Museum Houses: Luxury Living

If you lived here you’d be home now: four tremendous museum-houses in London

The more I get involved with contemporary art, the more my interest for Museum Houses becomes improper. This is probably the reason why I keep on visiting these mansions instead of attending post-internet art exhibitions in East London… pure naughtiness, I know! Anyway, there are further motivations for my interest in this diversion usually beloved by old aunts. When one steps in a museum house you’re not only a visitor, but a guest and a voyeur amongst intriguing personal possessions… an extremely appealing situation for meddlesome minds such as mine! Museum Houses always give fascinating insights on their past inhabitants: who they were vs. who they wanted to be.

I used to be a fierce tourist before moving to London and during that time I mastered the art of sightseeing. I have visited many Museum Houses, not all of them worthwhile, and I feel like sharing the four best ones I have encountered so far. They all belong to different categories and periods, so you can choose the ones that most resonate with your spirit. I’ll venture to give some recommendations for the most appropriate company and circumstances to get the best possible experience. Enjoy.

Leighton House (pictured above)

Recommended on a sunny afternoon, in company of a dear friend with decadent sensibilities.

One of the most famous British artists of the Victorian age, Frederic Leighton (1830-1896), lived here from 1866. Don’t feel caught out if you’re not aware of Leighton’s artistic achievements: he belongs to the lucky (and rare) class of artists who were more successful in life than death. He held the position of president of the Royal Academy from 1878 and lived a wealthy life surrounded by artsy friends in Holland Park. The portrait of Leighton emerging from his voluptuous dwelling is that of a charming but secretive character; a dandyish outsider who travelled, lived alone and never married. His choice of remaining life-long bachelor seems to intrigue scholars and his sexuality is still much discussed (too much – you will find an embarrassing number of conjectures about it). Leighton was an enthusiastic orientalist and his mansion features a room called the ‘Arab Hall’, a copy of exotic styles witnessed by Leighton during his solitary trips. The design of the ‘Arab Hall’ was carried out by a group of artist friends. The overall house design was similarly random; he gave the commission to an architect (George Aitchison), who was an acquaintance of his and specialized in everything (wharves, warehouses, docks, railways)… but mansions.

Strawberry Hill

Museum Houses: Luxury Living

In order to get the purest experience of gothic gloominess I suggest visiting Strawberry Hill on a stormy day, possibly on a truly unfortunate, grotesque date.

In 1747 the famous writer and weirdo Horace Walpole (1717-1797) noticed a cottage in the fashionable area of Twickenham and decided to turn it, with the help of artist and architect friends, into a ‘plaything house’, inspired by the design of gothic cathedrals and abbeys. The pinnacles and chimneys of his little castle came to upset the otherwise perfectly elegant enclave in surrounding areas. Due to its extravagance, Strawberry Hill immediately became a tourist attraction, where Walpole allowed four visitors a day and, understandably, no kids at all. Besides being the stage of many parties, the mansion saw all sorts of eerie happenings: one night Walpole awoke from a dream and imagined a giant armoured fist on the staircase; this inspired the first gothic novel ‘The Castle of Otranto’ to be written and promptly printed on the private printing press he owned (easy for some!). After Walpole’s death, Strawberry Hill changed many hands, until it got to the ruthless Seventh Earl Waldegrave, who deliberately dispersed Walpole’s collection in a Great Sale in 1842.

Willow Road

Museum Houses: Luxury Living

At its best on a fresh morning, with a clear mind and questionable company.

In 1939 the architect Ernö Goldfinger (1902-1989) created a modernist home for himself and his family in lovely Hampstead. The locals didn’t get the subtle homage to Georgian architecture implied in the design of 2 Willow Road, and the building was so unpopular that it is said to be the reason why the author Ian Fleming chose the name Goldfinger for one of the villains in his James Bond novels. I’m sure however, that Ernö Goldfinger wouldn’t have minded criticism and regarded controversy part of his role as a modernist pioneer. I couldn’t find anything outrageous in this gently avant-garde building, but I was shocked by the surreally small size of the rooms and the innovative furniture, supposedly functional. In 1960s’ the Goldfingers moved for a few months into a flat in Balfron Tower (in East London’s traditionally impoverished area Tower Hamlets), designed by Ernö, in order to find out what living in a council block was really like. Though they only stayed two months in the council monstrosity of his making, it was a nice gesture. Meanwhile other brutalist architects like the Smithsons, who similarly lived in an adorable semi-detached house whilst designing buildings for ugly housing to force upon the people, never tried first-hand the quality of their projects.

Flat Time House

Museum Houses: Luxury Living

Whenever you want, but definitely alone: you will need all your concentration to understand ‘Flat Time’ theory.

The artist John Latham (1921-2006) was the first to move to Peckham before it was cool. It was 1983. In 2003 he declared his house a ‘living sculpture’, naming it Flat Time House after his radical theory of time. I will leave to the readers the pleasure of discovering the terrible complexity of the ‘Flat Time’ theory, and concentrate on the interesting anthropomorphic principle according to which the house has been designed. A small front gallery is the Mind, an office centre and archive is arranged as the Brain, and the large gallery/studio space represents the Hand. The kitchen/living room, bedroom and bathroom represents the internal organs. I wouldn’t have expected a less eccentric dwelling from someone like Latham, who in the 1960’s invited his students to join him in a feast where the main course was to be Clement Greenberg’s book Art and Culture; a volume of art theory. This they chewed up and spat out for Latham to bottle, distil, decant into a phial and put into a leather case to be displayed as a work entitled Spit and Chew. Poor Latham was fired from his teaching post at Central St. Martins for failing to return the book in a readable form.

Visit Leighton Hall

Visit Strawberry Hill

Visit 2 Willow Road (photography copyright national trust)

Visit Flat Time House

1 Comment

  • Heidi Benham

    Loved reading this – also Sir John Soane’s Museum is a worthwhile visit with it’s fascinating architectural details and stories behind every nook and cranny; it hasn’t changed since 1833! You can also have candlelit tours round the building which I’m yet to try..

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