Victorian house-hunting: Just right!

Folks, we have a winner: the Linley Sambourne House in Kensington, owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. But first, in true contest fashion, I have to talk about one more also-ran.

The Leighton House Museum

leighton house museumThe also-ran, also run by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, is the former home of the Victorian artist Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896). I knew the minute I walked in the door that this house was too far out, and I mean that in the metaphorical, 1960’s sense.

Lord Leighton was a bachelor who could as he pleased with his London home. He pleased to make it an eye-popping showplace downstairs and a spacious, custom-designed studio with north-facing windows upstairs. The back garden, much larger than usual for this part of town, was nothing — just bare grass with a tree or two around the edges. It was there to ensure a strong flow of clear light.

It looks plain enough on the outside, right? Unremarkable. I thought I was visiting another good old informative Victorian house museum. Ha!

You enter through an anteroom containing the bookshop and the desk where you pay your fee; that’s not remarkable. The loos, often the first stop if you’ve walked there, are in a sort of utility zone on one side of the building. That’s not remarkable either. But then you walk into this. (Image borrowed from the Leighton House Museum website.)

leighton house museum

Notice there’s no furniture in this room. I think it could do with a couple of Roman couches. Or you could mill around with a cocktail glass making small talk with the other sophisticates at some fancy pants soirée. Or you could drop some mescaline and lie on the floor and contemplate the totality of the universe, which I’ll bet is what Lord Leighton did. Aldous Huxley wasn’t born until two years before Leighton died, but maybe he saw this house, huh?

The winding stair

My Professor Moriarty is far too conventional to live in a place like this. Angelina would look at it and say, “Oh, my stars!” She would love it, but not to live in. I knew that, but I still spent a lot of time pondering the place. You could remove all those tiles and things — imaginarily, of course. Only a barbarian would remove them in reality. Even downstairs Leighton had a normal sort of sitting room and a perfectly normal dining room, with the correct masculine red-flocked wallpaper.

And I liked the central staircase, for the drama. For a while I was determined to have one in my fictional house, in spite of the mounting evidence that the usual London row house had straight stairs on one side of the building. Only the grand houses in Belgravia and Mayfair had these central staircases. They’re great for sweeping down in a dress with a long train, or peering down (or up). I thought they would channel sound more effectively than the other kind, but more on that below.

I finally convinced myself to abandon the winding stair, even though I found a floor plan for this house!

This image is from They have a larger version.

leighton house floor plan

And here’s one of Lord Leighton’s paintings for your amusement, from Wikimedia Commons.

leighton painting

Greek girls picking up pebbles by the sea. 1871. Frederic Leighton


The Winner: Sambourne House

sambourne house terrace

Sambourne House is in this terrace

Edward Linley Sambourne (1844–1910) was an illustrator and cartoonist for Punch magazine. That puts him well inside the creative middle class my characters would find most comfortable. Sambourne worked in his home, like most of the other people whose house I visited: Charles Dickens, Frideric Handel, Thomas Carlyle, and Lord Leighton. Writers do tend to write in their homes, after all. And we like to have our own well-appointed studies in which to write. My Professor Moriarty earns his money in the casinos of Europe, not with his labors, but he still wants a scholarly, masculine retreat. So that’s a requirement.

But, like Edward Sambourne, Angelina has colleagues to impress, when she gets back into the theater world. So it has to be in a stylish neighborhood and be amenable to impressive decoration. Sambourne chose the decor of his house himself for that purpose, thinking it would enhance his reputation as an artist to live in an artistically appointed house.

sambourne house stairs

Entry and staircase

Edward and Marion Sambourne bought the property for £2,000 on an 89-year lease. The Victorians leased, rather than bought, as a rule. The Sambournes remained in this house until their deaths, Linley in 1910 and Marion four years later. Their children lived in it too, but kept things very much the same, apart from updating the utilities in accordance with the times. But the furnishings, rugs, wallpaper, and other distinctive elements were preserved, which is why this house is such a jewel today.

Naturally I couldn’t take pictures inside. Not only was there a rule against, but there was a volunteer on every floor making sure that didn’t happen. You can feast your eyes at Knowledge of London, The Victorian House. They don’t let you snag their photos, so I snagged copies of them elsewhere, here and there. 

I was the only visitor when I went. Rainy week days, friends; those are the best days for touristic adventures. The volunteer coordinator or whoever she was came in during my visit and had loud conversations with each of the volunteers, including one about not making people feel like they have to talk to you, plainly aimed at me! (I always politely make it clear that I don’t want to chat with them. I just want to take my notes and let my imagination do its thing. They rarely know anything beyond the life stories of the upper-crust people who occupied the house in the 1920s or whenever. Not my bag.)

sambourne house drawing room

Drawing room

Anyway, her conversation worked in my favor, because I could hear her all through the house, whatever our respective positions were. This is a house full of furniture and velvet draperies, mind you. But the staircase acted like an echo chamber, funneling sound up and down. You couldn’t hear people speaking tête-à-tête or even normal-voiced conversations below stairs, but you would absolutely know anything that was said in the stairwell or in any of the adjacent halls or at higher volumes anywhere. I didn’t get to hear the door knocker, but it must have resonated throughout. That’s an important thing for a novelist to know!

Sambourne House second bedroom

Second bedroom

Another fun thing I learned was that there were five clocks in the house: one on each of four mantelpieces and a big grandfather clock on the first floor landing. They all ticked in different rhythms and chimed at different times. If you were sitting in the drawing room on the first floor, trying to read an abstruse article about statistical probabilities (Moriarty is a mathematician), that would drive you absolutely nuts. This is the kind of discovery that makes me very, very happy.

There are no closets. People kept their close in wardrobes or chests. Women’s clothes were large and flounced and made of high-maintenance fabrics. How did they fit them into the available space? They must not have had many and I suppose they had those long flat boxes that we use to store things under beds.

This house had a half bath on the ground floor landing, actually four steps up. A locked door opposite led to the undistinguished small back garden that I could only see by standing on my tip-toes in the full bath on the second floor. There’s a row of smaller, humbler flats behind the fine Victorian terrace pictured above. I’m guessing those were mews with a room or two above, although the Sambournes didn’t have horses and grooms. They had a cook, who slept in the basement, and one maid, poor woman, who slept in a nice enough room on the third floor next to Sambourne’s studio. They would rarely have occupied those spaces at the same time of day.

There’s no floor plan in the booklet, but I found one online at a site called “Mod The Sims,” which probably means something to British people. It’s completely opaque to me. I’ll re-purpose a few rooms, mainly the bedrooms, and add a story like the Carlyles did. Thomas wanted a quiet study; Moriarty does too. His will have a little winding stair leading to a platform on the roof where he can look at the sky with a telescope, if it isn’t too smoggy.

I have to take out the gas heating in the fireplaces. They still burned coal in 1886. Also, no electric lights. But we have lots of gas lamps and chandeliers and sconces, as well as hot and cold running water. And I have a wealth of decorative details to play with. I am one happy camper, in my stylish, imaginary, four-story house in London.

sambourne house floor plan

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