Victorians

London: Leighton House Museum

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Leighton House is the subject of this post solely because it was right by Holland Park, where I ended up last weekend, and not because it was really somewhere I’ve been wanting to visit.  In fact, I didn’t even know much about its former owner,  Frederic Leighton, who was evidently one of the most famous artists of the 19th century; not being very into art, I’d only heard him mentioned in passing, and couldn’t have told you the name of any of his works.  His house is now owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and managed by the Friends of Leighton House, who also run 18 Stafford Terrace, which was Linley Sambourne’s home (Victorian cartoonist for Punch, therefore probably someone I would have been more interested in than Leighton, but alas, his home is open by guided tour only).

I feel like I come across on here as being quite cantankerous, and this post isn’t going to do anything to dispel that notion. Leighton House irked me straightaway because of the snobby demeanor of the woman working the admissions desk.  There was really no need for her to sneer at us because we don’t have a National Trust membership (apparently English Heritage membership isn’t good enough, though honestly I think they’re both equally middle class things to have), and I was even more annoyed when she asked if we wanted a “guidebook” for 50p extra, I said, “no,’ and she charged us for it anyway.  As we’d paid by card, it wasn’t worth demanding a refund for a lousy 50p, but it was the principle of the thing, particularly as the guidebook was awfully crappy – basically just a brochure that would have been free anywhere else.

So after paying £5 each (plus the unwanted guidebook charge), my boyfriend and I were dismayed to discover that the house only consisted of about 6 rooms (and you’re not allowed to take pictures).  Fortunately, there were at least free information sheets in each room, so that we could learn a little bit about the objects inside, as well as Frederic Leighton (since I knew almost nothing about him).  Unfortunately, the information on Leighton himself was scanty, and assumed a fair bit of background knowledge on the part of the visitor, so that whilst I now know basic facts about his life (dates of birth and death, names of siblings, etc.), and that he had a favourite model called Dorothy Dene, with whom he may or may not have been having an affair (or he might have been gay, no one really knows), I still don’t really get why he was important and beloved by the Victorian establishment.

To be fair, some of the downstairs rooms were really neat.  The most famous room is the Arab Hall, which has a fountain in the middle, and is adorned with antique Islamic tiles and stained glass. Very peaceful, and would lend itself well to contemplation, assuming one doesn’t need a wee.  I was unimpressed with the library since it only contained about 50 books, which I feel made the room frankly undeserving of its title.  Presumably the books there were only a part of Leighton’s collection, but still, if I had a library, that room would be crammed floor to ceiling with books (except for the hidden passageway, and the spiral staircases to the upper floor, of course). Poor effort on Leighton’s part.  However, I loved the Narcissus Hall, which was lined with gorgeous blue tiles, and had an excellent bench seat built into the staircase with a stuffed peacock next to it, where I would probably spend all my time curled up with a book from my obviously far more extensive collection, if it were my house (my boyfriend said I would probably talk to the stuffed peacock too, and he’s not wrong, but I reckon it’s marginally better than talking to myself).  There was also a dining room that Queen Victoria visited at one point, and a garden that wasn’t open to the public, though you could peek at it from the window.

Upstairs, there was Leighton’s “monastic-style bedroom” (he lived alone all his adult life, bar a few servants, which is why there is much speculation about his sexuality), and the Silk Room, which was really more of a nook – it had walls papered in green silk, hence the name (William Morris wallpaper was in the supposedly “spartan” bedroom), and was hung with lots of artwork by Leighton and his friends, including a large portrait by Millais of a girl shelling peas.  His studio was massive, and dominated that floor of the house, but there wasn’t much in it except for paintings and a creaky wooden floor. Leighton’s own artwork, at least, the pieces in his house, seemed to consist mainly of sculpture and portraiture; they weren’t really my style, which is perhaps why I wasn’t hugely in love with his house.

That was basically all there was to the place, though his bathroom and a few other areas were closed off to the public (there were public toilets, you just couldn’t look inside Leighton’s loo; disappointing); it took less than half an hour to look around, which made me fairly unhappy about the 5 quid entrance fee, but it is a high-rent area, after all, and I’m sure there is a fair deal of upkeep.  I was very partial to the Arab and Narcissus Halls, but the rest of the house really wasn’t anything special.  Probably worth popping in if you’re a National Trust member, as they get half price entry (which I guess was the reason for the snobbiness of the staff, though why would you cop an attitude about someone paying full price?!), or if you are a fan of Leighton, but not great for those of us who didn’t know anything about him before visiting, and aren’t particular fans of Victorian art.  2.5/5

London: Charles Dickens Museum

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I have a confession.  I normally always refer to Charles Dickens as “Dahl’s Chickens.”  Perhaps you’ll think me terribly uncultured for admitting I far prefer The BFG to anything Dickens wrote, but at least you’ll know where I stand on ol’ Charles.   I’m not questioning his influence, particularly on modern Christmas traditions, I’m just saying his novels have never really grabbed me. If anything, rather than just favouring Dahl over Dickens, I actively disliked the man after learning about how mean he was to poor, gawky Hans Christian Andersen.   So, did a trip to his London home change my opinion of him?  Read on to find out. (and on an unrelated note, my postcard giveaway is open until tomorrow (20 February), so there’s still time to enter!)

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I certainly wasn’t won over when I was asked to part with £8 (!) for admission.  London prices and all, but this was still a bit rich for my blood.  At least the museum wasn’t very crowded, despite it being ideal museum weather that day (windy, cold, and rainy).  I was handed a little booklet with a paragraph about each room in it, and there were a few more booklets in each room next to objects of importance, but other than that, little description of the house’s contents.  I was annoyed by this right from the start, upon encountering the largest Victorian gown I’ve ever seen in one of the ground floor rooms.  I mean, this thing would have been big on Queen Victoria, and I don’t mean height-wise, as the owner must have been extremely short, but pretty much as wide as she was tall; cube-like, if you will.  Catherine Dickens appeared to have been quite slim, especially as a young woman, so I’m left wondering why the museum would include such a curious object with no explanation of why it was there.  Then again, the rooms seemed to contain a mix of period furnishings and curiosities, so in that sense it fit right in.

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The museum seemed to encourage lengthy stays, with copies of Dickens’s novels and some books that had inspired him strewn about the place, bearing “”Please read me” labels, but although I’m a fast reader who enjoys the odd bit of Smollett, I’m certainly not ambitious enough to contemplate reading Roderick Random in its entirety during a museum visit.  Leaving the lavishly decorated ground floor rooms, I headed into the basement, which was exactly like the basement of every other large Victorian household ever, with a scullery and kitchen, and a list of the servants’ responsibilities.  Dickens did have a nice little wine cellar though.

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The house was one of those delightful terraced Georgian numbers, the sort I’ve always wanted to live in; narrow, but with more floors than I was anticipating.  The upper floors were better than the lower ones, as they contained more of Dickens’s actual possessions, and some rather poignant objects that had been left by his grave, since he was obviously more beloved by the Victorians than by me.  Other than the reading table he’d had specially designed, and the descriptions by Thomas Carlyle of Dickens as a sort of dandy, with his many multi-coloured waistcoats, nothing was particularly standing out to me to distinguish it from other historic homes.

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I was relieved when I got up to the attic rooms, as these were more “museum-like” in content, and explained Dickens’s poverty-stricken childhood, and how it influenced his writing.  If there could have been more of this throughout the museum, I think I would have enjoyed it more, or at least felt like I was getting to know more about him and his personality.  I mean, anyone who is interested in the Victorians will already know tidbits about Dickens, but I didn’t get any profound sense of the man by being in his house, which makes sense, as the family only lived there for two years!

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I was impressed with the layout of the house, as people were directed upstairs via the front staircase, and back down via a hidden back staircase, which at least helped avoid awkwardly waiting in the stairwell for people to come up or down. This also meant there were more rooms I wasn’t expecting on the way out, though one of them was on the filming of the new Ralph Fiennes film The Invisible Woman; having not seen it, I didn’t really get or care what they were talking about.  The only mention of Hans Christan Andersen I could find was an entry on the timeline mentioning his visit, but there was nothing about how much they disliked him.  I reckon Andersen gets the last laugh though, as his museum is miles better than Dickens’s.

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In the end, there was nothing to particularly distinguish the Dahl’s Chickens…I mean, the Charles Dickens Museum from any other historic home.  I didn’t hate it, but I left not knowing much more about Dickens than when I started, and I definitely don’t think it was worth the admission price (though if anything was going to win me over to Dickens, it would be his stylish waistcoats; I only recall seeing two of them).  It was similar to Samuel Johnson’s house in the type of content, though I believe Dickens’s house may have been larger, but admission to Johnson’s house only cost half as much.  I can’t help but feel that the museum is just cashing in on the house’s limited connection to a huge name by keeping the admission price so high.  Like I said, it wasn’t terrible, but it was expensive for what it was, and a LOT more signage wouldn’t go amiss.   I think the fact that this review isn’t terribly descriptive is indicative of how unmemorable my visit was.  3/5

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London: Carlyle’s House

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As you may have surmised by now, I embark on a number of food-related quests in London. Most of them revolve around trying to track down much missed American foodstuffs, but an ongoing one is based around the ubiquitous croissant.  I’ve had many good croissants here, but I want to find the best one.  Poilane seemed like a contender, by virtue of actually being French; the only trouble was the need to justify (to the hermit in me who balks at leaving the house for anything unnecessary) venturing to Chelsea for something other than pastry (delicious and buttery though it may be). I gave consideration to the National Army Museum (which I will visit, one of these days), but Carlyle’s House won out in the end.

The Carlyles are a couple you can’t really avoid hearing about if you’re keen on either Victorian Britain, or the history of domesticity (I’m keen on both).  Jane Carlyle was one of those epistolary types (rather like Lady Mary) who left behind a sheaf of letters and a diary, which are often referenced in books about the history of the home, as she spent quite a lot of time bitching about her servants.  Thomas Carlyle, her husband, was known as the “sage of Chelsea,” primarily for writing books on topics like the French Revolution and Frederick the Great, which almost no one reads today because they are nearly incomprehensible (or so I’m told).  Essentially, they were famous because they were well placed in literary society, and enjoyed entertaining, so that everyone who was anyone in Victorian Britain came to visit them.  Also, they tended to make catty remarks about all their acquaintances, which is the main reason I like them.

The house is kind of a pain to get to, the nearest stations being South Kensington and Sloane Square, which are both a 15-20 minute walk.  I chose to go to Sloane Square route so as to pass Poilane, which meant a long stroll down the King’s Road where I was sidetracked by a random street market (I acquired some cheese bread that, whilst tasty, made my purse emit a disturbing miasma which I was concerned other people in the house could smell) and down to Cheyne Row (pronounced Chainee, apparently).  Obviously, it’s all rich people that live there now, but back in the Carlyle’s day, it was fairly cheap real estate.

Carlyle’s House still has an old-fashioned bell-pull (you pull a little knob out, which causes a bell to ring inside) in lieu of a doorbell to summon someone to let you in, which I found exciting. Admission was £5.10 for non-National Trust members, and I suspect they don’t take cards, though I could be wrong.  The lady working there gave me a brief introduction and then left me to wander around on my own (which is grand, guided tours usually bore me).  She described the house as a bit of a time capsule, with almost all the original furnishings, and it indeed had a hushed atmosphere (amidst the very creaky floorboards).  I don’t think I was necessarily the target audience for the house (judging from my slightly stilted welcome, although maybe my purse odour had something to do with that), as I was a good 30 years younger than everyone else there, but I’ve often felt like an old person inside a young person’s body, so I had no issue with that.  I hold out a vague hope that perhaps when I actually am old, my cantankerousness will be appreciated and I’ll have friends, but I suspect that cliques exist even amongst the elderly, and I’ll still be a misfit.  Anyway, it’s probably not a good place to bring children, as it is just a load of things to read, and antique furniture they’d likely just want to smear their sticky fingers over.

The house is a typical tall yet narrow Georgian, with only a few rooms per floor.  You begin in the parlour and work your way up (or down, to the kitchen).  Spread throughout the house are informational sheets and lots and lots of books (both by and about the Carlyles) and a selection of chairs where you can sit and read said books.  As I tend to share Thomas Carlyle’s views on reading in public libraries (something to the effect of being constantly annoyed by people sniffling and coughing), I skipped the books with the intention of just checking out a collection of their letters from my local library to read at home.  Actually, because he disliked the Reading Room at the British Museum so much, Thomas helped to create the London Library, which I aspire to someday joining (if someone wants to give me the £460 for yearly membership to help me achieve my dream, it would be much appreciated!).  I did read all the information sheets though, which provided a lot of background on the Carlyles.  My favourite things were all the quotes placed around the house; mostly snarky comments on other writers (none of which I can find online for some reason, but trust me, Orwell didn’t call Thomas the “master of belittlement” for nothing).  Jane held her own with the insults, and also believed firmly in the importance of healthy bowels (“most of life’s problems can be traced to the bowels”); she sounds like a woman after my own heart.

The rooms are well-preserved, full of charming furniture that I definitely covet for myself, including a decoupage screen Jane made.  I did find the pattern on the carpet rather dizzying however, and nearly tripped when walking up the stairs.  In addition to the parlour, you can go in Jane’s bedroom, a sort of living room/library (where Thomas died, wooo, spooky), and Thomas’s attic study. The attic was set up more like a museum, with some glass display cases, but everywhere else was arranged true to the period.

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You can also go into the garden (which is the only place where you can take pictures), where Thomas hung out and smoked his pipe.  I have the feeling that sort of thing would be frowned upon today, which is a bit of a shame as one of the best memories I have from the house I used to live in is hanging out in the garden during a party and smoking a pipe (of tobacco, don’t get excited) with my flatmates.  Very convivial, and that sort of thing.  The garden wasn’t terribly exciting, but the house was really enjoyable.

I know I’ve had some harsh words for the National Trust in the past (I believe I referred to most of their properties as “mediocre”), but the Carlyle’s House might help to bring me around.  It had a lovely atmosphere, and all the information provided made it actually interesting, though I have to think it was helped along mainly by the Carlyle’s wit.  I know I certainly want to do more research about the couple after visiting, which I think is what you want from a museum; to be inspired to learn more. Oh, and that croissant from Poilane was pretty damn tasty too, in case you were wondering. 4/5 for both.

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