I know you won’t be going there for the clothes, sadly most independents gave up the struggle, or for the coffee which you can find anywhere, or even the restaurants (bar a couple), but it is absolutely worth an outing to the Royal Borough to visit three very different houses, all open to the public. They capture a time when Chelsea was a draw for the artistic chattering classes, and a reminder of why it became the go to address in London to set up home. With autumn nearly upon us this is the ideal time for a home visit. I always like ‘small’, so I would start with the first and work your way down.
Hidden in the back streets of old Chelsea, you have to go looking for this wonderful house, home to the 19th-century literary couple Thomas and Jane Carlyle. They turned their home into the place to come and be seen. Dickens, Tennyson and Thackeray joined the queue to visit Tom and Jane for a soiree. The house has been kept completed intact. Furniture, pictures and objects have remained in their place. It is a set piece. What immediately strikes you is the size. A perfect dolls house of a building, with a little walled garden to match. It is a treat to discover, and absolutely worth the effort.
A rather larger town house, owned by Linley Sambourne, the chief political cartoonist of Punch in the 1880’s. The house is now opened to the public (but not every day) as a museum. If you love a bit of William Morris and a blue vase this is the place for you. It was built around 1875, exactly the same period as my novel ‘The House in Little Chelsea’, and is used regularly for film sets. It really is a time capsule and virtually unchanged. Look out for the terrarium case in the window, and learn to appreciate clutter. It is a jewel.
This is the former home of the Victorian Lord Leighton, and the most famous house of the three. An extraordinary palace to the arts. Look out for the Arab Hall, complete with golden dome, intricate mosaics and Islamic tiles. When the house was first built, the dining room looked out onto open parkland. He attracted fellow artists to the area, who bought plots and started to build houses nearby. The colony became known as the ‘Holland Park Circle’. Leighton’s studio was one of the sights of London, filled with paintings and lit by a vast north window.
My book is about a somewhat less remarkable house. Built for the middle classes the house soon fell into decline and the owners were quick to take in lodgers. The 1875 version of Airbnb.
It is still part of the Chelsea story, when Earls Court housed not just an exhibition centre, but ‘The Great Wheel’, roller skating took off in Roland Gardens, and the ladies bicycle club ‘The Wheel’ was established in Bolton gardens. All would have been Victorian fodder for The Indytute!