I have decided to revisit the idea of what it is we go to look at and the experience we seek when we visit historic homes and architecture. I am somewhat influenced in writing by a recent trip to see People at the National Theatre, a play by Alan Bennett (he can lay claim to having once sat next to me on the wall outside Leeds Train Station as we waited on a damp Friday night for our respective lifts and, more impressively, we probably studied at the same desk if ever he entered a library while a student).
People examines the idea of how the aristocracy, living in (rattling around?) a great mansion of historical significance without the means to maintain it should respond and how, if the National Trust or a similar body get their hands on the property, they create ‘the visitor experience’.
I’ll have a look at this while returning to the Dickens Museum, which I first visited in 2011.
Reason to visit: it houses a rather quaint café near Gray’s Inn (free to enter), which would certainly please literary types as an alternative to the throng of the British Museum (only 10 minutes’ walk away).
The linoleum has gone!!!!!! Take a look at the picture I took in August 2011.
And look at the same staircase in February 2013.
Scrubbed & resealed wooden stairs with a fine mahogany handrail on the bannister. Other stairs (painted) have been carpeted.
The museum has undergone a £3.1m revamp and it is all the better for it (I should hope so).
However, I’m not sure about the choice of wooden cladding for the rear extension: I know there is a planning trend for a clear delineation between an original structure and a modern addition but every time I see exterior wooden cladding I just see many years of desperate maintenance to come. I would have preferred a steel and glass box.
For me, thinking about the restoration of this house raises questions about preservation vs restoration vs modernisation vs a time capsule. Should houses move forward and be decorated according to current/personal tastes or should interior decoration be faithful to the design of the exterior architecture? Personally, I like a mix of the modern and the architecturally faithful – a 1930s house with a modern white plastic kitchen can look very effective together with a 1930s sideboard. However, those same pieces in a Georgian townhouse could look crass. Patina is a valuable quality in an historic home. I enjoy looking at the pictures taken of semi-derelict properties on this website, 28 days later.
The Dickens Museum is now two interwoven Georgian townhouses: meeting rooms, the shop and café in the right-hand house and the actual Dickens house (plus café at the rear on the ground floor) on the left.
The damp video room that was actually my favourite bit on my pre-refurb visit in 2011 has gone: in its place a pantry to accompany the kitchen, wash room (with steel bowl that once a year would have been used to make the Christmas puddings, of which Dickens once wrote) and the outdoor wine cellar at basement level.
A note on the kitchen table explains what life was like in the Victorian kitchen, including one snippet I won’t forget: some families kept a hedgehog in the kitchen to eat the bugs and cockroaches. How inventive! I wonder if there was someone who was a “purveyor of hungry hedgehogs” in the 19th century? What was the average lifespan for a kitchen hedgehog?
There is a television screen in a room in the “meeting room” house on an upper floor but it wasn’t working. Perhaps that replaces the video I saw? For what it’s worth, I would have preferred to start with a DVD of the house. It would have meant I didn’t need to keep referring to the booklet I was handed at the outset (although to be fair the same booklet is laid open at the correct page in most of the rooms).
Throughout the house muted Farrow & Ball tones of taupes, mushrooms and regency white are accompanied by “in your face” patterned wallpaper from the late Regency/early Victorian period. Someone has gone wild and picked a palm tree repeat pattern wallpaper for the small morning room on the ground floor.
Rugs have been commissioned and are brand spanking new. They gave me an impression of how a house would have been decorated in the 1830s, without any of the faded grandeur that nearly 200 years of dust and sunlight would have added had the Dickens interiors been retained. I would like to read a detailed account of the renovation.
The interior is an upmarket version of what the ‘sets’ at the Geffrye Museum try to represent (middle class living rooms from the 18th century to the modern day). Obviously, this interior is recreated in the context of what Dickens’ home would have looked and felt like, using some of his furniture from his other properties. It is interesting to compare it to the Regency recreated interior at Keats House.
The museum was definitely busy when I was there. People are still interested in Dickens and 48 Doughty Street doesn’t claim to be a visit to an historic house. I was probably one of the few looking at the cornicing, the depth of the fireplaces (quite shallow chimney breasts), the curve of the handrail or the height of the skirting.
I was though wondering why, like at Keats House, the curator hadn’t put anything on the mantle pieces. Some invitations, cards or even a picture frame would make the rooms look less ‘set-like’. However, I take the point from others that there is a school of opinion that doesn’t like ‘sham’ interiors, preferring a display of actual belongings in museum cabinets or without adornment rather than a ‘dressed’ room.
That said, the drawing room on the first floor has decent furniture but because all the pictures are sketches relating to Dickens rather than being Dickens’ belongings, something other than an electric candle on the fireplace would have added much-needed warmth.
While this house was only Charles Dickens’ home for two years (1837-9), he did write Oliver Twist here and his much-loved sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, died in the bedroom at an untimely 17 years. Her death influenced much of Dickens’ subsequent writing, into which he interwove death and sentimentality.
The attics are exhibition spaces and use has been made of modern decals to bring the experience into the 21st century.
On the second floor there are two bedrooms – one for Mary and one for the marital couple. Both a faithful recreations.
There are enough personal items to give this museum a trump card over Keats House or the Handel Museum. I just wish every window didn’t have blinds pulled down over it.
On a recent visit somewhere I had a small debate with someone (who volunteers are a number of ‘historic houses’ which are now museums, i.e. houses with no resident family) about the difference between an historic house and a museum and whether institutions such as the National Trust should just accept decay and let the curtains disintegrate, then replace them.
As Miss Stacpoole says in Alan Bennett’s play “People”, “isn’t decay a sort of progress”?
For how many more centuries can we preserve 18th century fabrics? Do people actually mind if there are new silk covers on the seats, the curtains are fresh (and not covered in net) or the inlay has been reset on the cabinets? How many people share the opinion that the new silk hangings in the bedroom at Harewood House are too much and the room over-restored?
Do people mind if the window frames (rotten) have been replaced?
What are the public looking for? Interior inspiration? Architectural beauty? Something to keep them off the sofa on a Sunday afternoon?
Miss Stacpoole says she sometimes asks her visitor “did you find what you were looking for?”.
To answer Miss Stacpoole: I’m usually looking at the architecture and the artefacts, their place in social history and how they weave into the layers of humanity and what makes us tick: upper classes, middle classes, servants, gardeners, collectors, the stupidly rich, the brilliant minded, the dreamers…
I enjoy being able to walk down the street or drive across England and by looking the architecture I can start to understand the history of an area. I have learned to do this through admiring and visiting lots of different places. Similarly, having seen many a museum interior and visited more historic houses than most, I can see the details: for me it is no longer the case that I can’t see the wood for the trees.
Sometimes the occupants of those houses are interesting (Mr Dickens, for example); sometimes I look beyond the numerous occupants to marvel at the architecture or the interior (such as at Syon House); sometimes I chuckle at the National Trust’s sensationalisation and obsession with certain occupants, which in my mind detracts for the beauty of the property (such as the scandalous 1930s occupants at Tredegar House (a restoration house) or the Edwardians at Llanerchaeron (a Regency John Nash house)).
Increasingly, “bygones” museums including a 1980s lawnmower and a broken bicycle from 1957. Sandringham has one of these, Southwick Hall another. I don’t like them. I’d chuck the lot in a bin or put it in the specialist museum/scrap yard van.
I don’t always know what I’m looking for, which is why I often visit places I’m not sure about. I don’t read a book and then think “I must go see that”. I look for what is near to where I live or I’m visiting and head off, without blinkers. Sometimes what I discover surprises me. Often I’m reassured that I’m not interested in Victorian kitchens (except for Lanhydrock – there’s always an exception).
I’m a people watcher, an observer, a sociologist, a nosey bugger. I don’t delight in how far the mighty have fallen (so far that they have to open their houses to the public) but I am fascinated by what extreme polarised wealth in a society where the richest didn’t pay taxes, combined with slavery (the source of much wealth/free construction labour) and class ranks facilitated the creation of during previous centuries. This applies to my interest in ancient Egypt, China, Japan, Peru, Russia, also pre-20th century England. How people chose to use their wealth and display it through material possessions intrigues me.
The play People also made me think back to last year when I was considering upper class taste: Miss Stacpoole, being a Lady and the willing host of a porn shoot, comments “The middle classes – they’re the respectable ones.” Indeed, I’m much rather be upper or working class than middle class, any day. Being middle class seems to involve too much effort to ensure that everything is always perfect (unless deliberately shabby chic) and an uphill struggle to establish oneself as worthy.
I will say something: there are people out there rich enough to own outright and maintain the type of country estates that the National Trust manage. They have tons of money. I encounter them every day. A lot of them have numerous houses. They acknowledge that their descendants may not share their wealth, and 300 years down the line they don’t necessarily anticipate that their great-great-great-great grandson will be compromising everything else in life in order to hang on in a crumbling pile he can’t afford. The men that make the money to buy the original house might just say sell it. Move on. However, would Francis Fulford want to move into an Old Rectory bought for £500,000 when he can have the whole of Great Fulford? For many an upper class pauper, their house is part of their identity; their taste that of their ancestors; they adopt the master status of custodian of a house rather than that of a particular occupation or family role.
For me, a line has to be drawn between a piece of work created by someone who was a genius, whose skills cannot be reproduced, and an item that can be recreated without losing the intrinsic value of the visual. Thus, I don’t want to see a copy of a Rembrandt or a dining suite/cabinet to the design of Thomas Chippendale; I want to see the real thing.
But beyond those things made of silver, gold, bronze, wood and marble, and those things painted, I can accept that the lead on the roof needs replacing and the wallpaper cannot last a 1000 years, even if the stone structure can. I wonder this particularly because given that the world of the National Trust et al is only 100 years or so old, what does the next 200 years hold?
Hopefully not too much focus on the kitchens, but an ongoing discussion about what we can learn from the continued human desire to live with beauty and how that has been interpreted through architecture, art and interior design. Why does the eye like symmetry, and who have the best artists and architects been when it comes to creating beauty and design? Why has an Eames chair become timeless, why is a Regency bow-backed dining chair, the klismos chair, a symbol of everlasting elegance? We should preserve these legacies, their essence.
My proposition: museums could try to have one day a week or one day a month where all the curtains and blinds are open (I’ll let them off vis a vis tapestry rooms). There are many places that already do this, usually privately owned, such as Woburn Abbey (whose curtains/blinds have always been open when I have visited) and the time spent there is much more enjoyable. I can actually see what I am looking at in a light in which it was intended to be seen!
Do we need to see Dickens’ work in the house in which he lived for only two years? Would an exhibition be better placed in the V&A or a literary museum? Well, in my opinion, the value of the Charles Dickens museum is much enhanced by placing it in an historic context and by seeking to give people a glimpse into the influences upon one of our greatest literary contributors. Surely anyone who admires an artists or a writer wonders about the room in which they worked, the desk at which they say and the chair on which they rested? At the V&A I would have walked past this exhibition; at 48 Doughty Street it becomes a destination.
When visited: February 2013
House * out of 5: **