New Perspectives: Revealing Dorich House through Oral Histories

In 2019–20, a group of volunteers were trained in conducting oral histories for the ‘Squatter Years’ project. Here volunteer and MA Museum and Gallery Studies student Mengfei Liu reflects on her experience of interviewing five people who each had very different experiences of Dorich House.

As an Asian international student, I knew very little about the Kingston area and its history or about European history in general. I participated in the Squatter Years project wishing to make some friends and to get to know more about my new home for the next two years. When I signed myself up to be a volunteer on the project in autumn 2019, I was worried about not being able to successfully conduct oral-history interviews due to my lack of local knowledge and sometimes language barriers. What if I don’t understand what my interviewees are saying!? It would not be ideal for me to ask the interviewee to repeat their answers in a different way (‘Easier English for me, please?!’). Fortunately, I did gain confidence throughout the training sessions with help and support from our oral-history trainer Rib Davis and the rest of the volunteers. I conducted my first oral-history interview in February 2020 on the top floor of Dorich House (prior to the first Covid-19 lockdown) alongside project coordinator Helena Bonett, our interviewee being the wonderful Isobel Porter

Isobel had been a staff member of Kingston University in the 1980s until the 2000s and was highly involved in the process of the university taking over Dorich House in the ‘90s. The Dorich House Museum Archive holds in its collection some photos that Isobel took during her first few visits to the house, in around 1994. We thought going through these photos would be a nice way to ease into the interview and to wake up some of Isobel’s memories. It meant that it was not rushed, and it did not feel like we were checking off a list of questions. Instead, we were listening to Isobel telling us stories and sharing her memories, including remembering Gordine’s moon doors, which were restored during the renovation of Dorich House in the mid-1990s.

‘It’s interesting to come back. And I think I had more memories when I first came here the first time around because I hadn’t been back to Dorich House for a long time then and to walk in here, er, I remember the floor, I remember these [moon] doors very clearly. Those doors were something which the university was very proud of and the fact that they carried on working so well.’

It was fascinating for me to hear about Isobel’s first few visits to Dorich House as they were very different from mine. My first visit was on a stunning day with my fellow MA students not long after I flew to the UK and settled into student accommodation in Surbiton. As we were walking into the garden from the main street, it felt like we were walking back in time. We all gathered by the door quietly after ringing the bell; there was so much beauty around to take in. Immediately after curator Fiona Fisher welcomed us in, I fell in love with the house. The modern furniture mixing with the aged interior was so perfect and exciting to me. Unfortunately, Isobel had less luck during her first visit to Dorich House, as the house was in a very different state at that time.

‘It was very rundown, very rundown, it had been completely neglected. And the house was just, it was lucky that these doors were not made a mess of by the people who squatted in here. The squatters weren’t in, as far as I recall, for very long, but they had to be ejected. And we didn’t have university security in those days.’

As the interview went on, Isobel expressed the passion and connection she has with Dorich House. She had always believed in the historical and artistic value and potential the house had at a time when some university staff members were unsure about the decision to take it over owing to the financial cost of maintaining such a site. At one point Isobel commented that she felt like Dora and the house were ‘following’ her and kept on impacting her life.

‘I like the [Gordine sculpture] heads because I thought they were personal to Dora, and that she had done them because she admired the people. I didn’t always recognise the people. But that is artistic interpretation, I’m sure. But the, it was… Dora was part of the history of the house, not the whole history of the house. And, oh, yes she built it. But she built it in such a way that – not having an architect, I understand – and building it to suit her purposes with memories of her house in Paris didn’t necessarily fit perhaps the footstep, the footprint on which the house was built. And it’s, it’s, it has its unique character. And I think that is something which people will appreciate and enjoy when they come.’

I felt a strong connection with Isobel, which was surprising to me because of the differences between our cultural backgrounds, age and interests. However, it felt like my reasons for moving to the UK and choosing Kingston University had been validated by this encounter with Isobel. In addition, we both had come across Dorich House in unique and unexpected ways. That is the power, I think, within the house, which can bring two people together from different cultures, colours, education backgrounds, and generations.

Isobel Porter and Mengfei Liu on the top floor of Dorich House, February 2020.

Not long after the interview with Isobel, London went into lockdown. In June, Dorich House Museum was featured in The Guardian’s Art Quiz. This led to the wonderful Amy Schofield getting in touch with us as, she said, looking at pictures of Dorich House online had ‘brought back a rush of memories of an unforgettable night’ she had had there in the early ‘90s. That month, I interviewed Amy remotely and entered this electric dream full of disco lights and lasers that she described. For me, rave was a new and unknown term and Amy was the perfect person to speak with to learn about it.

‘… So it was quite normal to just kind of end up somewhere. So anyway, um, I think it must have been in 1993, ’94 – I can’t remember exactly the dates or, or the year; I think I was in my third year of university – um, and I just remember tipping up at this place. I can only remember one person I was with – I don’t know who else I was with, it might have just been this one guy – and I don’t remember how we got there, what we were doing there, but I just remember seeing this amazing house from the outside and, and thinking why would this place be abandoned? Um, and then I just remember being inside, being in this huge room with really tall windows – which I think is the modelling studio? – and it was, it’s, it’s just such a strong memory – I, I’ve thought about it so much over the years, ’cause none of it made any sense – so I walked into this room, there’s these tall windows and these full-size sculptures all dusty covered in cobwebs and lit up by disco lights and lasers and all these people dancing around, and I just remember just looking at it in wonder going, why, why is this available to us? Why are we here? How can this incredible place with these incredible sculptures be abandoned, um, and we can just party in it? I didn’t know anything about squatters living in it or anything like that.’

As Amy described, ‘rave always had this kind of atmosphere where you felt like you knew everyone, everyone was there for the same reason: wanted to dance and wanted to have a good time’. There was so much excitement in the way Amy spoke about her memories. Especially during lockdown, when gatherings are not allowed, it sounded like a rather luxury experience. I think we can all relate to being a young thing and feeling free as Amy describes here.

‘Um, and then I remember going out in the early hours of the morning, and standing on the roof terrace, overlooking Richmond Park, as dawn was breaking, and just feeling you know, on top of the world, young, free, vibrant and so grateful for where I was and what I was doing. Um, and I have often thought about it over the years and I’d never found out why, why the house was abandoned or what it was. And then when I saw that [Guardian Art] quiz, I was like, there it is! And then I looked at the website and I just fell into this rabbit hole and just became fascinated again by this house…’

In a follow-up interview, Amy opened up about some of the most tragic and most wonderful memories from her teenage years going into young adulthood. It was fascinating and emotional to hear about those lovely stories about friendships and how hardcore party people are now responsible industry professionals. Out of interest, I asked Amy to describe her fashion style at the time and I am so glad I did.

‘People sometimes thought I was a goth – because I had like this long, dark hair, and I liked to wear these, kind of, dark, kind of, hippy clothes – but I wasn’t a goth. But then when I was more into the rave scene, it was more like, um… god, ’80s fashion was the worst, I remember, like, turquoise tube skirts, cerise trench coats and wearing, like, cerise stilettos from the Littlewoods catalogue when I was like 13; I just looked like I was in my mum’s shoes. But yeah, during the ’90s it was more like… so one of the big things is trainers – you know, you had to have a good pair of trainers – and we… what was really popular, especially with girls, is what we call dumpy trainers – so they’re like really cute and really like chunky – and I remember I had this pair of purple Fila trainers and I just loved them and you just couldn’t wait to get them on and go out in them. And it was a real thing to have these trainers…’

By the end of the interview, Amy shared something which I thought was so sweet: she said there was a real respect at the raves for Dorich House and the sculptures.

‘And then it was… nobody would have dreamed of even leaning on one of the statues, I think, let alone topple it, or do anything to it – I mean, that isn’t a reference to the statues being toppled [in 2020]; I think that’s because of slave traders – I think that’s something completely different. But nobody would have done anything to those statues because they could see that there was something very, very special about the house and they were part of, they were part of that house and I think maybe young people then – maybe it was to do with the drugs – it was all a lot more positive and a lot more respectful. And that’s one of the big feelings that I have from that night is that there was real respect for this place. And even [though] none of us knew who Dora was [back] then, we still had respect for her work and what she left behind. It almost felt like she’d left it for us, I suppose, to enjoy.’

A month later, I carried out another oral-history interview, this time with Graham Clark over the phone, supported by Helena. Again, I was amazed by how generous our interviewees are. Graham used to work for Kingston University and had helped to clear out Dorich House during the ’90s before the renovation of the building began. At the start of the interview, I laughed as Graham described his first impression of the house as being creepy because, as a museum assistant, I hear that quite often from visitors. Then Graham described this exhilarating story of his encounter with the squatters.

‘… And as soon as we got into the house, we could hear movement and voices from upstairs. So the place was quite dimly lit, as I said, and quite dingy inside. And as it looked a bit derelict, as I [walked up] the stairs, I decided to keep close to the wall, so I didn’t, sort of, fall through the stairs. And as I was going up the wall, the wall was hot to the touch. And then I got to the top of the stairs and looked through the doorway, [there was a] blazing fire on the left-hand side and then was quite a big fireplace there and there were two squatters still in the room, but they were [packing gear up and] they said they would be leaving shortly – they were waiting to be picked up, in fact, and they’d got a good lot of gear and they were packing it up – so we went to have a look around the house, just to make sure it was sort of secure. And I remember going into the turret room and seeing that great big wooden turntable there – and, you know, the iron wheels – and thinking, what is this? You know what, [whose] house is this? Who was living [here]? So it was quite an interesting place to go round.’

We had quite a few technical difficulties during this interview, but what is a remote interview during the pandemic without some technical issues!

In September, I got in touch with Tat Whalley, who is an art handler in the Kingston area and has been working with Dorich House Museum for some time now. Similar to Amy’s story, Tat first visited Dorich House for a rave party.

‘It was definitely late night, early morning, because I remember staying there – I remember seeing the sun come up while I was there – and I, just, I really do remember being, like, just quite wowed by the building. I’m not sure that I would have been aware of it before then. But, yeah, I remember being there and being, like, there are lots of, you know, there are lots of affluent buildings in that area, but that one, just as soon as you get near it, or as soon as I got near it, I remember being like, oh, yeah, this is very different. You can tell it’s got a different story to tell.’

‘Yeah, I don’t remember seeing any specific [Gordine] work at the time – I did go inside the building, and I do have a recollection of the, um, like, some of the woodworking, you know, some of the really nice woodworking around there – but I honestly don’t remember seeing any of Dora’s works there, at that time. I do remember speaking to the people who were, sort of, loosely organising the party. And yeah, they were, you know, they were being very respectful of the building. I can’t say, you know, I can’t say that there wasn’t any mess – it was an illegal party! – but there definitely was like a certain reverence for the building, or an understanding that they were, like, lucky to be in there – you know, a certain sense of responsibility. Like I say there was definitely, there was definitely mess, and there was noise going on, but, yeah, there was a certain sense of stewardship or something.’

These descriptions bring me straight back to Amy’s thoughts about how people had real respect for the house and felt lucky to be there.

‘Yeah, like I say, they knew that they were, kind of, lucky to be there, and they were very happy to be there, and they wanted it to be treated with respect, you know. And they didn’t want things to get out of hand and they didn’t want it to become, you know, just a big sort of free for all.’

In November 2020, I got in touch with an old friend of Dorich House and Dora Gordine, journalist Tim Harrison. I was beyond excited and felt extremely honoured to interview someone who was friends with the mysterious Gordine. Tim and I met up digitally on a Thursday morning and had the best time! The oral-history interview was so easy with Tim; he just cracked on with stories about how he first met Gordine to ending up having breakfast with her every Tuesday. Tim was well spoken and so funny! My favourite part was when he imitated Gordine’s voice and laugh. Tim has brought me so much closer to Gordine, the artist I have tried to learn about since my international journey in London started in 2019. In addition, it was so lovely to hear about the tea- and coffee-making and just life stories in general of Gordine. As much as I have a love for Gordine’s artistic practice, I sometimes forget she was a real person with all these fun characteristics.

‘And she was an extraordinary woman, absolutely extraordinary woman. Very opinionated. In fact, the word “opinionated” doesn’t really do her justice. She made, she made Donald Trump seem like a, a dithering fence sitter. She was always right. And if you disagreed with anything that she said, you were wrong, and you deserved her pity, until you eventually saw the light and came around to her way of thinking. She was, she was so strong in her opinions, and she saved her real vitriol for one single thing. A, a word that she would drag out sneeringly to emphasise every miserable syllable – mediocrity. “ME DI O CRI TY”. That’s how she said it. She fervently believed that mediocrity was the enemy of art, the enemy of creativity, of life itself, nothing, nothing approached her hatred of “ME DI O CRI TY”. Um, and yet, despite that, she was a remarkably good human soul.’

Tim met Gordine through the unfortunate event of the 1988 Dorich House burglary. He was the journalist who reported the event in the Surrey Comet where he worked at the time. During my research beforehand, I read the newspaper report he wrote. It was interesting as it was not so much about the burglary but about this mysterious artistic lady who lives locally and hardly anyone knew about.

I adore their friendship; please find a selection below of some of my favourite notes that Tim left in Dora Gordine’s visitors book.

12/06/1990 One more lemon pudding and I will be mistaken for a sculpture!!!
06/11/1990 Travelling around the world, which always seems to make me itch. From Bath to Bristol, Rome to Norwich, everything leads back to Dorich
27/11/1990 Mornings are chilly, mornings are dark, but in Dorich House, it’s a bit of a lark.
05/02/1991 Women’s fashions, diet fads, making pickles, naughty lads, how to cook a leg of pork, who’d keep up with Dora’s talk?
03/09/1991 Dora says that soup is best, home-made better and in pints, better than material prepared by Mr Heinz

Thank you Dorich House, thank you Dora Gordine, thank you the Squatter Years project, thank you all the lovely people I worked with for making me less lonely in London during the pandemic.

Mengfei Liu

Published as part of the project The Squatter Years: Recovering Dorich House Museum’s Recent Past, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, February 2021.

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