Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Sambourne; a Victorian House and Home...

Although unable to remember how I actually first learnt of 18 Stafford Terrace, the mere description of a museum in a High Victorian home would have been enough to catch my attention and incite me to track it down in London.
I did however find it a little difficult to find the exact location on my recent visit there, due to a shortage of street signs which meant that it was somewhat hidden in plain sight. However, wandering off the busy thoroughfares in Kensington I soon found myself in the calm and tranquility of the side streets and in front of Sambourne House itself.
Punch draughtsman Edward Linley Sambourne (1844-1910) married the daughter of a wealthy stockbroker, Marion Herapath (1851-1914), in 1874 and purchased their terraced house the following year. This acquisition was realised with a helpful handout from the father-in-law since the princely purchase price of £2,000 was still beyond the means of the newly-wed couple.
Indeed, despite its majestic Classical Italianate façade, the home was in fact rather more modest in its stature than other townhouses in the area which were beyond their financial capacities. Following the publication of some of his drawings in the weekly satirical magazine Punch in 1867, Linley had gone on to obtain a permanent position as Junior Cartoonist a few years later.
By the time he married and moved to Stafford Terrace, he had therefore gained a certain notoriety thanks to his cartoon interpretations of political events and current affairs. This naturally brought him a comfortable financial set-up although not the substantial affluence conspicuously displayed through some of the neighbouring piles.
Marion’s life, as was the norm in the upper classes of Victorian society, was centred solely on all matters domestic; governing the household affairs of a home with staff and focusing her attention on her husband and children as opposed to occupying a paid job.
Set alongside Kensington High Street, Stafford Terrace was one of the last of many speculative street developments built on the Phillimore Estate from the late 18th century onwards. The street was somewhat conventional, inhabited by professionals such as civil servants, retired officers and tradesmen and did not possess the same aesthetic cachet and grandiose proportions as the nearby artists’ colony in the Holland Park Circle with its studio-houses that would inspire Linley Sambourne.
The imposing studio-home of the widely acclaimed artist Frederick Leighton had been built a few years earlier and reflected the status and wealth of its owner through its architectural design (obeying his specifications), its exotic interiors, rich furnishings and art work. As a ‘black-and-white’ artist, Linley did not have the same financial clout as his Royal Academician acquaintance but was determined to make of his home Sambourne House albeit on a smaller scale to Leighton House.
This desire likewise drove the couple to painstakingly decorate and furnish their home for more than thirty years so that it would epitomize their own version of the ‘Aesthetic interior' or 'House Beautiful' style of the latter part of the 19th century.
Whilst eager to incorporate fashionable tastes such as William Morris wallpaper and Minton tiles in the decoration of their home, the Sambournes also enjoyed adding personal touches through their careful choice of stained-glass windows and panels, frequently reflecting the family heritage with their intertwined initials.
Linley largely led this fascination for interior design and would introduce new pieces in line with his evolving aesthetic vision with wallpaper, paintings, ceramics and furniture. The characteristic shades of green, gold and burgundy that represent House Beautiful can be seen in Sambourne House today and create a warm, enveloping atmosphere that is offset by blue-and-white china, Japanese ceramics and Oriental objects.
Such was the obsession to deck the home in appropriate household objects and ornamentation that in the space of two years, there were already fifty vases and some seventy chairs, ready to receive guests. Paintings were hung from every wall, along with countless illustrations and photographs, many of which were from Linley’s own work as cartoonist and illustrator.
It should be said that Linley and Marion were very much Victorian maximalists in their own right – no wall, floor, ceiling was left unadorned – although to describe it as cluttered would be unfair.
However, as much as I love a feast for the eye, the final effect here was not what I expected; I did not feel that flight of imagination whereby you wish you could just spend one day living in this space, drawn into its mesmerizing past, as I certainly did when I visited Dennis Severs’ House.
I am not quite sure why that was, but it was certainly not due to a failing on the part of the house experience itself and I would hate to discourage any visitors…
From my visit, I did retain a certain admiration for Linley Sambourne and his devotion to family, professional obligations and the house itself, of course. Working from home to tight deadlines set by the weekly Punch publications, Linley adapted the living space accordingly, since he did not benefit from a purpose-built studio as his contemporary artist acquaintances did.
As you wander around Sambourne House today, it is difficult to imagine how Linley actually managed to work, even if art equipment such as easels are on display. The drawing room, set across the whole first floor, include his work surfaces and a camera, and demonstrate how his work was carried out in the heart of family life before later occupying a former nursery on the top floor.
Given the intricate nature of his drawings and the extremely short delays (two days!) in which to accomplish these, you cannot help but wonder how he remained focused and how he was able to perform from a purely practical point of view. Part solution to this pressure, and one which involved family, friends and household servants, was the use of staged photographs which would form the basis of his sketching process following the purchase of a camera in 1883.
The bathroom was used for the development of the photos, with the bathtub adapted to prepare the required chemical agents, leading Marion to take her baths in the marital bedroom instead!
In this manner, home life and the professional were interlinked as his wife, children and even Linley himself would strike poses and pull facial expressions as artists’ models, dressed in costume.
I like to think that the atmosphere in the house must have been fairly jovial despite the deadline constraints and it is touching to see the Sambourne children represented in the illustrations for the children’s books that were another professional sideline that Linley pursued. The best-known of those was probably Charles Kingsley’s book The Water-Babies but there were also freelance commissions for advertisements and other illustrated works.
Interestingly, even though his renown during his lifetime stemmed from his cartoons for Punch – with a career spanning 42 years – and his great illustration for the diploma award for the 1883 International Exhibition of Fisheries, these mean very little to us today. Punch stopped circulation in 2002 after over 150 years of publication and I imagine its satirical humour would be deemed highly inappropriate in current times.
The beautiful diploma card, with its myriad of aquatic creatures presented in incredibly intricate detail, is overlooked today, not least due to the now-controversial figure of Queen Victoria reigning central in its design. And so in fact today, Linley Sambourne’s lasting mark on culture (capital C) is Sambourne House itself. That it should still be in its original state is wholly down to the determination of his direct descendants to maintain it as such.
Of their two children, Maud and Mawdley (Roy), the daughter clearly inherited Linley’s artistic skills, with early work even published in Punch, yet marriage at the age of 23 meant that she largely abandoned her artistic pursuits. Married into the Messel family, Maud found herself in a wealthier upper-middle class society that must have made her family background and Sambourne House seem modest in comparison.
Of the three children born from this ‘socially successful’ marriage, it was the daughter, Anne (1902-1992), who would eventually play a crucial role in the preservation of Sambourne House. Anne, later to become mother-in-law to Princess Margaret and finally Countess of Rosse, founded the Victorian Society in 1958 and went on to oversee the sale of house and contents to the Greater London Council for transformation into a museum for the general public in 1980. In 1989, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea took possession of the house.
Directly after the death of Linley in 1910, followed by that of Marion in 1914, it was in fact Roy their son who took over the maintenance of the house that was to be his home throughout his whole life. His studies at Eton College and University College Oxford were academically fruitless, and his career in the city in a trading partnership was apparently pursued without great enthusiasm.
Although he kept his bachelor status to the end of his life, Roy appears to have had more than a passing interest for the ladies, and actresses in the world of theatre proved to be a huge distraction from his more serious endeavours. He later refused to take over the parental bedroom and kept his childhood room, surrounded by signed photos from adoring Edwardian female acquaintances as if trapped in perpetual adolescence.
You cannot help but wonder what his life would have been, had he inherited and followed his father’s artistic leanings instead of dissipating his energies. However, due to Roy’s life choices, Sambourne House went on as it had prior to his parents’ death and very little was changed overall, and for that we can be grateful. The preservation of Sambourne House was perhaps to be Roy’s greatest life achievement, and through this the name of Linley Sambourne is stiil remembered today, inextricably associated with the home he was so proud of.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Autumnal Gold...

This beautiful Burne-Jones work represents the legend of the Garden of the Hesperides, and the beauty of this piece, with its rich gold relief is even more apparent now in the autumn with all the golden tones. In fact this is just a detail of the original full work which is a large frieze representing eight nymphs - the daughters of the evening and 'golden light of sunsets'; the Hesperides.
The same theme was taken up by the Victorian artist Frederick Leighton in the work The Garden of the Hesperides (1892), with similar rich, glowing autumnal tones.
The apples and the flowing gowns of these maiden guards reminded me of the dried pomegranites that I seem to have gathered over the years, inadvertently adding another specimen to the unintended collection every time I simply forget to eat the fruit before it proceeds to harden! As regrettable (and wasteful) as that may be, I do get the pleasure of seeing their rich colours turn deeper and darker with time.
And the gold of the Burne- Jones relief brought to mind some of my favourite jewellery; rings and a bracelet representing simple ivy leaves, while outside the vineyards of the region are turning towards a ragged golden russet to great visual effect.

Monday, November 6, 2023

Submerged Forests... The Rain it Raineth Everyday.

Emerging from the sandy beds that have enshrouded them in the Mount's Bay for thousands of years are the remnants of pre-historic tree trunks, roots and stumps. Due to shifting sands as a result of relentless pounding waves in stormy weather, coupled with exceptionally low tides, the gnarled remains of ancient forests have arisen from their watery resting place to appear before us in the 21st century. This eerie presence offers a glimpse into another unfathomable world situated in the site of the one before us today - so familiar and seemingly dependable.
Catching sight of battered, wizened wood just by Newlyn Green, I was delighted to believe that these were part of this elusive, mysterious landscape, when St Michael's Mount was not the island as we know it today, cut off by the daily tides, but rather a vast rocky outcrop in the midst of forests. Indeed, the original Cornish name for the Mount is Karrek Loos yn Koos, meaning ‘Grey Rock in the Wood’ and studies of the peaty soil in the sands using radiocarbon dating has confirmed that that woodland covered this extensive area some 5000 years ago, until it too was covered... by the sea.
Sadly, I am no longer sure that my weather-worn wood is part of this petrified forest that is said to be etched with traces of shipworms and gnawed by piddocks. Although not far from Wherry Town, where traces of the ancient pines and oak have been located, mine must have been either the skeletal frame of a wrecked ship from early centuries or perhaps part of an original wooden structure in the building of the former seafront.
Regardless, they still provide a link back to the maritime history of a coastline that has always lived with and through the unquestioned, unequalled power of the sea and the extremes of Cornish weather, the wettest of which are reflected in Norman Garstin's painting of Penzance seafront The Rain it Raineth Everyday (1889). Below is a detail of this work, now in Penlee House & Museum Penzance, having spent a number of years hidden away in the town hall since it was feared it would give a negative image of the town!
Whilst these traces of a prehistoric past may be intriguing to us from our present-day vantage point, with the comforts of a civilized life, the causes of those ancient floods can only be unsettling, to say the least. For indeed, such past surges and tsunamis were the consequences of an activity that is still ongoing, as the Earth’s tectonic plates continue to grind, slip and collapse, giving rise to earthquakes and volcanos, thus affecting tidal movement. Although the Mount’s Bay region is not on a fault line, it has fallen victim to the devastation caused by seismic phenomena elsewhere. It is said that a tsunami engulfed the region in 709 AD, and then in 1014 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that extensive sea-floods had obliterated villages and settlements, affecting “an innumerable multitude of people", although this was supposedly the result of a vast asteroid hitting the coast. Towards the end of the 11th century, in 1099, another tsunami hit, so that St Michael’s Mount was no longer land-locked at a distance of around 10kms from the sea but formed part of Mount’s Bay.
Catastrophic seismic activity led to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 with shock waves building up a monstrous tidal force that travelled the 1600 km distance to reach the Cornish coast, wreaking havoc on All Saints’ Day. Further sea surges were experienced in Cornwall, in March and July 1761, again linked to earthquake activity in Lisbon. Although unlikely that tsunamis linked to Portuguese seisms will occur again, sea surges and seiches (freak waves) have been observed as recently as 2011 and further events cannot be excluded; quite the contrary given climate change and the rise in sea level. How strange to look at land and seascapes that are, to me, so familiar and 'safe', and understand that even these are but part of a process of never-ending change and evolution.