People’s houses can be fascinating. If I’m invited in anywhere, I always take a quick look at the books on the shelves when my host’s back is turned; it’s intriguing to see how many people have a copy of ‘What not to wear’. Sorry, I know it’s a bad habit but I’m just curious.
Being a nosy so-and-so, I also love it when I can visit an artist’s or writer’s house. Of course, some are better than others – but the really good ones let you feel almost as if you’re eavesdropping on Freud psycho-analysing a client, or watching Handel make a start on the Hallelujah chorus.
Both Freud and Handel – an Austrian and a German – ended up as Londoners, and you can still visit their houses. The Handel House Museum at 25 Brook Street has been thoroughly restored in fine Georgian style, including a painstaking restoration of the paintwork in its original colours. It is home to a major collection of music manuscripts, as well as paintings of Handel and some of his prima donnas and friends.
However, I think it comes alive best when it’s being used as a concert venue – at other times it feels rather too museum-y and unlived-in.
The Freud Museum in Hampstead gives much more flavour of the man who lived there – his psychoanalytic couch is still draped with rich russet Persian carpet and little Egyptian ushabtis are lined up neatly on his desk. Freud brought a lot of furniture with him – intriguingly, in two sharply different styles: half is Biedermeyer, lovely classical understated stuff, but the other half is painted peasant furniture (which style is the ‘real’ Freud?).The Freud Museum near Hampstead is an enigmatic treat, furnished as it is in two very contrasting styles (image credit below)
As well as being a psychoanalyst, Freud was a compulsive collector of antiquities and there are little objects on every shelf and table that could tell us stories. The museum also functions as a research library.
I’ve always found Keats House in Hampstead a bit disappointing. Keats only lived here for two years, and left little behind that gets us close to him. The restoration of the house in Regency style has been effective, so it’s worth a visit for anyone who loves the period – but I’ve never felt Keats’s character really comes out here.
On the other hand Carlyle’s House on Cheyne Row in Chelsea is so full of the writer’s character I actually feel I can smell his pipe tobacco (his wife apparently made him smoke below stairs or in the garden I’m told).
Carlyle was one of the great writers of his time though he isn’t so well known today…but here in Cheyne Row he entertained others who are better known like Dickens and Tennyson. This house is a microcosm of High Victorian society; and it’s full of Carlyle’s own furniture (some of it tracked down and bought back later), paintings and possessions.
Carlyle’s life with his wife (Jane Welsh Carlyle) was a perpetual squabble. He wanted the windows open, she wanted them closed; he said he was stifled, she said she was freezing. And he had to go and smoke outside. But for all that, it’s a comfy home and the little walled garden is so charming that having to go out to smoke can’t have been much of a downer.The Soane Museum close to Holborn is a real gem (image credit below)
There are two marvellous artist’s houses in London too. There’s the Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which belonged to architect Sir John Soane. It’s crammed full of antiquities, paintings, models, drawings – and it’s not a bad bit of architecture, either. It also includes a monk’s grotto and an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus – Soane was something of a showman and I detect a dry sense of humour at work as well.
And then there’s Leighton House in Holland Park, which belonged to Victorian painter Lord Leighton. Like Soane’s house, it is far more than just a place to live – Leighton made it into a sort of museum-cum-art-gallery.
There’s a tiled Arabian hall, with real Arabian moushrabiya shutters that Leighton had brought back from the Middle East; there’s the opulent red dining room and the wonderful cool green silk room; and there’s his artist’s studio as well. Everything is full of colour, the walls are hung with paintings – this is a show-off house par excellence (Leighton was a bachelor and could afford to cut a dash with no children to mess the place up!).Would Jimi Hendrix have approved of the Cumberland’s minimalist, futuristic design today?
Check rates at the Cumberland Hotel
If you want London hotels associated with celebrities there are plenty to choose from. At the Cumberland Hotel for instance, a whole suite has been given over to ex-resident Jimi Hendrix. Furnished in a vivid, psychedelic Sixties style, it has a terrific Hendrix vibe (though despite the hype, he didn’t in fact stay in this particular suite).
But my favourite hotel association is the Cadogan Hotel’s link with Oscar Wilde. It’s here, in Room 118, that he was arrested for “acts of gross indecency with male persons”. The room has been furnished with loving care in decadent style, with a wonderful mix of light blues and dark browns with silk drapes framing the huge windows overlooking Cadogan Place.The Cadogan Hotel in Chelsea clearly has a discreet elegance that Oscar Wilde felt comfortable in
Check rates at the Cadogan Hotel
It’s really rather lovely – and apparently in great demand for the ‘green carnation’ civil partnership packages, which include a bottle of Oscar’s own favourite tipple (Perrier Jouet champagne). The Cadogan is handy for the Saatchi Gallery and ranks nicely within TripAdvisor’s top 50 London hotels.
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Photo credits: fotologic’s photostream, Gwyn Hafir’s photostream, Ewan-M’s photostream, Cumberland Hotel, Cadogan Hotel.