Thursday, July 14, 2011

Leighton House and 18 Stafford Terrace

The Arab Hall in Leighton House Museum
Yes.  That is a fountain and pool in the floor.
Today it was cold and damp, all day!  I was almost, but not quite, warm in my thickest sweater and my rain proof coat.  When I packed for this trip, I debated whether or not to bring my nice, warm gloves with me. I considered just bringing a cheap pair of stretchy knit gloves that I keep in the car's glove box in case of emergency.  After all, space and weight are always a consideration when packing a suitcase.  Finally I decided that I would rather be safe than sorry, so I trudged up the stairs and rooted around in the dresser for fifteen minutes before finding them buried underneath a pile of socks in my nightstand.  Today, however, I felt very grateful to have them with me.

The back garden of Leighton House
Despite the cold, I saw four historic houses; the Leighton House Museum, the Linley Sambourne house, Spencer House, and Dr. Johnson's House.  The houses contrasted quite nicely with one another.

First I went to the painter, Frederic Leighton's house in Holland Park.  I intended to take the tube, but when I got to the tube stop it was shut down.  In fact, the entire District Line and the part of the Circle Line that I needed were both closed for the morning.  It was too far to walk and it was starting to rain, so I hailed a black taxi and hung on for dear life.  Have I mentioned that EVERYONE drives fast in London.  The driver turned out to be a young guy from the East End who had a very strong accent.  Because I so enjoyed listening to him talk, I didn't notice the scenery much until we got close to the house.  Let me tell you, Holland Park is nice!  There must be some serious money here.  If the neighborhood sounds familiar, you might know it from the show "As Time Goes By" with Judy Dench.  Jean and Lionel lived in a very comfortable townhouse close to Holland Park from which the neighborhood takes its name.

Lionel and Jean Hardcastle
from As Time Goes By

Frederic Leighton's House was much grander than Jean and Lionel's townhouse.  Leighton, who made his name and quite a bit of money during the mid 1800's, was part of the Aesthetic Movement.  He and his artist friends were appalled by the ugliness of Victorian England, so they tried to reintroduce beauty into British society. After seeing the Albert Memorial, the Queen's quintessentially Victorian, and truly ugly tribute to her much loved husband, I could understand why Leighton and his friends wanted a change!
Leighton and his cohorts were fascinated by Middle Eastern art, so he made his house into a Victorian fantasy of a Moroccan palace.  Exotic tiles brought back from his travels covered the lower floor. The first thing I saw when I entered the house was a turquoise stuffed peacock that match the tiles behind it perfectly.  It was quite spectacular! Not cozy. Not cozy at all! But it was the type of house that a serious artist would want.  In fact, during the 1910's and 20's, it was used as the setting for several silent movies. 

Leighton kept working on the house over the years, refining and decorating until the large house only had one small bedroom.  All this style made the house impractical as a home for normal people.  No one wanted to put the money it would require into the house to convert it a home for a family, plus it was freakishly beautiful.  After his death, it sort of hung in suspended animation until a group got the money together, restored the house, updated it for the computer age, and turned it into a museum.  I'm glad they did! 

18 Stafford Terrace
The Linley Sambourne House
I could have stayed there all morning, but I had an appointment to see the Linley Sambourne house.  I started walking what was suppose to be a short ten minute walk to this Kensington townhouse.  I must walk slower than normal because it took closer to twenty minutes in the rain to get to the street and find the address.  It turned out that I was the last one in the group to arrive and they had waited for me.  I felt embarrassed!  The house is only shown at particular times and only with a tour guide and you must reserve your tour ahead of time.  You can't just show up at the doorstep.  I thought this was a little strange and little OCD until I saw the house.  Man alive.  The Victorians loved their clutter!

The Sambourne's moved into the brand new townhouse in 1874 in the growing suburb of Kensington, which at the time, was not part of London.  Sambourne worked as a cartoonist for Punch magazine until he died in 1910.  His wife died in 1914. 

The Sambourne's were middle or upper middle class and like many upper middle class people then and today, they lived a little beyond their means.  The had champagne tastes and a house wine budget.  They decorated the house with the best quality wall paper, furniture, china, French prints, and Victorian knick knacks.  And, then they left it alone.  They didn't do any remodeling or updating ever again!

When Linley and his wife died, the house passed to their son, Roy.  Roy was a bit of a disappointment to his parents.  They sent him to Cambridge, but he was quickly "sent down," expelled, because he like show girls much more than studying.  He continued his rakish ways once he returned to Kensington.  Despite his family's best efforts to marry Roy to a "good" woman, all he wanted were the leading ladies on the London stage.  His poor mother!  Roy never did marry, and Roy never redecorated.  He never even cleaned out the junk drawers!  The only change he made was to put framed photos of his romantic conquests next to his bed.

This is the parlour where the family spent most of their time.  Can you imagine trying to walk through this room in the huge skirts the Victorian women wore?!?  I asked our docent about children and breaking things in a cluttered room like this one.  She told me that the children were kept upstairs in the nursery most of the day and were only brought into the parlour to kiss their parents good night.  Wow!  It was truly another time.

After Roy's death the house stayed in the family, and the next two generations continued to leave the house almost untouched.  Then in 1980 Lady Rosse, the relative who then owned the house, donated the house to the Victorian Society for use as a museum.  It is literally a time capsule.  One other interesting tidbit.  It was used as the setting for Mrs. Vyse's house in A Room With A View.  She was the woman who would have been Lucy Honeychurch's mother-in-law if Lucy had married the odious Mr. Vyse.  It's also the house where Lucy broke up with Mr. Vyse, who looked so pitiful when she broke his heart.  Such a good movie!

This the hallway in the Sambourne House where
Cecil Vyse gave Lucy Honeychurch that very
awkward kiss and where latter she broke
off their engagement.
The woman who took us on the tour of the house must have been pushing 90.  But she was very spry and a wealth of knowledge.  She would lead us into a room, wait patiently for the group to snake themselves up the narrow stairs of the five floor townhouse and into the next room, then her assistant would close the door behind us, and finally she would start to talk.  She had a very soft voice, and she had mastered the trick of keeping her voice low thus forcing her audience to listen more attentively to  hear her.  I wish I could learn to do that! 

The procedure never changed even when she took us into the one bathroom in the townhouse.  Now it was a large bathroom, but it was still a bathroom and by definition a small room.  But somehow she managed to get the entire tour group of about twenty people into the small room and then her assistant closed the door.  It was a tight fit!  Once we were all safely in and she checked to see that we didn't have any children in the room, she lowered some panels on the walls of the bathroom to show us Mr. Sambourne's photograph collection.  He had been very interested in photography in the 1800's and used it to help him with his political cartoons.  But he also took "artistic" photos of partially clad young women, some more clad than others.  For some reason he thought the bathroom would be a good place to display his collection.  The bathroom walls were filled to capacity with hundreds of 4 by 6 photos all framed in identical black frames.  Astonishing!  His wife must have been quite a woman.  By all accounts, they had a very happy marriage and no one cheated.  Maybe she was a very accommodating wife who was willing to indulge his artistic eccentricities.  But what about guests?  What did they think?  I can tell you that I was in this naughty bathroom there were a lot of nervous giggles!

 In the next post I'' tell you about Spencer House and Benjamin Franklin's townhouse.

The dramatic Entry Hall at Leighton House

A satin covered reading nook in the library made to look like a harem.  Oh those Victorians - always flirting with the dark side!

The Linley Sambourne family.  That's Edward standing behind Marion.  The future playboy, Roy,
is cut off on the right.  I don't know the daughters' names, but one of them made a very good marriage.  Her grandson was Lord Snowden who married Princess Margaret. 
Today Viscount Linley is one of Will and Harry's favorite cousins. 

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