Magazine article History Today

Linley Sambourne House

Magazine article History Today

Linley Sambourne House

Article excerpt

Among the streets that fill the area north of Kensington High Street with stuccoed monotony, Stafford Terrace appears at first glance quite unexceptional. Two rows of conventional brick houses with podgy Italianate dressings, rather old-fashioned in style for the early 1870s when they were built, enclose the thoroughfare with relentless rhythm of bay windows and pillared porches; conformity, not individuality, is what adds value to these addresses. Only at one house, No. 18, is there any attempt to stand out from the neighbours. Glazed fern cases at the ground-and first-floor windows and an elaborate brass nameplate on the olive-green front door distinguish this as the home of Edward Linley Sambourne, a talented artist who supplied cartoons for Punch from 1867 until his last illness in 1909.

Sambourne married well; his wife Marion was a stockbroker's daughter and through the generosity of her parents the young couple were able to take on the lease of 18 Stafford Terrace in 1874. Remarkably, the principal interiors are preserved almost exactly as the Sambournes arranged them in the 1870s and 1880s. Even more remarkable is the documentation that has survived with the contents of the house: diaries, letters, inventories and receipts relating to the running of the house; artist's tools, drawings and over 10,000 photographs taken by Sambourne in the course of his working life. Thus the house serves as a point of entry into two fascinating worlds; the late Victorian art scene, and the day-to-day life of a middle-class London family.

Although his Stafford Terrace neighbours were stockbrokers, solicitors and respectable widows, Sambourne lived only five minutes' walk away from the most famous settlement of artists in Europe. Since the 1850s, Little Holland House in Kensington had been the venue for salons at which G.F. Watts and other painters were lionised. Thus when the Holland estate was offered for development, there was a queue of up-and-coming artists ready to buy plots as they became available. First in line was Val Prinsep, who commissioned a house from the architect Philip Webb. The plot next door was taken by Frederic Leighton, for whom G.H. Aitchison built a red brick studio house in 1865. Backing onto the garden of Leighton House is Marcus Stone's Queen Anne Revival house in Melbury Road, designed by Richard Norman Shaw in 1875-76. Richly decorated and furnished, these `palaces of art' expressed the celebrated painters' financial success, social status and creative individuality. Close proximity encouraged rivalry: Luke Fildes was delighted with the house, also in Melbury Road, that he commissioned from Norman Shaw at the same time. `It is a long way the most superior house of the lot. I consider it knocks Stone's to fits,' he wrote shortly after moving, in.

Sambourne would have passed these building sites on his daily rides. He cannot have missed the crowds flocking to Melbury Road on `show Sundays' for a preview of the paintings destined for the Royal Academy summer exhibition (Fildes regularly received more than 1,000 visitors on show Sundays in the late 1880s). The studio houses were published in the architectural press and their denizens half-enviously satirised in Punch. In due course, Sambourne and Marion found themselves on the same dinner party circuit as the Fildeses and the Stones. An artist himself, Sambourne must have longed to emulate their luxurious bohemianism. The problem was how to accommodate it within the bourgeois respectability of his own house and his limited income.

The Holland Park houses owed their individuality to `Queen Anne' wainscot, freehand plasterwork, turned wooden balusters and handmade wrought iron. The architectural decoration at Stafford Terrace is off-the-peg; there are deep, heavily moulded plaster cornices, the hall floor is covered with mass-produced geometric tiles, the staircase balusters are cast iron. But Sambourne did what he could to disguise this unpromising structure with fashionable decoration. …

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