Creating Immersive Experiences: Bringing Dora House’s Heritage to Life
Dora House is just one house in London, but it is much more in terms of its role today and its unusual history. Today it is a place where the creative congregate. During its lifetime, it has been a home - and studio space - for sculptors, photographers, painters, architects and designers.
The architecture of Dora House is highly individual and catches the eye in an area dominated by stuccoed Italianate villas. It stands out, built in red brick with a pair of steep curved gables, classical details in stone in the Flemish manner and tall leaded light windows on three floors. How did it come to be?
Dora House was originally built by William Blake in 1820 as a pair of early Georgian semi-detached villas. The front was remodelled in 1885-6 to give it a more ornate appearance, more befitting the grand studio for Court photographers Elliot and Fry. The two principal ground floor rooms (the Entrance Hall and the Salon) were enlarged and decorated with plaster ceilings, fine stone fireplaces and strapwork panelling. These elegant rooms would have been hung with paintings by contemporary artists, as Fry was a keen patron of the arts scene.
A new north-light studio was also added, with a brochure at the time highlighting the ground floor location which would “prove a convenience…especially to Ladies in Court Dress or other elaborate costume.”
This work was undertaken by a young Scottish architect, William Flockhart (1854 – 1913) who trained at the Glasgow School of Art. Flockhart’s other well-known work in London includes a commission from art collector Sir Edmund Davis: Lansdowne House on Lansdowne Road near Holland Park is a dramatic tower-like block of studios and living accommodation, first occupied by the artists Charles Ricketts RA and Charles Shannon RA.
In 1919 the house was taken on by the sculptor Cecil Thomas (1885 – 1976) who worked here and lived in it as his family home with wife Dora and son Anthony. Thomas’ best-known work was in the field of memorial sculpture and coin and medal design. He was commissioned for the tombs of two archbishops, received the OBE for his Coronation Commonwealth Coinage and became a Master of the Artworker’s Guild in 1946.
For some time after the Second World War, the attic floor and part of the first floor were let as an architect’s office to Christopher “Kit” Nicholson (1904 – 1948), whose father and brother were painters. His partner was Hugh Casson (who became Sir Hugh Casson PRA) who later wrote, “We loved the Dutch house (as we called it) and were very happy there.”
Cecil Thomas was responsible for the careful restoration of the front elevation. He set up the Dora Charitable Trust, named after his wife who died in 1967, to protect the long-term future of the house and to fulfil the family’s intention to make the house and studio available to the Royal Society of British Sculptors, as it was then called, as it had had no permanent headquarters since its foundation in 1905. The Society has called Dora House home ever since.
Part of the work of the Royal Society of Sculptors is about outreach and education, connecting with its community as well as inspiring a new generation of young people. The arts as ever are being transformed by new technologies and novel means of interacting with sculpture as illustrated by the emergence of mixed reality – that blend of the real world and the virtual world where anything is possible.
What better place than Dora House to pilot a course for young people to explore the nature of digital curation? With funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Royal Society of Sculptors teamed up with 4DHeritage and the Centre for International Learning and Leadership (CILL) to run a unique work experience programme for a group of students from St Charles Catholic Sixth Form College.
At the heart of the Royal Society of Sculptors’ collaboration with 4DHeritage and the Centre for International Learning and Leadership (CILL) was the idea that it is possible to work with young people at a local school to weave the past into the fabric of the future through immersive storytelling and virtual reality. This would be a project creating a digital bridge connecting the building with its neighbourhood and community, as well as across generations.
The Society’s Leap into New Media
Embracing 360 imaging, the Society ventured into the world of virtual reality, creating a platform to show off not only the architectural splendour of its home but also to tell the story of the people who have lived and worked there, both past and present, drawing on the rich archives of the house. This serves a dual purpose: preserving heritage and potentially inspiring the next generation of storytellers, archivists and technologists.
The Coronavirus crisis caused the project to be put on hold, but it also led to an appreciation that virtual platforms are more accessible, more varied and more practical than most people realised. There was therefore a silver lining to that crisis, particularly in the realm of heritage preservation.
The Society’s initiative also aimed to empower young people, granting them the tools to craft narratives that span the Society’s legacy while equipping them with in-demand skills pertinent to the burgeoning digital economy. This combination of knowledge, creativity and practical skills could enable them to take part in the digital ‘Renaissance. Young people have the vigour and fresh perspectives necessary to reimagine cultural narratives. They are native to the virtual world, and they can do more to inspire their peers than teachers or formal educators.
Similar initiatives by 4DHeritage and CILL have seen success internationally—from the Keats-Shelley House in Rome to the Bahla Fortress in Oman, to preservation efforts for endangered cultural heritage sites in Mali and Zanzibar. These global examples underscore a consistent theme: the vital engagement of youth with heritage, and the use of heritage as a resource for youth development. These connections are often overlooked in the work of heritage organisations, the formal education curriculum, and the daily lives of young people.
A New Perspective on Heritage Stewardship and Education
Professionals working in the heritage sector are chiefly concerned with research, conservation and education. They are custodians of historic sites and interpreters of things, with an additional responsibility for reaching different audiences, including youth. The “consumers” of their work are most likely to be tourists, students or academic colleagues.
The project at Dora House was a way to reimagine heritage education by putting young people at the centre of the process, so heritage becomes a resource for youth development: the means rather than the end, facing firmly towards the future.
What excites young people to begin with may not be heritage itself but the process of digital innovation and the chance to learn 21st-century skills. But through this, they come to appreciate their heritage as a source of identity, community, employment and self-worth. and build a sense of ownership. Ultimately this gives young people a meaningful role in heritage conservation, communication and education, facing both inwards towards the heritage sites and surrounding communities (acting as curators), and outwards (as communicators) towards schools, young people, tourists and others at home and around the world.
The programme also provided opportunities to develop entrepreneurial skills among young people so that they can identify economic opportunities from their engagement with heritage sites, e.g. as virtual or real-world guides, employees of conservation organisations, or other. Finding a career you enjoy and care about is something everyone aspires to.
This kind of project helps to address some of the major issues affecting young people today: unemployment, isolation, mental illness and the lack of a sense of purpose. By running similar activities in a variety of countries and cultures, we can also give young people the chance to see what they are doing as part of a bigger picture, with opportunities arising for intercultural learning and positive connections with their peers.
The project encompassed three components: hands-on training in 360 image capture, narrative crafting, and insights into the entrepreneurial heritage sector. Workshops within the walls of Dora House, complemented by classroom sessions, provided a comprehensive learning experience.
Participants engaged directly with archival materials, unveiling the architectural and historical essence of the Society’s home. Along the way, they also met with curators, artists and educators who shared a wealth of experience that would simply not be accessible within the confines of their normal school routine.
The program culminated in a showcase event during the Heritage Open Days in September 2023, allowing participants to share their creative journey and present the VR narrative they had crafted. This not only marked the program’s success but also solidified the participants’ newly acquired skill set.
Conclusion: Heritage as a Catalyst for Youth Development
Participants emerged with a deeper understanding of heritage documentation and digital storytelling, with the capacity to share Dora House’s story on a broader scale. They developed a range of technical, creative and soft skills and added a valuable experience to their CVs.
Local teachers recognized the project’s potential as a dynamic teaching tool for art, media, and history, as well as an innovative approach to work experience.
Positioning young people at the helm of this initiative has proven transformative. Through the lens of digital innovation and skill-building, participants discovered a newfound appreciation for their heritage, fostering a deep sense of identity, community, and personal value; while the Royal Society of Sculptors added a new dimension to its community engagement and public promotion work.
The '360' immersive tour is also a great access tool for those who may want to plan how they will navigate the space in advance of their visit, or who face barriers to visiting us in person.
The success of this project has given 4DHeritage and CILL the motivation to look for new partners for further exciting work of this kind across the UK and around the world. If you would like to be one of them, please get in touch.
I’ve learnt compelling things about the effects of the past and how it connects to people in the present day.
It’s important to save cultural heritage in any way possible, in any place
I’ve learned that I can contribute my ideas to a group setting and work quite quickly
I’ve learned that I can talk in a group of people and share my ideas
I have learned that communication is important and working together is vital for a group project
I really enjoyed this experience. It was intensive but also exciting, as we got to learn different information about the history [of Dora House] and learned tons of new skills.
It’s been really fun and educational getting to meet and work with new people and I’ve learned countless interesting facts about the history and heritage of Dora House.
It was very interesting and intense, and a lot of work.