Signs of The Times
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Having a plaque on your wall commemorating a famous previous resident can add value and individuality to your home and bring alive a real sense of history. . .
Did anyone famous ever live in your house? If so, you might be able to erect a blue plaque on the wall to celebrate the association. Your home doesn’t have to be palatial – indeed the majority of plaques adorn unremarkable houses in ordinary streets. Applying to either English Heritage (EH), which administers the oldest and best-known scheme in London, or your local authority (both in the capital and outside) to erect an official plaque is the usual route, but other promoters of plaques can be charitable organisations, as well as societies dedicated to individuals. Alternatively, you can apply to erect one privately at your own expense, but your local authority (LA) is unlikely to approve a pink-and-yellow striped tableau to your uncle Fred, unless he happened to be nationally famous.
Blue plaques are more plentiful than black cabs in central London – in fact the plaque to Peter Sellers (erected by the Heritage Foundation) forms part of ‘The Knowledge’, the route that cab drivers must learn by heart. Jimi Hendrix is appropriately commemorated in the house next door to one for Handel, there are plaques for Churchill, Dickens and Nelson and 45 official plaques in Mayfair alone. More than 800 ‘officials’ have been erected since the first, dedicated to Lord Byron in 1867. Since 1984 other cities, notably Birmingham, Liverpool, Salford and Manchester began erecting a growing number of their own, some of which are coloured red or black, rather than blue. “Unfortunately we receive so many applications for plaques that we have to disappoint a lot of people,” says EH blue plaques historian Dr Susan Skedd. “But you can re-apply after ten years. A plaque for Ezra Pound was debated twice before we felt that his outstanding importance as a poet outweighed his associations with fascism.”
“I used to regularly pass a plaque dedicated to Ho Chi Minh (a private plaque),” says David Graham, who runs the Heritage Foundation (www.theheritagefoundation.co.uk), a charity that erects plaques to the greats of comedy, entertainment, music and sport. “And I thought, who gave us more laughs? Peter Sellers or Ho Chi Minh? Of course scientists and statesmen should be commemorated, but I also wanted permanent reminders of those that gave us all pleasure. We started in 1995 by commemorating recently deceased comedians, initially Eric Morecombe, Les Dawson and Hattie Jacques, then Tommy Cooper, Benny Hill and Peter Sellers. Later we added great sportsmen and musicians: Bobby Moore OBE and Ron Greenwood and recently John Lennon.”
EH architectural historian Emily Cole and her team check out recommendations for plaques sent in, then gives it to the ‘Blue Plaques Panel’ (current members include Stephen Fry and Dr Gavin Stamp). “Once the panel has decided who to give approval for, it’s my job to find proof that the person actually did live in the place claimed, or, if they lived in several places, which was the most significant address in terms of their life’s work,” says Emily. She searches biographies, autobiographies and contacts specialist societies to substantiate the claims. EH’s freelance artist/surveyor Andy Wittrick then produces a design for the plaque’s wording, which is then passed on to an independent craftsman to make. The typeface and blue colour are owned by EH. Each year the organisation receives 100 suggestions and erects 12 – 15 plaques.
Richard Wildblood is one of the official blue plaque craftsmen used by EH. “I pour liquid clay ‘slip’ into a plaster mould, and once it reaches a stiff constituency I remove the cast and trace on it an outline of EH’s design,” he explains. “I follow the transferred shapes with a different clay, framing each letter. After kiln-firing the surface is painted with liquid coloured glazes, and it’s finally fired again.” A finished plaque has gently raised characters and border, is 50mm thick and 495mm in diameter. Lettering is white on a blue background and the surface slightly domed, conducive to self cleaning. Its thickness means that the building’s façade must be cut back to accommodate it. Vitreous enamel plaques, favoured by the Heritage Foundation, are relatively thin, requiring no wall surgery.
What’s it like to live in a house with a plaque on the wall? Derek Melotte and partner Jennifer Williamson live in a house in Croydon that has a commemorative plaque for the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who was a contemporary of Darwin. “I knew nothing about Mr Wallace when we moved in here, but have since discovered all I can about him,” enthuses Derek. “This is a lovely Victorian house and we’ve converted it back from four flats, trying to make the décor just as it was in its heyday – when Mr Wallace lived here. I think our plaque gives the house real character, and there’s absolutely no intrusion into our privacy, and no one knocks on the door or asks questions. It’s great to see people stop and look up at our plaque – we feel very proud.”