LONDON A-Z An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums Linley Sambourne House
Location: 18 Stafford Terrace, Kensington W8 7BH [map] Open: by timed tour only (two on Wednesdays; four at weekends) Admission: £6 Brief summary: preserved (and character-full) Victorian townhouse Website:www.rbkc.gov.uk/linleysambournehouse Time to set aside: an hour and a half
You may be thinking "who?" and "where?" and "you what?", but by the end of this review I hope you'll be asking "why haven't I been?"
LinleySambourne was a cartoonist for Punch magazine, and a privileged social climber. His position owed more than a little to luck, gaining his apprenticeship in 1867 via a friend of the family who just happened to know Punch's editor. A forty year career followed, rising up the ranks to become the magazine's chief cartoonist with a recognisably Victorian style. It wouldn't surprise me if there's still a doctor's waiting room somewhere with some of his work piled on a table.
Success allowed Linley to establish a family home in Kensington. 18 Stafford Terrace was a tall townhouse with a scullery in the basement and maid's room in the attic, with the floors inbetween bedecked in the very latest middle-class style. Most similar properties have long been gutted and modernised, but the Sambourne house has survived pretty much untouched thanks to the efforts of the Victorian Society. This august preservation body held its very first meetings here at number 18 fifty years ago. The place later passed into the care of the Greater London Council, and today the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea are in charge. Rest assured, the building's in good hands.
You'll only get to go round the house if you time your visit for one of the ten weekly tours. Some of these are fairly ordinary, but a few are costumed affairs led by a talented actress and they're the tours I'd recommend. Booking in advance is advised, although I just turned up and got lucky. You might not want to be so reckless. Entrance is via the mini-shop in the basement, and the tour begins with a 10 minute video introduced by Linley's great-grandson, the Earl of Snowdon. From there a RBKC operative will lead you back out into the street and up to the front door, beyond which awaits your host for the next hour.
Our chaperone was Mrs Reffell, the Sambourne's engaging and chatty cook, although on other occasions I suspect the tour guide is a character from above stairs. Never once stepping out of character, she led us around the interior from one room to the next, recounting stories and anecdotes about the family of the house. In the dining room we heard of the dinner party the Sambournes had enjoyed 'last night', and were also treated to intimate snippets of social gossip. That Mr Oscar Wilde, they'd been round to his recently, whereas Mr William Morris and his wife weren't quite the consummate hosts they'd expected. Mrs R pointed out the expensive Morris wallpaper her employer had pasted up and told us (scandalously) how much it had cost. All the facts and anecdotes were historically accurate, of course, and had been lifted from Marion Sambourne's diary.
Up in the attic we entered Linley's airy studio. A back catalogue of sketches and prints filled several shelves, all of the boxes the genuine article, as was the old wooden desk and assorted objects thereon. A central easel supported a somewhat saucy cartoon, composed (as with all LS's later work) by photographing live models with his new-fangled camera and then copying the result. Often the live model was a member of the family, press-ganged into standing in the garden in some ridiculous costume or holding some important accessory in their hand. The bathroom doubled up as a dark room, and a display of prints across the east wall confirmed that the master of the house had a particular fancy for snapping semi-clad females. Mrs Reffell ushered us out of there fairly swiftly, simultaneously thrilled and embarrassed by her master's fruity fetish.
More rooms to see, ending up in the perfectly preserved first floor drawing room. Again various points of period detail were highlighted and set in context, like the elegant vine painted on the mirror by the front window which was actually covering a crack and had been added to save buying a replacement. Delightful, and the hour was over too soon. Mine was a (very) lightly-attended tour, but the actress playing part of Mrs Reffell made every effort throughout to involve us all in the experience. "Do you have a bicycle, sir?" "Are those really your normal clothes, madam?" We responded with good-natured bonhomie, slightly out of place as visitors from the future, but very much the welcomed guests. The more you join in and interact, the more you'll enjoy it. And you will enjoy it. Why haven't you been? by tube: High Street Kensington
If you can't get there in person: Behind Closed Doors - meet the staff in this video preview House Tour - a photographic journey around number 18