London Museum Challenge #21: Linley Sambourne House
October 24, 2013 § 1 Comment
Kensington boasts not one but two Victorian artists’ homes preserved as museums. The better known of the two is Leighton House, a gorgeously over-the-top Aesthetic confection which I made a point of visiting on my first stay in London thirteen years ago. The other is Linley Sambourne House, and I finally made it there… five days ago.
They make a fascinating study in contrasts – and similarities. Leighton was a painter of grand canvases, a wealthy bachelor who could freely indulge his love of all things Aesthetic (think peacock feathers, Turkish tiles, Pre-Raphaelite paintings). Sambourne was a cartoonist and illustrator who, although he lampooned the Aesthetic movement in his caricatures for Punch (in case you ever wondered who depicted Oscar Wilde as a human sunflower, that was him), clearly loved the style. Unlike Leighton, he was a family man (wife and two children) with considerably less money. His house could be considered a primer on how to create an Aesthetic interior on a budget.
That isn’t to imply that Linley Sambourne House is the ugly stepsister to Leighton House – it’s fascinating in its own right. Like the other houses in its street, it’s tall and narrow – six floors with two rooms on each storey – with surprises at every turn. You can only see it by guided tour, and I was glad I opted for the ‘conventional’ tour (the majority of the tours are led by a costumed guide in character as Mrs Sambourne or her maid… no thanks!), as my guide was knowledgeable, humorous and clearly passionate about her subject. (All the same, I couldn’t help but wish I had the freedom to wander around at my own pace – the rooms are so crammed with interesting objects that I would have loved more time to explore.)
One thing that immediately becomes clear is that Sambourne must have been a magpie in a past life. He loved collecting but had to find clever ways of stretching his limited means. Want to fill a wall with fashionable blue-and-white china? No problem – just buy seconds, no one will notice a chip missing here and there if you position them carefully. Can’t afford Morris & Co.? Buy your furniture from his lesser competitors – it will still blend in nicely with its surroundings. The only place this approach falls down is the paintings, which have a rather sad junk shop air about them. Maybe he’d have been better off sticking with prints and his own cartoons…
That said, Linley Sambourne House has one great advantage over Leighton House. Leighton House is splendid and sends Victorianist nerds like me into a swoon, but it feels like a museum. Linley Sambourne house may be considerably humbler, but it still feels lived in – like a genuine home.
Although that sense of warmth and homeliness may have had a least a bit to do with the weather. To visit, you have to book ahead, and it was my good fortune that the day I’d booked for turned out to be sunny. I would imagine that on a cloudy day the place could feel quite gloomy – the epitome of what many might think a typical Victorian home was like. There are stained glass panels in most of the rooms and on the landings, and on a sunny day, the whole house glows.
If you visit, may you be similarly lucky.
Tally: 21 down, 2 to go