The mysterious history of Athlone House

Nurses in gardens by Louisa Albani

Nurses in gardens by Louisa Albani - Credit: Archant

ZOE PASKETT talks to artist Louisa Albani who draws inspiration from Hampstead Heath’s historic houses and hospitals for her new exhibition

“I’ve always been drawn to abandoned and derelict houses,” says artist Louisa Albani.

“Perhaps it’s the opportunity to imaginatively ‘reclaim’ them in some way.”

This is a theme she follows in her latest exhibition: Lost hospitals, secret houses and vanished spaces – a journey across Hampstead Heath.

“In their neglected and crumbling state, they retain an air of mystery, of secrets still intact within their walls. They allow us the freedom to daydream, with their air of being suspended in time, but at the same time, we can visibly see them growing old.”

One local building stood out to her as having a particular air of mystery: Athlone House.

“I had decided that 2017 was going to be my creative ‘year on the heath’, the plan being to wander around in an intuitive way, and then return to the studio with sketches, photos and notes to see what might emerge. On one of my meanderings, I came across Athlone House, which, because it was winter and the trees were bare, was visible from the public gardens.”

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Athlone House was built in 1872 and over the years was used as a military convalescence hospital and RAF intelligence school during both World Wars.

Unable to view the house from the inside, Albani began to ask herself about the building’s secrets, “recreating the lost narratives of the interior within the exterior setting of the garden|”.

“Unanswered questions are always the trigger to creating art, so I began to construct some visual narratives on paper, imagining the human stories lost to time,” she says.

In one of the paintings, she depicts a nurse tending to a wounded soldier hidden in the bushes. This came from a real photograph that she found of a First World War injured soldier, which she reprinted and collaged onto her work.

“The fusion of ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ is very important to me. The nurse and the soldier are real people, as was the hospital, but the artwork takes it to an imagined space, where we can create our own stories to accompany it.”

Albani is heavily inspired by the power of literature and references a former Hampstead resident Daphne Du Maurier as influencing her work.

“Du Maurier’s ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’ completely taps into the power of buildings to not only capture our imagination but claim our soul, in a way,” says Albani. “I am particularly attracted to that very British literary tradition of ghost stories, often inspired by abandoned buildings and secret gardens. Derelict houses do have the power to feed the imaginations of poets, writers and artists - to keep us believing in magic and the supernatural - by the very fact they are still standing, still commanding a presence, their secrets intact, left to the ravages of time.”

Her exhibition also includes paintings inspired by the River Fleet “London’s lost river which was fed by the Hampstead ponds”, the flights of a heron and her own memories of her daughter in the rhododendron bush at Kenwood House.

Lost hospitals, secret houses and vanished spaces – a journey across Hampstead Heath will be shown at the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley in July.