From the glossy black front door of 10, Downing Street to the rose-fringed entrance to a country cottage, the portals to our homes—and their furniture—say more about us than we realise
By Matthew Dennison
When it comes to shaping our first impressions of a house—and, indeed, whether we might like to buy it—few aspects are more important than the front door. As a nation, we tend to react with a purr of satisfaction to oak planks, brass letterplates, original fanlights and old fashioned round bell pushes.
A fringe of noisette roses, the smudgy watercolour flower tresses of wisteria or stone steps flanked by neat planters of box consolidate this positive feeling. However, stained glass that resembles the pattern on a Clarice Cliff teacup, panels of bottle glass and paintwork in ‘eccentric’ colours—black, blue and dark red are British favourites—might, for some, undermine our sense of happy arrival.
‘A good front door should visually anchor the façade it inhabits, so that it draws the eye and holds it for a moment,’ advises Rupert Cunningham, senior architectural designer at Ben Pentreath & Associates. Indeed, the Georgian Group chairman, Christopher Boyle, recommends a front door as an ‘opportunity to introduce a little splendour into the most modest façade’.
Like a brooch on an expanse of plain fabric, a front door offers chances for handsome design flourishes. The classic Georgian combination of a panelled wooden door conservatively painted, below a glazed fanlight and weightily framed by its stone surround—one instantly recognisable in the glossy-black front door of 10, Downing Street—exerts an enduring hold over the British imagination. Doors of this variety punctuate elegant 18th-century terraces across the country, from Edinburgh to Liverpool and London to Bath, under square, triangular or segmental pediments, with further decoration in the form of pilasters, brackets and, sometimes, weighty keystones. Frequently, such doors consist of six panels connected by rails and styles, with the smallest panels at the top and the largest at the bottom, below the doorknob (when, additionally, a knocker is used, it’s placed above the handle or doorknob).
There’s a comfortable familiarity about such doors, alongside discreet intimations of comfort and elegance within. The perfect front door, architect Ivo tells me, hints at something of the interiors it conceals: its reassuring weightiness imbues the simplest house front with substance.
The painted-wood front doors of the 19th century replaced the Georgian six panels with four, with upper panels of etched, patterned or stained glass. The Gothic Revival embellished doors with cod-medieval metal strapwork; doors of this sort often recall earlier weathered-oak models, liberally studded with old iron. Size permitting, Victorian and early-18th-century doors typically boasted heavy or ornate door furniture; the Edwardians followed the later Georgians in opting for simpler, more elegant metalwork fittings At Sezincote in Gloucestershire, a diminutive garden temple boasts a door of 16 glass panels beneath the equivalent of a pointed, arched fanlight, with an understated brass handle. Wood-planked doors at the Prospect Tower at Belmont Park, built for Gen Harris in 1808, are the simplest possible version of Regency Gothick, in keeping with the remainder of this modest, but delightful crenellated flint tower.
As in most matters architectural, considerations of appropriateness will ideally govern decisions about a front door. Mr Boyle suggests that, in addition to proclaiming ‘its preeminent status in the hierarchy of openings’ in a given building, a front door should ‘be scaled appropriately to that status and the building it serves and be consciously designed as an ornament to enhance and give grace to the whole façade’. Detail is key in ensuring the perfect front door. Like the door itself, so-called door furniture—handles, knockers and letterplates— serves a practical purpose.
A handle or doorknob is essential for opening the door from the outside; a knocker serves the additional purpose of helping to close the door on leaving. Where the front door is the door most readily accessible to postmen and visitors, it will require a letterplate and opening for post. Town-house front doors may also need numbers or a nameplate. Typically, these features are arranged with the number occupying the highest point on the door, usually centrally, and the doorknocker below it. A doorknob may be placed centrally or on the left-hand side of the door, immediately above its lowest panels in the case of a traditional four- or six-panelled door.
When the doorknob is placed centrally, the letterplate may be placed above or below it, depending on the arrangement of the panels and the rails; in cases where the doorknob is placed at the left of the door, it may be at the same height as the letterplate. Double doors inevitably prevent a central letterplate. In some cases, the letterplate is placed at the bottom of a door, although such a decision taken today is unlikely to endear a homeowner to the postman.
The bulk of traditional door furniture is made of brass, but bronze and cast-iron examples also occur. ‘As a traditionalist, I always favour a solid, as opposed to a glazed, front door, in weathered oak or painted a rich, dark colour,’ comments Mr Cunningham. ‘Six panels, with reclaimed brass hardware.’
Historically, individual metalsmiths were able to create a wealth of designs, however, it’s easy to discern a degree of consensus among classic styles: doorknockers in the form of lion and leopard’s masks, circular rings or Adam-influenced urns; weighty ridged, plain or lion’s head doorknobs; vertical or horizontal brass letterplates, sometimes engraved with the word ‘letters’, sometimes with an integral handle. Such designs have a timeless appeal: architects and designers suggest an alternative finish for a more modern appearance, including brushed nickel or polished chrome. Best of all, according to Mr Curwen, the perfect front door ‘makes a satisfying bang when you close it’. Handsome, elegant and practical, it remains, as it has always been, the barrier between our public and private worlds
The best places to buy door knockers
Among manufacturers of new front doors are bespoke specialists Voysey & Jones (020– 8347 9041; www.voyseyandjones.co.uk) and the London Door Company (020–7801 0877; www.londondoor. co.uk), which makes new doors based on those found in historic London town houses Charles Edwards’s range of handsome, historically inspired front-door furniture includes the ‘leopard’, ‘lion & snake’ and ‘rope’ knockers (020–7736 7172; www.charlesedwards.com) Holloways of Ludlow sells doorknockers, knobs, letterplates, house numbers and bell pushes (020–7602 5757; www.hollowaysofludlow.com)
The front-door furniture and fittings offered by Willow & Stone (www.willowandstone.co.uk; 01326 311388) span a range of styles and are available in aged or polished brass, polished or satin nickel, iron, bronze and enamel finishes
Among the stock of architectural salvage specialist Lassco (01844 277188; www.lassco.co.uk) is a selection of original 19thand 20th-century door furniture.