The houses of Henry Tate Mews behind the lodge gates on Streatham Common South cannot be seen from the road, or accessed by non-residents, and it is hard to know they are there at all. The development, which dates from the early 2000s, is built around the mansion that belonged to sugar magnate and London philanthropist Henry Tate, who lived there from 1874. He displayed his collection in a gallery room, before running out of space and building a more permanent gallery at Millbank. In 1919, after the death of Tate’s widow, the house became St. Michael’s Convent of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God, closing only in the 1990s.
I have been in the grounds twice – once when development was underway but the gates not yet working, and again on a tour of the landscaped garden. It is still a mysterious place, unless you actually live there, not least because of the little known gothic follies on the west side of the gardens. Behind the Wellingtonias are extravagant and unlikely structures commissioned by Tate – a two-storey ruined castle tower, a gateway arch and a rocky ravine spanned by a wrought-iron bridge. The tower can be climbed, up a spiral staircase, and from the upper storey of the tower, windows overlook Bishop Thomas Grant School next door, built on a field where cattle still grazed in the 1950s. The whole thing is built from Pulhamite, an artificial stone popular in 19th century gardens and found in plain sight in the lake at St. James’s Park. Sculpted cement covers bricks and rubble, an elaborate and expensive illusion made all the stranger at Park Hill by being entirely hidden away and apparently forgotten. It is as though, despite everything, the ruins have become genuine after all.