From the outside, it looks like any other Victorian house you’d find in Kensington. Yellow London brick with windows framed in white-painted stone. Triumphant, smart and respectable. Yet look closer and a few things begin to highlight the uniqueness of the property. What’s that on the ground floor window, some kind of Fish tank? No, it’s a fernery. Is that William Morris wallpaper I can see in the front room…?
18 Stafford Terrace is remarkable. If you haven’t heard of it, cancel all plans you have planned for your next day off and go here instead.
We’re forever harking on about Cemeteries and memorials to lives once lived on this blog, but what about the homes these people passed away in? Homes we live in today which have been redecorated, extended, demolished or rebuilt. 18 Stafford Terrace offers something entirely unique in that it is largely as it was when its owner passed away in 1910.
Edward Linley Sambourne was a remarkable fellow. Born in Lloyd Square, Pentonville, his father was a Furrier Merchant in the City of London. He was schooled all over the country and eventually took up an apprenticeship to John Penn and Son, a Marine Engineers in Greenwich. Producing technical drawings as his bread and butter, it was the caricatures he did in his free time that were his real passion and a chance meeting with the son of Theatre Impresario Thomas German Reed gained him his first commission as an illustrator with Punch Magazine.
Many of his images you will recognise – that image of Cecil Rhodes straddling Africa – that’s by him. W.H.Russell on a diminutive horse in the middle of a war-zone – that’s by him too. He was often given the moniker of ‘First Cartoonist’, and it’s obvious to see why. After the retirement of John Tenniel (of Alice in Wonderland fame) in 1901, he was the King of illustrating Punch.
He’s also known for his vast photographic library: seeking to increase his turnaround in producing images, he invested in a Camera where he (and others) often modelled for the weekly doodles which he would develop in his upstairs bathroom and trace over. Some of these images are of a…racy nature: many topless women doing poses for illustrated characters who ended up being very much clothed. His wife, who, like him, kept a diary, was aware of this interest and referred to them as ‘Lil’s Secrets’.
Sambourne bought the property in 1875 as his new marital home and quickly went about customising it with a fashionable furniture. He also added bay windows to the ground and first floors to provide clearer light for his drawing as he would often illustrate late into the night; kept warm by an in-built stove. Periodically, and as he grew older, he would move up a floor, eventually spending the last decade in an attic room where leather wallpaper (a metaphor for his interest in erotic photography, perhaps?) matches the colour of hundreds of bound copies of his photographic exploits.
The house eventually passed to his son Roy, who had an interest in many of the female actors of the day, dying in what was formerly his Grandmother’s room when she came to stay with the Sambourne’s in 1946. It then passed to his niece Anne Messel, later Anne Parsons, Countess of Rosse, who became infatuated with the house.
It was here, on Guy Fawkes Night in 1957, spurned on by the interest this quaint little time capsule held to her friends, that the Victorian Society was formed. Supported by the likes of John Betjeman and Nikolas Pevsner, the society aimed to preserve and celebrate Victorian (and Edwardian) architecture at a time when many such buildings were being demolished or renovated beyond all recognition.
Sadly my pictures do not do justice to the intricacy and detail this house has, as I visited on a grey, rainy Wednesday afternoon. Unlike many a home you see on Grand Designs today, it is cluttered with trinkets and pictures. This is not a recreation of a house for a period drama; the level of human use here is far too exacting – Sambourne redecorating the parts of the wall that people could see for example, meaning whenever framed pictures are moved the old wallpaper is revealed, for example – and little things like that.
The house is open all week but only open on certain days depending on which event is taking place – check before visiting. Entry is £7; remarkably cheap for such a rich and rewarding way to turn back the clock and see how some of the people we write about on the blog may have lived.
It’s also worth mentioning that many of the great and the good of Victorian society called here – Oscar Wilde was a frequent visitor. And also, in a diary entry of his from 1909, Sambourne recalls the time he bumped into a certain Reverend friend of ours in the Athenaeum club in Pall Mall.