London's Historic Houses



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Some of London's most fascinating museums are its historic houses - thanks to their famous former residents

  • London's Historic Houses

    Dr Johnson's house Philip Sayer

  • London Shh… is an association of six Small Historic Houses – private, registered charities with significantly less funding than the major museums – which have banded together to share resources and increase visitor numbers. With few exhibits on show (the Freud Museum is an exception in this list), historic houses can appear surprisingly empty if you’re used to the literal treasure troves of visual stimulation laid out in the big museums. Guided tours are recommended as a way of getting the most out of a visit as knowledgeable guides can bring colour to the life of the subject they are passionate about. As a Handel House Museum volunteer remarks: ‘We’re not a theme park. Visitors come for the wow factor of standing in the room where “Messiah” was composed.’

    Explanatory panels, too, are crucial and a house can stand or fall on the quality of its annotations. In essence, the historic property visitor experience boils down to a concise crib sheet on the life of a character who has made their mark on this town and the six houses in the London Shh… association reveal reams about their one-time occupants and the impact they had on London.

    • Photo for “Freud Museum”

      Freud Museum

      Until Feb 29 2016, Freud Museum

      The Freud Museum is in the house to which Sigmund fled from the Nazis in 1938, bringing with him all the family furniture and opulent household items, rendering it a time capsule of the Vienna of his time. Freud’s study and the original psychoanalytic couch on which the analyst’s patients spilled their secrets are on show, as are a couple of thousand antiquities which Freud collected. Also in the house is a research centre and library containing the books of Sigmund and his daughter, Anna Freud, on the history of psychoanalysis. Films taken in the 1930s show Freud and his family at home and in the garden or walking the dogs. The house is notable as one of the few buildings to have two Blue Plaques, one for Sigmund and the other for Anna Freud, who was a pioneer in child psychiatry. Read more

  • Dr Johnson's House

    Until Feb 29 2016, Dr Johnson's House

    Preserved in an atmospheric little square off Fleet Street is a relic of a seminal chapter of lexicographic history. In the garrett of 17 Gough Square, Samuel Johnson and a team of amanuenses (clerks) compiled the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language. Johnson’s was not the first dictionary (around 20 preceded it), but it left earlier efforts in the dust: previous entries for both ‘Red’ and ‘Black’ described both as ‘A colour’. Dr J gave the more useful ‘Of the colour of blood’ for red, and his wide reading enabled him to call on quotations from Shakespeare, Pope and Milton to elucidate the concept of time. The house contains portraits of Dr Johnson’s motley acquaintances – from the actor David Garrick to the painter Joshua Reynolds – and there are descriptions of a home akin to Piccadilly Circus as the naturally sociable Johnson surrounded himself with an incessant stream of visitors, fearful that if left to solitude and reflection after the death of his wife he would go insane. A modest closet of period clothes is available for children’s dressing up, and an ancient film plays a loop of afternoon-play-type actors embodying the actor and friends. Don’t forget to look outside in the square for the statue of Dr Johnson’s feline friend Hodge, who he maintained was ‘a very fine cat indeed.’ Read more

  • Handel House Museum

    Until Feb 29 2016, Handel House Museum

    Secreted away in a courtyard in moneyed Mayfair, this house boasts a musical pedigree from radically different ends of the performance spectrum – the Baroque composer lived there between 1723 and his death in 1759, and for a brief period more than 200 years later, Jimi Hendrix and his English girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham, rented the rooms upstairs. The current extent of the tribute to the guitar virtuoso is six photographs and a précis of the circumstances that brought him to London (promotional drudgery and a conflict over an album cover adorned with 21 naked women that he hadn’t pre-approved and later disowned). The bulk of the material is devoted to giving a sense of the life and London of Handel, starting with a video narrated by Dan Cruickshank and opera singers performing Handel’s work. Handel was an active member of society in his adopted city, giving an annual performance of his ‘Messiah’ in aid of the newly established Foundling Hospital for abandoned children in Bloomsbury (the Foundling Museum still holds Handel memorabilia in its collections). The interiors have been faithfully recreated to match their eighteenth-century incarnation (Handel kept meticulous contents inventories, down to paint samples which were found under the floorboards and have now been replicated). The Handel House Trust is dedicated to maintaining the original purpose of certain rooms, so performers for the weekly classical music concerts held on the lower level are allowed to practise on the harpsichord during the day, although concerts are more civilised today than in Handel’s time, when he was known to swear profusely at the efforts of his diva-ish singers, often in several different languages. The Handel House Museum has particularly well written panels (laminated sheets available on music stands in each room – a nice touch), which contextualise the composer’s biography in the London of the time and include details that bring the historical figure to life. In the master bedroom, for instance, we learn that the reason the bed comes up conspicuously short is that people used to sleep in an almost seated position, propped up on a tower of pillows. It was believed this aided digestion, and as a famous glutton, Handel had more need than most to take any alimentary advice that came his way. Read more

  • Benjamin Franklin House

    Until Feb 29 2016, Benjamin Franklin House

    This hidden gem of a museum near Trafalgar Square is the last remaining residence of Benjamin Franklin. The founding father of the United States lived in Craven Street between 1757 and 1775, just before the American Revolution, where he performed the fraught diplomatic job of ‘mediating unrest’ between his homeland and its colonial rulers. The property is now virtually devoid of furniture but can be explored on guided tours led by actors playing period characters who bring the history of the place to life. Projections and recorded sound recreate Franklin’s London years and recount his ridiculously long list of achievements, which include conceiving the ideas of lightning conductors, bifocal spectacles and fire insurance; identifying the Gulf Stream and coining enduring aphorisms such as ‘early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.’ Read more

  • Burgh House and Hampstead Museum

    Until Feb 29 2016, Hampstead Museum

    Among a string of pillars of the local society who made the Queen Anne-period Burgh House their home, Rudyard Kipling’s daughter, Elsie Bambridge and her husband George lived here; Kipling enjoyed visiting this well-to-do area. It’s now a venue for talks and other events, and houses a small museum of local history. Read more

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