Yesterday I drove down to Cranleigh in Surrey to the home of Charles Brooking, the man who is famous for collecting historic windows. Our meeting had come about through a casual enquiry I had made to him about the origin of French windows and, more specifically, whether it’s correct to say French windows or French doors. According to Charles, it’s very definitely French windows: French doors is utterly non-U. The habit of fitting them arrived in Britain in the early 19th century and it does appear to have originated in France, where timber joinery practices were some way in advance of ours.
Anyway, one thing led to another and yesterday morning I found myself entering the strange world of Charles Brooking and his enormous collection of joinery dating from the 1500s through to the 1960s. We immediately found out that we had much in common. Both of us were born in 1953, both of were sent to minor public schools and neither of us had done much that resembled a normal day’s work since. Whilst standing in one of the many sheds in his garden, leaning against some timber sash window he had salvaged from God knows where, he seemed very keen to talk me through some of the byways of his life and carreer, and how it has always come back to his fascination with architectural details. Charles claimed that this started for him as early as his 3rd birthday.
It placed him really as a man out of his time. He seems to sit uneasily in a world of congestion charging, security cameras and internet banking. He talked wistfully of the fun and freedom of the 60s and 70s and said he didn’t regret not having any children because he thought they faced a grim future. Oh dear, maybe this recession business really is getting to people.
The point about Charles Brooking is that he isn’t just some eccentric collector with a case of OCD: he ferrets out stuff with a purpose and is assembling a body of work, which is quite unique in the world. His work has come to the attention of many over the years, including such luminaries as Prince Charles, and he has for many years been employed by the University of Greenwich as a lecturer. His opinions are regularly sought out and a visit to his collection is a must for any aspiring conservation officer.
But he has a problem. Collecting remains his passion, cataloguing his curse. The Brooking Collection in its entirety now includes over 300,000 pieces — he has over 30,000 sash pulley mechanisms alone. His phone is hot with new contacts ringing him up about country houses about to be demolished, and he feels that it’s important that someone (i.e. Charles himself) is around to sort the wheat from the chaff. But without some back-up and the hope that at least some of his collection can move to a permanent home where it could be curated and displayed, it may all end up lost in a series of sheds dotted around the countryside of Surrey and Kent.
You see, to a large extent, the Brooking Collection
is currently going backwards in terms of visibility, if not in size. The University Of Greenwich offered to display some of his collection in 1986, but then sold the site used for this in 2002, since when its gone back to being warehoused. There are moves afoot by the University of Greenwich to set up a new permanent home for the collection, but it’s painstakingly slow and Charles fears that the whole process is losing momentum.
To my mind, it seems ironic that, with all the interest displayed in this country towards conservation projects and with huge organisations around like the National Trust and English Heritage, there isn’t more help for Charles Brooking. We spend inordinate amounts of money on maintaining historic properties, but we actually have very limited resources for teaching people the history of our buildings and how and why they came to be built. Pulling these threads together systematically is a huge task and here is someone who has completed a large tranche of this work off his own batt. For which service, the conservation bodies largely ignore him.