There are some names in modelling that are iconic, and W J Bassett-Lowke is one of them. We are lucky in that not only do his models and catalogues survive, but also a house he used to live in, 78 Derngate in Northampton. So when someone from the MRC recommended that RMM paid a visit, Sarah Palmer jumped at the chance to see the extraordinary home of an extraordinary man.
When you walk through the doors of 78 Derngate in Northampton you can literally walk in the footsteps of W J Bassett-Lowke, as the domestic spaces that he and the designer and architect, Charles Rennie Macintosh, designed together help you appreciate the man who did so much to popularise the hobby of railway modelling in this country.
As you walk through each of the rooms you are struck by two things – the rather eccentric nature of some of the themes, including his rather dramatically black hallway, which doubled as an entertaining space, as well as the neatness, precision and sheer modernity of a place that you have to keep reminding yourself was actually originally created 100 years ago.
The vertiginous stripes in the guest bedroom have you wondering whether or not any of his guests actually managed to get to sleep in such a visually alert room!
As I walked round the house, which – as part of 78 Derngate the museum –is now actually three houses knocked together, I got a real sense of Bassett-Lowke the entrepreneur and polymath; a latter-day renaissance man who had a passion for creating, which started with model railways but later encapsulated photography, model ships and also redesigning his immediate environment.
He was born to a prosperous Northamptonshire family in 1877. Northampton is a town more traditionally associated with footwear than railways but it was here that Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke would go on to found his modelling business.
He grew up on the doorstep of the engineering and boiler-making business that had been founded in 1859 by his father’s stepfather, Absalom Bassett, in Kingswell Street.Wenman’s father Joseph Tom Lowke, who had been brought up a Bassett, reverted to his real father’s name when he married Eliza Goodman, Wenman’s mother – their children were given Bassett as a middle name.
It wasn’t double-barrelled until 1899 when W J began his business. This was also the time that he switched his initials around, as he had been born Joseph Wenman, but to friends he was always known as ‘Whynne’.
ALL PICTURES: Leslie Bevis-Smith, Sarah Palmer and 78 Derngate
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