doubt, ranking high on this list must be the original rear garden door from the main staircase hallway in No. 10, Downing Street, which was fitted during William Kent’s rebuilding of the house, circa 1735-36," says Charles. He carries the details in his head: "The door is solid oak and has robust ovolo-moulded glazing bars and raised and fielded panels in the grand manner, typical of William Kent’s work," he adds.
A national treasure
The Brooking Museum is not just a destination for the idle curious. It serves as a reference museum for anybody studying architectural details. Nowhere in the world has such an extensive collection of sash window mechanisms, for example.
The museum was housed for 25 years at the University of Greenwich, but moved out to Cranleigh in 2012, supposedly as a temporary measure. It is often described as a 'national treasure', albeit one that is little known outside specialist circles.
Brooking's been collecting since he was a small boy. "My first major ‘rescue’ forays to London were with my father, climbing over the remaining burnt-out shells of offices and my father’s favourite bookshop in Paternoster Row on Boxing Day, 1959," he tells us. Since then, he's amassed thousands of items great and small. Point at any object and, like a walking database, he can give you its origin, date of creation, date of acquisition and at least one sparkling anecdote about its original home.
We're shown a window rescued from the Grand Hotel in Brighton, following the bombing of 1984. Nearby is an old piece of drainpipe from the Science Museum and a fan light from St Pancras station. Elsewhere, the museum preserves a pair of doors from the original Wembley Stadium, donated by the Football Association at the time of its demolition.
The collection spans centuries starting with fragments of medieval glass. The earliest complete items date back to the time of Shakespeare, and include oak windows from Cade House in Kent, and a door that may have come from Nonsuch Palace in Cheam.
Modern marvels are not overlooked. The museum has collected doors and windows from Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, completed in 1972 and currently under demolition. "This was a surreal experience for myself," says Charles. He'd visited the site in 1969 during the last wave of demolition to rescue Regency windows from the terraces swept away by the brutalist housing estate.
What of the future?
It is immediately clear, on stepping into this space, that the Brooking Museum deserves its description as a national treasure. But its current home is inadequate and unsustainable.
To safeguard the collection's future, the museum recently acquired charitable status and appointed a board of trustees. Their role is to seek sponsorship and funding, and find a more secure home for this world-class collection. The ambition is to find a space that can serve as both a gallery and archive for professionals and the public.
"Charles has always wanted to share the physicality of the objects," explains Chair of the Trustees, Paul Bonnici-Waddingham. "This is very important for us to realise — the feel, sound, weight, motion, interaction of parts, views through the differently made glass.
"Our aim is not for audiences to simply look and read, but to interact with the objects as they were intended, and also as the craftsmen did as they formed and assembled whole objects."
There's a long way to go. Currently, the museum can only cater for a handful of visitors at a time, by prior appointment. The collection is catalogued only in Brooking's incredible brain. Fresh resources are needed to adequately conserve, preserve, label and display the items.
"I sincerely hope my life’s work will benefit future architects, historians, designers, students and apprentices," concludes Charles. "My life’s passion has been driven largely by my admiration for the craftsmanship, design and beauty to be seen in everyday building details, hitherto unnoticed and largely uncollected and unrecorded by other museums.
"It is the everyday feature, such as the humble 17th century wrought-iron casement window, demonstrating both the blacksmith’s art, glassmaker’s skill and joiner’s craft that have given me so much joy over the years and continue to do so."
The Brooking Museum of Architectural Detail is in Cranleigh, Surrey. It may be visited by appointment only. See the website for details. And please get in touch if you know any wealthy philanthropists who might be able to help the collection.
With thanks to London Historians for arranging the site visit.