MoboReader> Literature > Highways and Byways in London

   Chapter 15 HISTORIC HOUSES AND THEIR TENANTS

Highways and Byways in London By Emily Constance Baird Cook Characters: 52612

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"I have seen various places ... which have been rendered interesting by great men and their works; ... I seem to have made friends with them in their own houses; to have walked and talked, and suffered and enjoyed with them.... Even in London I find the principle hold good in me.... I once had duties to perform which kept me out late at night, and severely taxed my health and spirits. My path lay through a neighbourhood in which Dryden lived; and though nothing could be more commonplace, and I used to be tired to the heart and soul of me, I never hesitated to go a little out of my way purely that I might pass through Gerrard Street, and so give myself the shadow of a pleasant thought."-Leigh Hunt.

"Our houses shape themselves palpably on our inner and outer natures. See a householder breaking up and you will be sure of it. There is a shellfish which builds all manner of smaller shell into the walls of its own. A house is never a home until we have crusted it with the spoils of a hundred lives besides those of our own past. See what these are and you can tell what the occupant is."-Oliver Wendell Holmes.

At the Club.

The most curious thing about London houses, and especially characteristic of our national reserve, is the fact that we can, as a rule, tell nothing at all about them until we get inside the sacred enclosure. A Londoner's house is the shell that hides him from the world; our houses are, to the foreigner, as enigmatic and as exclusive as we ourselves. But, once past the magic gateway, once past the Cerberus at the door, you come upon an interior often unguessed and undreamed of. The contrast is striking. What can be more dully monotonous, more unromantic, than the row of brick and stucco house-fronts that face the average large square or street? Yet it is ten to one that, inside, hardly one of these will exactly resemble the other, either in taste, architecture, or even general plan. Even the "long unlovely street" of Tennyson's disapproval may, and does, often hide unsuspected treasures. Who, for instance, would suspect the existence of the Greek bas-reliefs, the painted ceilings, the colonnades and statues in some of the old Bloomsbury houses? Who would imagine the curious "Soane Museum" in the quiet house in Lincoln's Inn Fields? the dignified Georgian spaciousness in the old mansions of Bedford Square? the gorgeous interior of the sombre houses of Bruton Street? the picture-galleries of Piccadilly and Mayfair? or the Eastern magnificence and opulence of some of the Park Lane mansions? For in London, as a rule, there are but few external signs to denote wealth. Even in our riches, we do not wear our heart on our sleeve. From a survey of these, as a rule, unimposing fa?ades, we can imagine the uninitiated foreigner wondering where in the world the people of the richest city in the universe live. He may, even if intelligent, wander at large through London, and notice nothing of beauty, or even of interest. Was it not Madame de Sta?l who, lodged as she was in uninspiring Argyll Street, said unkindly, but not, perhaps, without some reason, with regard to her immediate surroundings that "London was a province in brick"? But London houses have other and deeper associations than those of mere riches; the association with mighty spirits of the past, poets dead and gone, great men of action, kings, warriors, statesmen; the infinite multitude of those who, "being dead, yet live." And in some cases, even though the houses themselves have vanished, yet the places where they stood are still sacred. Thus,-though it is perhaps difficult to define the exact boundaries of the old Stuart Palace of Whitehall, or to say where was the special site of the historic Cockpit,-yet, do they not lend a glory and an attraction to all the district of Westminster? Do not the purlieus of the unromantic Borough High Street, murky as these often are, recall Chaucer's famous Tabard Inn, of Canterbury pilgrims' fame? and does not the much-abused Griffin, on its Temple Bar pedestal, memorialise the older and too obstructive arch, where of old the dreadful heads of political scapegoats were displayed?

Vanished, and every year still vanishing, treasures! Sooner or later, no doubt, the edifices made sacred by history and association must go the way of all brick and masonry; yet even such landmarks as Turner's poor riverside cottage at Chelsea, or Carlyle's modest abode in Cheyne Walk, it will be sad to part with. That curious humanity that Charles Dickens gave to houses makes itself again felt in their fall; dwellings are not immortal, any more than were their great occupants. There is no picturesque decay in London; what is not of use must go: it dare not cumber the precious ground. Therefore, the few remaining timbered fronts of London are gone or going; only recently some picturesque old red-roofed houses, in the close vicinity of New Oxford Street, were condemned and destroyed; Staple Inn, indeed, has been saved and patched up, owing to the prompt action of a band of public benefactors. Blocks of houses, forming whole streets, are continually washed away in the tide of progress; Parliament Street has disappeared; the old Hanway Street, as it once was, has lately gone; Holywell Street is of the past; the demolition of this latter, though, indeed, urgently needed for the widening of the "straits" of the Strand, was not without its special sadness. The decay of houses that are at once picturesque and historical is, of course, doubly afflicting; yet even ugly houses often retain the charm of association to those who know what memories are bound up with them. Here romance and history serve to lend the beauty that is lacking. Thus, Ruskin's prosaic home in Hunter Street, Thackeray's commonplace mansion in Onslow Square; the house in Half Moon Street where Shelley sat "like a young lady's lark," in a projecting window, "hanging outside for air and song;" even that dark corner in Mecklenburgh Square where Sala kept his curios and bric-à-brac, all have their peculiar charm. Dr. Johnson's house in Gough Square, Fleet Street; the so-called "Old Curiosity Shop" in Lincoln's Inn Fields; John Hunter's house in Leicester Square-are all threatened with demolition. And, even apart from historic interest, how sad is the frequent fall of London's old landmarks! Tottering buildings, mere derelicts of time, old houses--

"whose ancient casements stare,

With sad, dim eyes, at the departing years."

Instinct as they are with the pathos of humanity, the sword of Damocles hangs over them all.

If great men's houses, or the houses that great men have ever, temporarily, lived in, could all be designated by some unobtrusive memorial tablet, such, for instance, as the Carlyle bas relief at Chelsea,-or even a plain inscription such as those recently placed on John Ruskin's birthplace in Hunter Street, Reynolds's house in Leicester Square, and Sir Isaac Newton's in St. Martin's Street,-what an interest would it not lend to even "long and unlovely" London streets! For the romance of houses is not divined by instinct; and even the taste of a Morris or a Rossetti has not always left its mark on their London abodes. That Dickens, Thackeray, John Leech, Darwin, the Rossettis, William Morris, have all lived in and about Bloomsbury, is not patent to the casual visitor. Does not even the plain inscription, "Poeta Inglese, Shelly," (sic) lend an added glamour to the Lung' Arno of Pisa?

The dividing line between history and fiction is not always very strongly marked; and this leads us to consider yet another aspect of the question. A curious literary interest sometimes attaches to certain houses, an interest hardly less deep for being partly, or even purely, fictitious. Among the many novelists who have made themselves responsible for this, none, perhaps, have been more prominent than Charles Dickens. Dickens, whose knowledge of London was, like his own Sam Weller's, "extensive and peculiar," has invested certain houses, certain localities, with an almost human sentiment and pathos. Thackeray has also done much, yet not so much as his contemporary, towards making London stones famous. The tenants of "historic houses" in this sense-houses on whom these and other writers have conferred immortality-are, of course, merely the "ghosts of ghosts," and yet, how real, how persistent are they, with the majority of us! Harry Warrington enjoying the May sun from his pleasant window in Bond Street; old Colonel Newcome kneeling among the "Grey Friars" of the Charterhouse; the pretty old house and garden in Church Street, Kensington, where Miss Thackeray's charming heroine, Dolly, lived; little David Copperfield at the waterside blacking warehouse; poor weeping Nancy on the steps of Surrey Pier, by London Bridge; ragged Jo at the grating of the squalid burying-ground: they and their sorrows are more real, more vivid, to us than the actual sufferings of the boy Chatterton, the "Titanic" agony of spoiled Byron, or the short glories of Lady Jane Grey. And, indeed, when we call to mind the gay vision of the "ladies of St. James's" taking the air, we think as much of such personages as Thackeray's beautiful Beatrix, wayward and heartless, and of her solemn cousin, Colonel Esmond,-as of Mrs. Pepys, in her noted "tabby suit," or of my Lady Castlemaine herself, in all her beauty, attended by her royal admirer.

Such are the "byways of fiction" in London! Next to Dickens, in whose persuasive company we have wandered from Fact to Fiction, Dr. Johnson is, perhaps, of all our great Londoners, the most prominent. To him, indeed, the everlasting noise and bustle of the capital, "the roaring of the loom of time," was ever dear. Sayings of his about London have, in many cases, almost passed into household words: "He who is tired of London is tired of existence"; "Sir, let us take a walk into Fleet Street"; "I think the full tide of existence is at Charing Cross." Dr. Johnson had a great admiration for Fleet Street, which he thought finer than anything he knew. The old doctor's well-known figure, so often painted, in the ancient full-bottomed wig, and rusty clothes, yet, for us, haunts the shades of the Strand, yet lingers near his old haunts, fumbling in the displayed stores of the second-hand book shops. "The old philosopher is still among us, in the brown coat and the metal buttons." Johnson's London houses,-Gough Square, Bolt Court, Johnson's Court, and many others; Johnson's favourite Fleet Street taverns, notably the famous "Cheshire Cheese," with its well-known literary coterie; these are almost too familiar to need description; they, and the Johnsonian element they recall, are bound up intimately with London's eighteenth-century history. There is scarcely any street so little altered, since then, in its characteristics, as Fleet Street. And if the Fleet Street of our own day, with its still irregular houses, its occasional glimpses, down some alley, of the shining river which it skirts, is picturesque,-what must it have been in Johnson's day, when its shops yet displayed their gay projecting signs? when "timbered fronts" and gables were the rule; when the charming dress of the day, with its gay satins and ruffles, knee breeches and buckles, was the mode? Though, for that matter, the old doctor himself, the essential spirit of the Fleet Street of the time, can hardly have been a fashionable figure:

"It must be confessed," says Boswell, "that his ... morning dress was sufficiently uncouth. His brown suit of clothes looked very rusty; he had on a little old shrivelled, unpowdered wig, which was too small for his head; his shirt neck and the knees of his breeches were loose, his black worsted stockings ill drawn up, and he had a pair of unbuckled shoes by way of slippers."

Doctor Johnson was, indeed, a faithful Londoner. He lived in no less than sixteen London houses (among them, several "Inns"), all situated in and around Holborn and the Strand. Nearly all of these abodes have now disappeared, or are unidentified; only the Gough Square house still exists. It is picturesque, chiefly on account of its age; it stands back out of Fleet Street, in a little court, and has been often sketched. It is a corner house, numbered seventeen (marked by a tablet), and remains, in externals at least, much as Johnson left it 140 years ago, though internally it is a network of dusty offices. Johnson's Court (not named from him), where he also lived, is now swallowed up in "Anderton's Hotel." In Gough Square the greater part of the celebrated Dictionary was written; here Johnson's wife died, and here he "had an upper room fitted up like a counting-house in which he gave to the copyists their several tasks." It was, however, in Bolt Court, his last house, that the curious army of pensioners lived whom this strange old scholar-philanthropist collected round him:

"His strange household of fretful and disappointed alms-people seems as well known as our own. At the head of these pensioners was the daughter of a Welsh doctor (a blind old lady named Williams), who had written some trivial poems; Mrs. Desmoulins, an old Staffordshire lady, her daughter, and a Miss Carmichael. The relationships of these fretful and quarrelsome old dames Dr. Johnson has himself sketched, in a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Thrale: 'Williams hates everybody; Levett hates Desmoulins, and does not love Williams; Desmoulins hates them both; Poll (Miss Carmichael) loves none of them."

Wych Street.

These old waifs and strays were not, apparently, even always grateful. But, in any case, the annoyance of "such a menagerie of singular oddities" must have driven him more and more to his clubs, and especially to his favourite haunt the "Cheshire Cheese." This ancient tavern, still existing in its pristine simplicity in Wine Office Court, "and," says Hare, "the most perfect old tavern in London," is the classic retreat where Johnson and Goldsmith held their court; Johnson in the window-seat, and Goldsmith on his right hand. To American tourists, I gather, it is a specially sacred place of pilgrimage. In that low, dark, sanded parlour of the "Cheshire Cheese," you might easily imagine yourself in some rural retreat, miles away from London, though so close in fact to the din and civilisation of Fleet Street. Not only far from London, but far away back in the eighteenth century. Can such things be, you wonder, in the London of our day? You sit in Johnson's time-honoured seat, under his brass-plate inscription, and his picture; darkened oak panelling lines the walls; artistic Bohemians blow smoke-wreaths over their toasted cheese and whiskies, hilariously in yonder corner; and even the waiters are not of the uncommunicative, cut-and-dried modern sort, but rather the cheery, jovial order of Dickens's time. One of them brings you the "visitors' book"; two ponderous tomes filled with brilliant sketches by well-known artists, some of the sketches amiably suggestive of the sketchers having supped "not wisely, but too well"; another tells you, with all the pride of long association, that "the place has not changed one whit since Johnson's time"; and yet a third, with an expansiveness rare indeed in London, will point out to you "Goldsmith's favourite window-seat."

Oliver Goldsmith, the erratic genius who "wrote like an angel, and talked like poor Poll," was one of Johnson's satellites, another shining light of old Fleet Street. He had the artistic temperament indeed, for when he was not in the clutches of the bailiffs, he was usually revelling in absurd extravagance. Goldsmith's last lodging, in No. 2, Brick Court, Temple, he furnished with ridiculous lavishness, dressing himself to match, in "Tyrian-bloom satin with gold buttons." Dr. Johnson must sometimes have been tried by his friend, as the following story shows: (Newbery, Goldsmith's publisher, had apparently refused further advances to his impecunious client):

"I received one morning" (Boswell represents Johnson to have said), "a message from poor Goldsmith, that he was in great distress, and, as it was not in his power to come to me, begging that I would come to him as soon as possible. I sent him a guinea and promised to come to him directly. I accordingly went as soon as I was dressed, and found that his landlady had arrested him for his rent, at which he was in a violent passion. I perceived that he had already changed my guinea, and had got a bottle of Madeira and a glass before him. I put the cork into the bottle, desired he would be calm, and began to talk to him of the means by which he might be extricated. He then told me that he had a novel ready for the press, which he produced to me. I looked into it and saw its merits, told the landlady I should soon return, and, having gone to a bookseller, sold it for £60. I brought Goldsmith the money, and he discharged his rent, not without rating his landlady in a high tone for having used him so ill."

The MS. was that of The Vicar of Wakefield, but the whole picture really suggests a scene from Dickens's Pickwick. Oliver Goldsmith acted at one time as "reader"-curious combination!-to prim old Samuel Richardson, the printer-novelist, at the latter's printing-office in the south west corner of Salisbury Square, communicating with the court, No. 76, Fleet Street. Richardson, also, had once befriended Johnson, and the worthy doctor was for ever praising his friend, and abusing his compeer in fiction, Henry Fielding, whom he called "a barren rascal."

"Sir" (said Johnson), "there is more knowledge of the heart in one letter of Richardson's than in all Tom Jones." Some one present here remarked that Richardson was very tedious. "Why, Sir," replied Johnson, "if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so great that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment."

But if Richardson is tedious, Johnson was nothing if not prejudiced; though, after all, he has no less a person than Macaulay on his side; Macaulay, who declared that were he to be wrecked on a desert island with only one book, he would choose Clarissa, sentiment and all, for his sole delectation.

Hogarth, the painter, it is said, once met Johnson at Richardson's printing-office; when, seeing "a person standing in the room shaking his head and rolling himself about in a ridiculous manner, he concluded he was an idiot, whom his relations had put under the care of Mr. Richardson as a very good man.... To his great surprise, however, this figure stalked forward to where he was, and all at once burst into an invective against George II.... Hogarth looked at him in astonishment, and actually imagined that this idiot had been at the moment inspired."

Richardson's own home was, however, at some distance from his Fleet Street printing-office; as far, indeed, as North End, Fulham. His house there, which still stands, is one of two named "The Grange"; that nearest the Hammersmith Road. Here, in his garden-house, the novelist wrote his somewhat long-winded romances, indulged his amiable vanity, and indited his letters, with their touches of playfully elephantine wit, to "Lady Bradshaigh" and his other fair correspondents.

It is this very house, "The Grange," old-fashioned, red-brick, sedate, that, by another of Fate's curious ironies, was for twenty-seven years the home and studio of Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Strange contrast, indeed, between the prosy, fussy, precise old painter-novelist, and the most ideal and imaginative of our modern painters!

"When the painter first settled here, the house stood in the midst of fields on the outskirts of London. Now, whole rows of new streets have sprung up on every side, the fields are built over, and omnibuses and district trains have their stations within a stone's throw. But the leafy trees and sheltered garden of the painter's house remain, a green oasis in the sandy waste. From the noise and dust of crowded thoroughfares we step into the quiet garden with its shady lawns and gay flower borders, its fine old mulberry-tree and rows of limes. Here snowdrops and crocuses blossom in the early spring, and later in the year, blue irises and white lilies, sunflowers and hollyhocks grow tall under the ivied wall. And here, at the end of the garden, among the flowers and leaves, is the studio where the master worked."

Here, then, in the historic "garden-house," where Richardson once wrote, and received his friends Hogarth and Johnson, was Burne-Jones's studio, where he imagined that

"land of clear colours and stories

In a region of shadowless hours,"

described by Swinburne the poet in the lovely dedication of his poems to his friend and Master in another art, begging that they may find place, "for the love of lost loves and lost times," in the painter's created paradise; "Receive," he cries,

"in your palace of painting

This revel of rhymes."

It is a far cry from Fleet Street to Fulham, whither we have wandered in company of Richardson and his friends, and we must retrace our steps. All these sages and worthies of Fleet Street were, of course, more or less connected with the great engine of the Press, then comparatively in its childhood, but now, though grown to mighty dimensions, occupying still the same sacred and classic ground. The Jupiters of the Press have from the first wielded their sceptres in Fleet Street and its immediate neighbourhood. And not only the newspaper press, but all sorts of lampoons, political skits, libellous pamphlets, and the like, had here their home in early days. Here that meteoric and unstable wit, Theodore Hook, devoted his misapplied genius to the editing of the then scurrilous journal John Bull, (a paper whose métier was the satirising of society); his favourite and thoughtful axiom being "that there was always a concealed wound in every family, and the point was to strike exactly at the source of pain." The primary object of the paper, which was started in "Johnson's Court" in 1820, was the slandering of the unfortunate Queen Caroline, wife of George IV. The death of the Queen soon reforming the John Bull, it altered to dulness, and declined in sale; its first editor is, indeed, now mainly remembered by one of his early escapades, the famous "Berners Street hoax." This was a wild practical joke played on a harmless widow lady, living at 54, Berners Street. Hook, it seems, had made a bet that "in one week that nice quiet dwelling should be the most famous in all London;" and, the bet being taken, he forthwith wrote many hundred letters to tradesmen, ordering goods and visits of every kind, from coals to cranberry tarts, from attorneys to popular preachers. The street became, of course, absolutely blocked with traffic, Hook himself enjoying the "midday melodrama" from an apartment he had himself hired in a house opposite. Such wholesale destruction was the result that the enfant terrible, being suspected, had to sham illness, until the affair had blown over.

Theodore Hook was a Londoner of the Londoners, with "a gigantic intellect and no morals," added to the peculiar resourcefulness and adaptability of the typical cockney. Nevertheless, even this unprincipled buffoon and wit, petted by royalty and fashion, and left to die, a drunken worn-out spendthrift at last-must, he, too, have had his bad moments. There is a peculiar and haunting horror attaching to the story (told in his Life and Letters), of how, when passing by his birthplace in Charlotte Street, Bloomsbury, Hook pointed to a spot nearly opposite the house where he was born, saying, "There by that lamp-post stood Martha the Gypsy."

The Strand, still picturesque, narrow, and tortuous, is now nearly entirely given up to shops, newspaper offices and theatres; but at No. 149 (once a lodging-house and now a newspaper office), the actress Mrs. Siddons stayed when she first came up to London, and here she supped joyfully with her father and husband, to celebrate her first London success. Less changed is the historic Temple, where that constant Londoner, Charles Lamb, lived so long, and of which he has left us such lovely descriptions. Indeed, Charles Lamb is one of those Londoners of whom, like Dickens, Milton, and Johnson, it is difficult to say where they have not lived in the great metropolis. Milton, perhaps, is, however, an extreme case: for he not only lived in a score of different residences, but further puzzles the conscientious topographer by being married in three different churches and buried piecemeal; having been also disinterred at various times, and his remains scattered,-a thing manifestly unfair to the future historian.

Ruskin, also, the latter-day apostle and critic, has been very catholic in his London dwellings. Born in humble Hunter Street, Bloomsbury, he migrated later with his parents to Herne Hill and Denmark Hill, with a short interlude of married life in Park Street. The Denmark Hill house, so far from the centre of things as to be almost suburban, is yet a goal of pilgrimage to Ruskin's faithful disciples. Denmark Hill, now so overbuilt, so lined and scored with railways, was, some sixty years ago, still a very desirable residential region. Does not Thackeray locate his Misses Dobbin, Amelia's Major's sisters, there?-in that fine villa, too, with "beautiful graperies and peach-trees," which delighted little Georgy Osborne. The smaller house on Herne Hill, where little John Ruskin spent his boyhood, is at the present day unattractive enough; but the Denmark Hill villa near by, taken later when the family launched out, has still its charm. It, too, is a "fine villa," or rather country mansion, not unlike the description of the Misses Dobbin's abode, and, like it, full of peach-trees that, growing on old walls, still bear abundantly. Readers of Pr?terita will remember how, when Mr. Ruskin became "of age, and B.A., and so on," his father and mother decided on moving that short way to the larger house; and how "everybody said how wise and proper"; and how "the view from the breakfast-room into the field was really very lovely"; and how the family lived for some quarter

of a century here in much "stateliness of civic domicile."

"The house itself" (says Mr. Ruskin) "had every good in it, except nearness to a stream, that could with any reason be coveted by modest mortals. It stood in command of seven acres of healthy ground ... half of it in meadow sloping to the sunrise, the rest prudently and pleasantly divided into an upper and lower kitchen garden; a fruitful bit of orchard, and chance inlets and outlets of woodwalk, opening to the sunny path by the field, which was gladdened on its other side in springtime by flushes of almond and double peach blossom. Scarce all the hyacinths and heath of Brantwood redeem the loss of these to me; and when the summer winds have wrecked the wreaths of our wild roses, I am apt to think sorrowfully of the trailings and climbings of deep purple convolvulus which bloomed full every autumn morning round the trunks of the apple trees in the kitchen garden."

That hedge of almond blossom is still gay in spring, and the "shabby tide of progress" has not touched the old house, which, garden, field, orchard and all, is still virtually the same as it was in Ruskin's time. No. 163, Denmark Hill, is its designation;-a big, roomy, detached mansion, a real "rus in urbe." Much like other large suburban villas, the house itself; yet this is the spot whence emanated Modern Painters, that early work of genius that assured the young writer's fame. There is the "study" that Mr. Ruskin used, his "workroom above the breakfast-room"; there, above it again, is his bedroom, looking straight south-east, giving "command of the morning clouds, inestimable for its aid in all healthy thought." There, still, is the little reservoir made by Mr. Ruskin in engineering zeal, a canal said by the neighbours to have cost £5 every time he had it filled, in vain attempt to make a little rivulet, or Alpine sluice, for watering! For, although "of age and a B.A.," the chief reason, as Mr. Ruskin ingenuously confesses, why his soul yearned for the Denmark Hill house, was, that "ever since I could drive a spade, I had wanted to dig a canal, and make locks on it, like Harry in "Harry and Lucy." And in the field at the back of the Denmark Hill house I saw my way to a canal with any number of locks down to Dulwich." ... "But," he adds sorrowfully, "I never got my canal dug, after all! The gardeners wanted all the water for the greenhouse. I resigned myself ... yet the bewitching idea never went out of my head, and some waterworks were verily set aflowing twenty years afterwards."

Yet, be the actual bricks and mortar never so prosaic, there is a strange fascination about the dwellings where great men have lived and died. Benjamin Disraeli was born, like Ruskin, in the shades of Bloomsbury, and, again like him, migrated, later, to Mayfair on his marriage. The late Lord Beaconsfield remained, however, always faithful to the West End. In his Park Lane house (No. 29) he lived over thirty years; removing then to No. 2, Whitehall Gardens, and finally dying, after a short tenancy, at 19, Curzon Street. It was a cold and inclement spring, a blast of Kingsley's much belauded "north-easter," to which he succumbed. That unassuming house in Curzon Street was, for the moment, the world's centre. "It was half-past six in the morning that the final bulletin of the dying statesman's condition was placed on the railings to inform the crowd who, even at that early hour, waited for intelligence."

Mr. Gladstone, too, has had as many London houses as his great rival, with perhaps, stormier residences in them. There is the house, for instance, in Harley Street, where the mob smashed the great man's windows at the time of his unpopularity over the Eastern question. And No. 10, Carlton House Terrace, is the mansion where he lived for so many years at the zenith of his fame. Is his spirit, I wonder, clean vanished, forgotten there, and does no record of him remain? Perhaps the militant spirits of Disraeli and Gladstone still linger, if anywhere, about Downing Street; that narrow street of which Carlyle says that "it is evident to all men that the interests of one hundred and fifty millions of us depend on the mysterious industry there carried on"; and where No. 10, that dingy old house which has been the temporary home of successive Prime Ministers, as well as the official head-quarters of the Government, "focuses more historic glamour than any other house in London." Hook said wittily of Downing Street:

"There is a fascination in the air of this little cul-de-sac; an hour's inhalation of its atmosphere affects some men with giddiness, others with blindness, and very frequently with the most oblivious boastfulness."

Lord Rosebery used 10, Downing Street, for official purposes; Lord Salisbury did not use it at all. Many historic scenes have been enacted, and many momentous questions settled, within its walls. It was in its entrance hall, trodden by the feet of successive generations of politicians, that Wellington and Nelson met for the only time in their lives, both waiting to see the Minister, and neither knowing who the other was. They naturally entered into conversation, but it was not until afterwards that they knew to whom they had been speaking. The house itself is solid and substantial, without any architectural attractiveness, and to the casual observer suggests nothing different from thousands of other London dwellings. From the outside, no one would imagine it to be commodious, but it has some very large apartments; and the old council chamber, the principal features of which are the book-lined walls, massive pillars, and heavy, solid furniture, remains much as it was in Walpole's day. Here many conferences of Ministers have been held, and the most delicate affairs of State settled. The Cabinet Councils have, however, not always been held here. Mr. Gladstone preferred to hold them in his own more cosy room on the floor above; and Lord Salisbury preferred to hold them at the Foreign Office. Next door is the official residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The entrance to the Foreign Office and the Colonial Office is opposite. Which of these great buildings, with their numerous passages and annexes and waiting-rooms, is the original of Dickens's "Circumlocution Office," it would be invidious even to attempt to discover.

Nowhere is the curious unexpectedness of London houses better exemplified than in the building known as Sir John Soane's Museum, on the north side of the square called Lincoln's Inn Fields. Here to all seeming, stands an ordinary dwelling-house;-its front, it is true, somewhat of the ornate kind,-but utterly misleading, so far as its outer appearance is concerned, to the passer-by. Nor does the illusion stop at the hall-door. For there is here an air of homely friendliness, of quiet welcome, that is altogether at variance with any preconceived ideas that the visitor may have formed about museums in general. Several dignified family servants of irreproachable demeanour lie in wait for the stranger and kindly escort him round. It is not till you have passed the Rubicon of the double dining-room, yet arranged exactly as in the lifetime of the founder, that you begin to realise that you are in a museum, not in a private mansion. And the realisation is even then difficult, for the family butlers have a familiar way of alluding to "Sir John," the donor, as though he were alive and in the next room, thus:

"Sir John gave £140 for these Hogarths," says the Chief Butler, indicating the well-known Rake series, and speaking with a degree of intimacy of "Sir John" that positively startled me, till I remembered that the gentleman in question died some sixty years ago.

"Oh, er, very Hogarthian!" I remark somewhat bashfully, for indeed the pictures are hardly all of them pleasing to the uninitiated. "I wonder that Sir John could like to live with them!"

"Yes, indeed! some of them are very gross," says the Mentor; and I almost wish that I had held my peace.

The panels of the mysterious room that contains the Hogarths afford a wonderful example of how to hang many pictures in a limited space. They open at the touch of a spring, disclosing not only inner walls of pictures, but also their own inner sides similarly adorned. Through the walls thus magically opened a glimpse is obtained of a little basement room called "The Monk's Parloir," adorned with carving and statuary. Sir John Soane was, of course, the architect of the existing Bank of England, and interesting architectural drawings, beside innumerable imaginary palaces by him, abound in the museum. The chief treasure of the collection, the hieroglyphic-covered alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I., father of the great Rameses, lies in the basement; which is, indeed, entirely filled with works of "antiquity and virtue"; the "backs" and basements of three adjoining houses being utilised for the required space. To judge from the wide variety among the objects collected, Sir John Soane must have been a man of cosmopolitan tastes, and possessed of an interesting personality. Perhaps he found some comfort in art for the tragedies of his later life; for his two sons (whose quaint portraits, in youthful blue and silver, are to be seen in the museum) died in his lifetime. At any rate, that Sir John was a man of some humour seems to be sufficiently attested by the curious post-mortem joke that he perpetrated on his trustees! For, when leaving his treasures to the nation, and specifying especially that the house was to be left precisely as he had lived in it, he appended to his will three codicils, directing that three mysterious sealed cupboards in his museum-house should not be opened till respectively thirty, fifty, and sixty years after his death! This was accordingly done, expectation rising higher in each decade; and lo! on each occasion nothing was found but a few worthless papers, relating either to antiquated accounts, or to still more antiquated family disagreements!

There is, at the present time, despite the encroachments of a modern and generally iconoclastic London, now a wholesome spirit of veneration abroad, which tends not only towards the preservation of ancient and historical buildings, but also towards the acquisition of the homes that have been lived in and made beautiful by the celebrated men of our own day. Of this kind is "Leighton House," bought since Lord Leighton's death by the effort of a private committee, and now opened free to the nation. The rooms and internal arrangement are, as in the case of the "Carlyle House," left as nearly as possible in their original condition, and though of necessity much of the valuable furniture and accessories have been removed, yet the many sketches and drawings illustrative of the painter's life-work that fill the walls do something to dispel the unavoidable sense of incompleteness. It is interesting to wander through the beautifully-proportioned rooms, to gaze into the well-tended, sun-lit garden, with its gay geranium beds and its green lawn; to sit in the mysterious semi-darkness of the "Arab Hall," and look up into its gold-encrusted dome; to listen to the mournful splash of the tiny fountain in its marble basin;-and yet, "wanting is-what?"

"When the lamp is shattered

The light in the dust lies dead."

It will always be a question how far the mere dwelling of a great painter is worth thus preserving in its integrity, when once the magic of his presence, his genius, has deserted it, and the growing work of his art no longer adorns its walls. The committee of the "Leighton House" have done their work with judgment and care, and, if the inevitable comparison occurs to those who saw it in the life time or during the "show days" of its late master, of former life and splendour with present gloom and sadness, this is only in the nature of things. The blue tiles that the painter loved still adorn, in bird-of-paradise like splendour, the wide, massive staircase; the water still tinkles in the Pompeian atrium as of old; and the master's art can still be studied in the many drawings and reproductions that fill, so far as they can, the places left by greater works.

Hertford House, in Manchester Square, the sumptuous home of the Wallace collection, bequeathed to the nation by Lady Wallace in 1898, is the most important of the nation's artistic legacies. Though in a sense historic-for it is the "Gaunt House" of Vanity Fair, and its former owner, Lord Hertford, was caricatured as the Marquis of Steyne;-yet, as it is mainly as a picture gallery that it must be noticed, it has fallen most conveniently into a previous chapter.

But the historical houses of London are innumerable, and my space is but limited. History is written in many kinds. And the greater portion of the fine houses of the metropolis, the palaces of Mayfair, Pall Mall, Kensington, possess historic interest of their own; interest, indeed, often unknown and unsuspected by any but the privileged few, because unvisited and generally inaccessible. Of these are Chesterfield House, in South Audley Street, the home of the author of the famous Letters, where the poor scholar Johnson waited patiently for interviews with his noble patron; Apsley House,-the pillared fa?ade of which is so well known to travellers on the humble omnibus as it passes Hyde Park Corner,-the abode of the "Iron Duke," that old man in the blue coat and white trousers, to the last the people's idol, whose daily appearances, in old age, were here awaited patiently by expectant crowds; Lansdowne House, Devonshire House, Sutherland House, Bridgewater House, splendid mansions on or near the "Green Park," famed, like so many others, for their picture galleries; Sutherland House, often now hospitably thrown open for gatherings of "the people," is said to be the finest private mansion in London: "I have come," a Queen is reported to have said to a former Duchess of Sutherland, "from my house to your palace."

Many of the splendid old mansions of Stuart times have, indeed, gone; yet in some instances they have risen again from their ashes to new spheres of interest. Thus, old Montague House in Bloomsbury, old Burlington House in Piccadilly, old Somerset House in the Strand, have been rebuilt and utilised by Government as National Collections or offices. Where lovely ladies of the Restoration trailed their sheeny silks in Lely-like voluptuousness, where court gallants presented odes, and court dandies took snuff and patronage, now sweet girl graduates pace the galleries, spectacled lady-students copy "old masters," Academy pupils study "the antique." The contrast is picturesque as well as strange. Does one not sometimes, as twilight falls, seem to hear the ghostly "swish" of the court beauties' dresses along a deserted British Museum Gallery, or seem to see in a stone Venus, with uplifted arm, an insufficiently clad fair lady of the olden time? It is but fancy, yet such is the charm of history and of historic association.

Ghosts of our own fancy may, and do, wander at their will in London's misty galleries; but ghosts, better authenticated, are popularly supposed to haunt a few of London's old houses. Thus, No. 50, in Berkeley Square has gained undesirable notoriety as the "Haunted House," and many extraordinary tales have from time to time been told as to its ghostly manifestations. Berkeley Square has, undeniably, a solid and old-time look that fits in well with the gloomy tradition; it has the best and most ancient plane-trees of any London square, and its fine old iron-work, with occasional torch-extinguishers (used by the "link-boys" of sedan chairs in Stuart times), are all in keeping with the old-world spirit. Nevertheless, Berkeley Square has other and sadder associations than those of mere ghosts. For in No. 45,-a house specially noted for its iron-adornments,-the great Lord Clive, founder of the British Empire in India, committed suicide in 1774. "In the awful close," says Macaulay, "of so much prosperity and glory," some men only saw the horrors of an evil conscience; but Clive from early youth had been subject to "fits of strange melancholy," while now his strong mind was sinking under physical suffering, and he took opium for a distressing complaint.

In Berkeley Square (No. 38) is the town house of Lord Rosebery, once the residence of Lady Jersey, and the place whence her mother,-the daughter of Child, the banker,-eloped to marry the Earl of Westmorland, in 1782.

It were, however, an invidious, as well as an impossible task, to name all London's historic houses. What street in London is, indeed, not "historic" in a sense? Houses may be pulled down, but even thus their locality knows them still. Is not even Turner the painter's squalid, dirty house in Queen Anne Street, now razed, yet recalled to the passer-by, by the tablet affixed to the houses that have since sprung up on its site? "Unlovely" Wimpole Street is sacred to the shade of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that "small, pale person, scarcely embodied at all." It was from this house, No. 50, that she wrote her impassioned love-letters, and, after years of chronic invalidism, ran away, secretly and romantically, to marry a brother-poet. The picturesque chambers known as "the Albany,"-a byway out of Piccadilly,-recall Lord Macaulay, Lord Byron, Lord Lytton. Curzon Street suggests the famous parties, in the early nineteenth century, of the sisters Mary and Agnes Berry, the friends of Horace Walpole. In Soho,-a district famous in old days for an artistic, and semi-Bohemian fraternity, whose houses emulated Turner's in dirt,-lived the painters Northcote, Mulready, Fuseli, Stothard,-and Flaxman the sculptor. At 28, Poland Street, lived William Blake, the poet-painter, the half-crazy, but wholly charming, seer and mystic; here he wrote his Songs of Experience and of Innocence, and drew his Visionary Portraits. (The story of Blake and his wife, "reciting passages from Paradise Lost, and enacting Adam and Eve, in character," belongs, however, not to dingy gardenless Poland Street, but to Hercules Buildings, then a modest Lambeth suburb). In Poland Street, in 1811, lived also Shelley in early youth, with his friend and biographer Hogg; the latter being attracted, says Shelley, by the name of the street, "because it reminded him of Thaddeus of Warsaw and freedom":

"A paper (says Hogg) in the window of No. 15 announced lodgings.... 'We must lodge there, should we sleep even on the step of a door.' ... Shelley took some objection to the exterior of the house, but we went in.... There was a back sitting-room on the first floor, somewhat dark but quiet, yet quietness was not the prime attraction. The walls of the room had lately been covered with trellised paper.... This was delightful. He went close to the wall and touched it. 'We must stay here; stay for ever.' Shelley had the bedroom opening out of the sitting room, and this also was overspread with the trellised paper."

But every part of London has its historic interest-is, in a sense, a city peopled by the dead. "Where'er you tread is haunted, holy ground." That spot, in that quiet, narrow street,-Mayfair, Bloomsbury, Soho or Westminster,-where you chance to live, and toil, and suffer, and enjoy,-has known many others in its time,-others before you: men in stocks, and wigs, and laced ruffles, and knee-breeches; women in brocades, ruffs, and farthingales; children in long stiff skirts and prim stomachers: who, in their turn, likewise lived, and toiled, and enjoyed, and suffered.... Is it not this romance of London, this mysterious past life of hers, guessed and unguessed, that makes us welcome, and recognise as real friends, the types of a Thackeray, a Dickens? See, for instance, how a mere allusion to Thackeray puppets serves to immortalise with a touch, the prosaic, if fashionable, Clarges and Bond Streets: Clarges Street, "where Beatrix Bernstein held her card parties, her Wednesday and Sunday evenings, save during the short season when Ranelagh was open on a Sunday, where the desolate old woman sat alone, waiting hopelessly for the scapegrace nephew that her battered old heart had learned to love."

"Here, Baroness Bernstein takes her chocolate behind the drawn curtains; she is the Beatrix Esmond of brighter days and fortunes.... There are the windows of Harry Warrington's lodgings in Bond Street, 'at the court end of the town;' geraniums and lobelias flourish in them to this day, and no doubt they are let to some sprig of fashion; but to me they are Harry's rooms, hired from Mr. Ruff, the milliner's husband; and the 'Archie' or 'Bertie' in possession to-day is a mere interloper, whom Gumbo would have politely shown downstairs."-(Byways of Fiction in London.)

Not less has Dickens done with the lower life of the Great City. And has not Miss Thackeray (Mrs. Ritchie), with a touch of her father's picturesque and vivid genius, glorified that "Old Court Suburb," Old Kensington, in her well-known novel of that name? Here, in Kensington, at No. 2, Palace Green, then considerably more countrified than now, Thackeray died in 1863. Here, too, is the red brick Kensington Palace, built by William and Mary in what Leigh Hunt called "Dutch solidity," famous as Queen Victoria's birth-place, and also more sadly reminiscent of poor Caroline of Brunswick, the ill-fated and cruelly used wife of George IV.

Holland House is one of the most interesting and historically important buildings in Kensington. It stands near Campden Hill, in beautiful and spacious gardens, the same gardens where the youthful George III. used to flirt with the lovely Sarah Lennox; the lady dressed as a shepherdess, playing at haymaking while the King rode by: a youthful and a pleasant idyll, in contrast with the lady's very chequered after life! Holland House, says Mr. Hare, "surpasses all other houses in beauty, rising at the end of the green slope, with its richly-sculptured terrace, and its cedars, and its vases of brilliant flowers." The house was originally built in 1607, though its characteristic wings and arcades were all added later by the first Earl of Holland, the same who was beheaded in the Royalist wars. After his execution Holland House was confiscated by the Parliamentary generals; being, however, restored in 1665 to the disconsolate widow, who comforted herself by indulging privately here in the theatricals so strictly forbidden by the Puritan Government. Early in the eighteenth century Holland House became associated with Addison (of Spectator fame); he lived here for some three years after his ambitious marriage with Charlotte, Countess of Warwick, a marriage which, despite its splendour, report says was not happy for the bridegroom. According to Dr. Johnson, it was more or less "on terms like those on which a Turkish princess is espoused, to whom the Sultan is reported to pronounce, 'Daughter, I give thee this man for thy slave.'" But the chief interest of Holland House lies in its having been for so many years the centre of a great literary and political coterie, and the resort of Whig orators and politicians. In the lifetime of the third Lord Holland, who died in 1840, the house was at the height of its splendour as a world-renowned intellectual centre. Holland House still exists in its integrity, though Macaulay long ago prophesied mournfully that

"The wonderful city may soon displace those turrets and gardens which are associated with so much that is interesting and noble-with the courtly magnificence of Rich, with the loves of Ormond, with the councils of Cromwell, with the death of Addison."

"The gardens of Holland House" (says Mr. Hare) "are unlike anything else in England. Every turn is a picture.... A raised terrace, like some of those which belong to old Genoese palaces, leads from the house high amongst the branches of the trees to the end of the flower garden.... Facing a miniature Dutch garden here is "Rogers' Seat," inscribed:

"Here Rogers sat, and here for ever dwell

With me those pleasures that he sings so well."

Lord Macaulay's last residence was, as I have said, "Holly Lodge." In this secluded villa, high walled-in from the outer world, were the two requisites for an author's ideal of happiness, a library and a garden. The house bears a memorial tablet. Here the great writer died while quietly seated in his library chair, his book open beside him; a peaceful close of a busy life.

I have named a few of our great Londoners; yet they, indeed, are but few among the vast galaxy of the bright particular stars who, even in our day, still enlighten with their spirit their former dwellings and surroundings. It is their human interest that so transfigures London stones; it is the mighty dead of England, the "choir invisible,"

"of those immortal dead who live again

In minds made better by their presence: live....

To make undying music in the world"-

that lend to their city such enchantment. Surely something of this feeling,-of this enchantment-is ours when we think of the long roll of great spirits who illumined the archives of the past. There is a magic, a glamour, in London streets, that affects the strongest heads and hearts. All honour to them-to poor human nature,-that it is so. Not only, let us hope, to the mad poet-painter Blake was it given to "meet the Apostle Paul in Piccadilly." We, too, may, if we will, walk with Milton in Cripplegate, may share Byron's Titanic gloom in the quaint Albany precincts, may wander with Charles Lamb in those Temple Gardens that he so loved, and may listen with him and Dickens to the pleasant tinkle of the rippling water in secluded Fountain Court. We inherit these associations, and we may-inestimable privilege-see our London, our "towne of townes, patrone and not compare," through the eyes of all the great men who loved her in the past.

"The dull brick houses of the square,

The bustle of the thoroughfare,

The sounds, the sights, the crush of men,

Are present, but forgotten then.

"With such companions at my side

I float on London's human tide;

An atom on its billows thrown,

But lonely never, nor alone."

Cricket in the Parks.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares