Carlyle's House, 24 Cheyne Row Chelsea SW3 5HL
This is a property which does not allow photography, so I have embellished this account with pictures taken outside, and you can see lots of images of the inside on the NT website, here.
It is a very interesting house, which is as well, as we had a certain amount of trouble finding it, and so I was feeling a bit tetchy by the time we arrived. For starters, we saw only one sign: this was explained by the fact that this is a conservation area. Given the amount of parking signage (we were, after all, in Kensington and Chelsea) it seemed an unlikely reason for leaving would-be visitors wandering, but boroughs will be boroughs.
Our second problem was that we had written down Cheyne Walk, which is what Thomas and Jane Carlyle called it in a lot of their letters. But it is apparently Cheyne Row, though this is the street name at the end of the street where we finally found number 24.
There is no Blue Plaque, although the area is rather full of them, including the Carlyles' friends, Leigh Hunt and George Eliot, not to mention D G Rossetti. But there is a bas-relief of the great man on the front of the house. And he was a great man. He is not very much read these days, his books being long and detailed, but at the time he was a real best-seller, and much admired. Dickens said that Carlyle's French Revolution was the one book he reread most often (it's said to have inspired A Tale of Two Cities)
The house is Queen Anne, built in 1708, and the Carlyles rented it from 1834 until Thomas died in 1881. After that, a lady with cats occupied it until a Trust was formed in 1895 to purchase it and open it to the public to mark the centenary of his birth. The National Trust bought it in 1936. We were told all this by a very friendly volunteer. There is copious information in every room, with permission to sit down and absorb it all. All his books, and the innumerable volumes of his and Jane's letters, are also available to read.
So we started on the ground floor, in the attractive drawing room and dining room, with a china closet off it. One the walls is a painting of the room itself with Jane sitting at the table, as well as detailed pencil drawings by Helen Allingham of different aspects of the house.
We learned that Leigh Hunt used to come round frequently, escaping from the chaos of his own home and family round the corner: Mrs Hunt was not a good housekeeper, and Jane describes her relentless borrowing (and failure to return) of everything from a fender, to silver spoons and food items. This was the first - but not the last- time Linda and I reflected, as doting mothers/grandmothers, on the benefits of childlessness. Leigh Hunt wrote Jenny Kissed me for Jane Carlyle.
The house was full of books, and Carlyle needed somewhere quiet to work. In 1841 he was instrumental in the founding of the London Library, finding the British Library much too noisy and full of dilettante readers who fidgeted. He also helped to found the National Portrait Gallery. A portrait by Whistler hangs in the house, but Carlyle did not think much of it: 'a portrait not of my features but the clothes I had on'.
Upstairs, you come to Jane's bedroom, with a little dressing room off it, complete with bath a night attire. She also had an upstairs drawing room, with a screen embellished with photographs and pictures taken from books (we were a bit shocked). The information in her rooms is mostly about Jane's female friends and correspondents: Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Mrs Gaskell, and quotes from some of her letters. Clearly people liked her a lot. de Quincey called her 'angelic', and Charles Darwin's brother Erasmus said she was 'a divine little woman'. Her epitaph, presumably Thomas's words' say she was 'suddenly snatched from him and the light of his life as if gone out.' She was very tolerant of his innumerable female fans, and her letters show her acerbic wit as well as her loving nature and general all-round competence, essential if one is to share the life of a celebrity genius.
Upstairs again, bypassing the second floor, where the custodian lives, we came to the room they had built on to try to provide a quiet work room for Thomas. The noise was difficult to bear: they lived very close to Cremorne Gardens, where as many as 15,000 people a day might come to enjoy the entertainments, and riotous behaviour and fireworks apparently disturbed the nights. The new room was built with a double wall, in the hope that the air in the storage spaces might deaden the din. It did not work very well, but did release the downstairs library for use as a dining room. The room is full of evidence of the work he did for his last book, the massive biography of Frederick the Great of Prussia, including the German medal he was awarded. There was also a list of some of the words that Carlyle invented which are in use today, as well as many he used and we don't. When Thomas gave up the room, it became a bedroom for the servant.
This was our cue to plunge down to the basement, where the kitchen was. Jane was not good with servants (they had 34 in the 32 years she live here) and there are some entertaining extracts from her letters on the subject of how difficult it is to recruit, manage and keep servants. There is a range (enough to make any servant give notice, I should have thought) as well as the poor girl's bed, and some other kitchen utensils of the NT's kind.
Out into the garden, we were able to read about how Jane constructed herself what she called a 'gypsey-tent' out of the clothes props and some sheets, while the building works were going on, and also about a burglary, when the kitchen door was forced and the maid's trunk rifled. The National Trust is working to ensure that the plants and trees mentioned in the Carlyles' letters are replanted and cared for.
When it was time to leave, we were surprised that we had spent two hours in this fascinating house.