City secrets: outsider art and lost rooms

City of lost rooms: where Jewish scholars vanish, artist seers battle their obsessions and twisted worlds thrive.

Fantastical winged creature pinned for display at Merrylin Cryptid Museum
Creature from Merrylin Cryptid Museum

In 2006, a forgotten cellar in a London town house was opened by chance when the building was about to be demolished.  A large number of wooden crates were discovered, seemingly untouched for decades.

Inside the crates builders found 5,000 specimens of flora and fauna but these weren’t just the usual collections of wandering Victorian amateur enthusiasts. There were things of curious and disturbing origin, from forgotten civilisations and strange belief systems, discoveries that should have remained secret.

Extensive photographs showed the skeletons of fairies, dragons, winged humans and other mythical creatures. These macabre relics were the collection of Thomas Merrylin, an 18th century aristocrat with a taste for the unusual, a cryptologist for the bizarre, a collector of creatures ripped from nightmares and lost worlds.

Except it was a hoax. A hoax that excited niches of the internet and news platforms not caring about the provenance of the story but happy farming clickbait traffic. It turned out to be the work of Alex CF, an artist, and sculptor who specialises in dark folklore and animal mythology. He also produced an impressive back story for the origins of Thomas Merrylin.

For most people it probably didn’t matter. It mixed all the right ingredients of strange creatures, a lost room, a treasure trove escaping imminent destruction, an enigmatic gentleman traveller discovering lost dark secrets best alone. One of the best things on Twitter is #folklorethursday where images and tales of all kinds of folklore, legends and twisted creatures are shared and enjoyed without anyone worrying about belief or truth.

In any case, the hoax strays into the legendary territory of a different nature.  The relics are kept at the mysterious Merrylin Cryptid Museum, curated by Alex CF, but not open to the public. So hoax or not, his work still colludes with an urban fantasy that  hidden behind the harmonious and orderly facades of city streets, strange and fantastic worlds are being conjured up by seer artists and outsiders; chronicling the paths of their obsession that few of us are equipped or able to travel. Cities work on countless doorways, and some of them open to fantastic worlds. In London many of these places have become museums, tamed by the exit to the gift shop perhaps, but still astonishing and diverse testimonies to creation and collection.

Civil servant and poet Khadambi Asalache spent 20 years decorating his home at 575 Wandsworth Road with elaborate carvings and artwork inspired by a mixture of British, African and Islamic design. Then there’s the Dennis Severs house where you wander through a sequence of still life and atmosphere performances based around a 18th century family who have just left seconds before your arrival. From the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities to the Leighton House Museum, there are too many to list here. My favourite is the John Soames Museum for which nothing more can be said other than just go if you’ve not been before.

Hallway decorated in wood carving
Khadambi Asalache’s hallway

Nor is it just artists and collectors. Walk the city at night and see all those rooms glowing with light and life but what about those other rooms? The ones housing curses and madness, the locked-room puzzles, the dream chambers, the rooms with shifting walls treacherous geometry, the blind rooms and ghost rooms, the lost musical venues with their sounds still haunting trough memory and recording.

I read a short story once. In the shadows, those who know talk in hushed tones about mythical rooms appearing and disappearing all over the city. They hide gangsters’ gold, release strange creatures and seductive courtesans, reveal mysteries to those who seek. But these rooms are dangerous – visit by all means, but obey the rules stated upfront or be lost forever. Like A.E. Waite’s penny dreadful brothels that ghost through the teeming alleyways of Clerkenwell, second visits are impossible.

Think this is too fanciful? A secret doorway, created for the procession to the Coronation banquet of Charles II, was rediscovered in the House of Commons in early 2020. For centuries, the entrance would have been used by great political luminaries, such as the diarist Samuel Pepys and the first de facto Prime Minister of Great Britain, Robert Walpole. Historians believed it had been filled-in following reconstruction work after the palace was bombed during the Second World War.

Image of a cluttered room: newspapers, books, bottle, papers
Rodinsky’s Room: undisturbed after twenty years

Then there’s Rodinsky’s room. One day, a reclusive Jewish scholar Jew, David Rodinsky, disappeared from the crumbling Whitechapel synagogue where he lived. Nobody noticed. His room remained undisturbed for twenty years. When it was opened, they discovered a vanished world of East European Jewish life that had all but disappeared from east London. It was a capsule of learning and chaos, a polyglot obsessed with code numbers, language and religious texts. But what had become of Rodinsky?

Sinclair punctured the whole mythology of the man who became a room, and in doing so promptly reinvented it. Here, the room is now “a museum of ephemera and dust-breath. A trap.” The room trapped the artist Rachel Lichtenstein into an obsessive quest to find out what happened to Rodinsky.

The lost Peacock Room was a masterpiece of interior decorative art created by James McNeill Whistler and Thomas Jeckyll. It’s not lost as such, more translocated from Kensington London to Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The room lead to a heated fall out between the artists and the patron. Whistler worked over Jeckyll’s original design who was said to be so shocked by the changes, he was later found on the floor of his studio covered in gold leaf. He never recovered and died insane three year later.

Interior of Peacock Room
Peacock Room, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Those are just the rooms we know about. Think how many other unknown realms hide out of sight, and how many vanished without ever being known by the outside world. An idle thought for city strolling.

11 thoughts on “City secrets: outsider art and lost rooms

  1. This is a fascinating, and sometimes macabre, phenomenon to ponder. I saw an article only just a couple of days ago about a person who died in his flat in Norway and his body wasn’t found for nine years. I remember occasionally reading about such instances when I was younger. An old chap who lived locally alone with his dog died in some flats nearby, and his dog had kept itself alive by eating his remains. But it seems there’s a sense nowadays that this might be something which is becoming increasingly more common, as more and more people are living alone, and, with all their bills being paid automatically, it’s often only when their bank accounts run dry that people come knocking on their doors and discover that something has long since gone awry. I remember reading a very sad story about a woman whose body was discovered decades after she’d died, in London – I think. Her dry mummified body was still watching the TV (which had eventually burnt itself out like a lightbulb filament finally frying). She’d evidently also been wrapping Christmas presents while watching TV when she died suddenly. Baffling to wonder how someone wrapping Christmas presents was not missed by those whom the presents were intended for, but perhaps this is the shape of the future – atomism and anomie? – I hope not.

    Also, it’s fascinating to read of the old and odd things people have found in forgotten rooms and attics. Especially witches’ bottles and the like. We found some things which had been mistakenly walled up in the BM. We could never work out how it had happened. It was a cupboard which had been boarded over for some reason. The things inside weren’t particularly remarkable or valuable (ordinary Roman pot sherds and box-flue tile fragments), and as they’d clearly never been missed we wondered if they’d been assumed lost in the bombing of the museum during WW2. I also remember a colleague once telling me that when they were renovating their house (which was a Victorian terrace house) they’d taken up the floorboards and found a cavity in which a plaster life/death mask had been placed. It spooked them a bit, but I think I recall they said they’d left it there and just put the new floorboards down over it, so presumably it might very well still be there sleeping beneath the floorboards to this day.

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    • I wonder if your friends finding the death mask thought it was wiser to leave in situ. Maybe that was left as an elaborate prank by the previous occupants! I love the way that in your workplace, the discovery of some Roman remains is mundane and ordinary. The rest of us would be amazed and thrilled.

      I fear that the dying alone and undiscovered in our homes is becoming more common. Or maybe it’s just a fear that is magnified by the damage done by loneliness and our collective guilt about it. Maybe this was always a problem. I was reading Defoe’s plague journal (okay so it’s not first hand) and comparing it to Covid during the first lockdown. Some of the details are haunting and horrific with entire families dying in houses that effectively became their tombs. I look at my dog and think that yes, she probably would eat me to survive. Good for her! If that’s what she has to do ha ha!

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  2. A fascinating read, Alex. I am especially taken with the Merrilyn Cryptid Museum and its painstakingly manufactured backstory. I have heard of Sir John Soane’s Museum but never visited but now aim to do so when it becomes possible again

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Laurence – definitely recommend the Sir John Soane’s Museum. Odd, quirky, disturbing, atmospheric – one of my favourite places in London. It can be quite cramp in places and the secret is out about it so try and go at quieter times. I’ve heard about the candle lit evening as well and always wanted to go.

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  3. I have recurring dreams of finding hidden rooms and passageways filled with strange curios. I always awaken slightly unsettled but grateful for the journey. Your post reminded me of that feeling.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well I’m glad that happened. Dreams like that are great although it’s mad how genuinely unsettling dreams (as opposed to cartoon horror dreams) can so affect your mood the next day. Relish a weird dream!

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