LIGHTFOOT, Luke c.1722-1789. Woodcarver. ‘Some of the most extraordinary Rococo decoration in England’, is how the National Trust describes the work of Luke Lightfoot at Claydon House, Buckinghamshire; his Chinese Room there is especially famous. The interesting connections of this ‘woodcarver of genius’ with Dulwich are much less well known.
Lightfoot’s name first appears in the Dulwich Estate records in 1761 as leasing property in Dulwich. He was one of several master-craftsmen who had workshops in the Borough High Street area of Southwark. Lightfoot’s real claim to local fame, however, dates from about 1768 when he built, on the hill-top, at the northern tip of the manor of Dulwich, the present site of the Fox on the Hill, a grand place of public entertainment, which he called Denmark Hall. According to a contemporary account, ‘when it was first opened it was much frequented by large parties from London; it contained one of the largest rooms in England, being upward of 100 feet in length, and 30 feet in width’.
Lightfoot apparently named it in honour of the King of Denmark who visited England in 1768. While in London King Christian visited the much more famous Ranelegh Gardens in Chelsea, and perhaps Lightfoot was hoping for similar royal patronage. However, Denmark Hall did not prove to be such a success, and within a few years it was converted into several private dwellings, though retaining for a while the reduced ‘Denmark Hall Tea Gardens’. However, Luke Lightfoot’s short-lived 18th century ‘leisure centre’ did leave one permanent mark: Denmark Hill was named after it.