10 historic London homes that are now museums…3. Keats House…

Briefly the home of Romantic poet John Keats, this Hampstead premises is a now a museum dedicated to the writer and exhibition space.

Constructed in around 1815 as a pair of semi-detached dwellings, the now Grade I-listed house was one of the first to be built in the area. The two residences were initially occupied by critic Charles Wentworth Dilke and his family, and by the writer Charles Armitage Brown.

PICTURE: It’s No Game (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Keats, a friend of Dilke and Brown, began visiting the Regency-era villa, then named Wentworth Place, soon after. He was then living with his two younger brothers nearby in Well Walk but after George married and emigrated to America and Tom died of tuberculosis and, Brown invited Keats to move in as a lodger.

He did so in December, 1818, and it was while living at the property that he composed La Belle Dame sans Mercians, completed The Eve of St Agnes and write his famous odes, including Ode to a Nightingale.

The Dilkes family moved out in April, 1819, and Mrs Brawne and her daughter moved in. Keats developed an intimate relationship with the daughter, Fanny, and the couple were secretly engaged but owing to his premature death, never married.

In September, 1820, with his health failing, Keats left the property and headed to Rome (the trip was funded by friends who hoped the warm climate would help improve his health). He died in the eternal city on 23rd February, 1821, and was buried in the city’s Protestant cemetery.

Brown, meanwhile, left the property in June, 1822 (he also left for Italy) and Keats’ sister Fanny – who had become friends with Fanny Brawne – moved into Brown’s half of the house with her husband Valentin Llanos between 1828 and 1831. The Brawnes left in early 1830.

Subsequent occupants included actor Eliza Chester who converted the two residences into one.

The property was threatened with demolition in the early 20th century but saved by public subscription. It opened to the Keats Memorial House on 9th May, 1925. In 1931, a new building was erected nearby house artefacts related to Keats.

Since 1998 the property has been under the management of the City of London Corporation. It underwent a restoration project in the mid-1970s and again between 2007 and 2009. The Keats Foundation was established in November, 2010, and is involved in educational initiatives, both at Keats House and elsewhere.

Visitors to the house today are taken on a journey through Keats’ short life and legacy. Among the artefacts which can be seen there are items related to his time as a medical student, portraits of some of the famous people Keats met while living at the property including the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley as well as Shelley’s wife Mary (author of Frankenstein), a bust of Keats which stands at his actual height – just over five feet tall, and a mask of Keats’ face made by his artist friend Benjamin Haydon. 

There’s also portraits of both Keats and Fanny, Fanny’s engagement ring, and a volume of Shakespeare’s plays Keats gave her before leaving for Rome as well as busts of Charles Brown and editor Leigh Hunt (it was through Hunt that Keats met Dilke and Brown).

The garden features a 200-year-old mulberry tree and a plum tree which was planted to commemorate Ode to A Nightingale.

A Blue Plaque (although it’s actually brown) was unveiled at the house at 10 Keats Grove by representatives of the Royal Society of Arts on the property as far back as 1896 to commemorate Keats.

WHERE: Keats House, 10 Keats Grove, Hampstead (nearest Overground station is Hampstead Heath; nearest Tube stations are Hampstead and Belsize Park); WHEN: 11am to 1pm and 2pm to 4pm, Thursday, Friday and Sunday; COST: £8 adults/£4.75 concession; 18 and under free; WEBSITE: www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/attractions-museums-entertainment/keats-house/visit-keats-house.

10 historic London homes that are now museums…2. Carlyle’s House…

Carlyle’s House frontage. PICTURE: Kotomi_ (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

This Chelsea terraced house, now owned by the National Trust, was once the home of the Victorian literary couple, essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle and his wife (and skilled letter writer) Jane.

The Carlyles moved into the red brick property at 24 Cheyne Row (formerly number 5) in 1834, having left rural Scotland to see what they could make of themselves in London.

As their stars rose – by mid 19th century Thomas, the “sage of Chelsea”, had become an influential social commentator, the home became something of a hub for Victorian literati with the likes of Charles Dickens, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, George Eliot and William Thackeray all visiting them here.

When Thomas died at the property on 5th February, 1881 (Jane had died in 1866), the home reverted to the landlord but a group of admirers decided it needed to be preserved as a memorial to their friend. They raised funds through a public subscription and in 1895 opened it as a shrine to the writer.

The National Trust took over the running of the house, which was built in around 1708, in 1936 with the enthusiastic support of founder Octavia Hill who herself was a Carlyle fan.

The property, which still retains many of its original fixtures and fittings, features a recreation of the couple’s parlour based on Robert Tait’s painting A Chelsea Interior which depicts the Carlyles in the room in 1857.

The property also boasts the attic study that Thomas had constructed in August, 1853, and where he wrote The French Revolution, Latter Day Pamphlets and Fredrick the Great. His attempts at sound-proofing it had failed.

Meanwhile, Jane’s dressing room features a pair of original chintz curtains which she made in the late 1840s.

Inside the parlour at Carlyle’s House. PICTURE: Kotomi_ (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Among the items on show in the property is a necklace given to Jane by German writer and stateman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe which features a pendant containing a portrait of him. There’s also a a decoupage screen made by Jane using prints in 1849 and wallpapers by William Morris.

The property, which also features a small walled garden and a bust of Thomas Carlyle on the facade, is currently undergoing restoration work and will reopen in March.

WHERE: Carlyle’s House, 24 Cheyne Row, Chelsea (nearest Tube stations are Sloane Square and South Kensington); WHEN: Check website when it reopens; COST: £9 adults/£4.50 children; WEBSITE: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/carlyles-house.

10 historic London homes that are now museums…1. Benjamin Franklin House…

London is replete with historic homes but only a few have become museums. In this series we want to look beyond the more famous ones – think of the Dickens Museum in Bloomsbury or of the John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, to name two – to some of the lesser known homes that have became museums.

PICTURES: Courtesy of Google Maps

First up, it’s Benjamin Franklin House at 36 Craven Street. While the history of this Georgian terraced house goes back to 1730, Franklin himself is known to have lived in what was a lodging house for some 16 years from 1757 to 1775 (his wife Deborah had apparently refused to come and remained in Philadelphia).

Franklin, who had first lived in London in the mid-1720s while working as a trainee printer and stayed in various lodgings including in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, initially served as an agent for the Pennsylvania Assembly in London but, after a brief time back in Philadelphia, returned to London in 1764, this time as ambassador for the colonies in America. He left the property in 1775 to return to Philadelphia where, shortly after, on 4th July, 1776, he was among the signatories to the Declaration of Independence.

The four storey townhouse, which is the only surviving property lived in by Franklin left in the world, remained a lodging house up until World War II. It later served as the headquarters for the British Society for International Understanding.

The Friends of Benjamin Franklin House was founded by Mary, Countess of Bessborough in 1978 and in 1989 the government gave the friends the freehold to the land. The friends then undertook a major renovation and restoration project.

During the works some 1200 bones fragments – believed to be the remains of 15 people, at least six of them children – were found buried in the cellar. They were dated to about the time Franklin had been living there.

But, fear not, the bodies were not of Franklin’s doing. It is believed that William Hewson, an early anatomist and friend of Franklin (as well as being married to Polly, the daughter of the property’s landlady Margaret Stevenson), was responsible for the remains.

Hewson, who was among tenants at the property between 1770 and 1774, ran a small anatomy school here where he conducted secret dissections to avoid any legal complications. The bodies were thought to have been buried in the back garden which, when the property was expanded, later became part of the basement.

The Grade I-listed property – which contains many original features including the floorboards, ceilings and staircases – finally opened as a museum for the public in January, 2006.

These days, the history of the property – including its architecture and Franklin’s residency – can be explored through an ‘historical experience’ and ‘architectural tour’. There’s also a virtual tour available online recreating what the property may have looked like in Franklin’s time.

Among the artefacts on show in the house are Franklin’s leather wallet (inscribed with the Craven Street address and his name), a bust of Franklin dating from about 1800, and what is believed to be the property’s original door-knocker.

The house also features an English Heritage Blue Plaque – although the plaque, which was erected in 1914, is grey, not blue and rectangular, not circular.

WHERE: Benjamin Franklin House, 36 Craven Street, Westminster (nearest Tube stations are Embankment and Charing Cross); WHEN: Various times for tours – check the website for details; COST: Historical Experience – £9.50 adults/£8 concessions/free for under 12s; Architectural Tour – £7.50 adults/£6 concessions/free for under 12s; WEBSITE: https://benjaminfranklinhouse.org.