REVIEW | Leighton House Museum and Sambourne House, London

Sambourne House was the first historic house I ever volunteered at. Practically no one had ever heard of it, but it remains to my knowledge one of the best preserved Victorian interiors in London. Revisiting the place some six years later following a major re-brand, barely a thing has changed and the house remains just as charming as the day I left it.

Located at 18 Stafford Terrace, it was occupied from 1874 by Punch cartoonist Edward Linley Sambourne, his wife Marion, two children (son Roy and daughter Maud), and their visiting grandmother. Edward was an eccentric character, adopting poses and costumes in his photographs, which he developed in his bathtub, and served as reference material for his illustrations.

One doesn’t enter through the main door. Instead, the entrance is via the basement and you get your admission in the original kitchen area. Like the family’s four live-in servants, you proceed up the stairs and quickly find yourself time-warped into a dark hallway lined wall-to-wall with photographs, prints, and mirrors. The lighting isn’t the best, but it’s also quite accurate to the atmosphere of a foggy Victorian Britain and the invention of the first electric lights.

From here, you proceed to the morning room (Edward’s first studio space but later used by Marion) and the adjacent dining room. Morris & Co. wallpaper lines every room. Upstairs, the spacious drawing room is cluttered but feels lived-in. Further up, the bedrooms are more sparing but show their inhabitants’ character. Finally at the top, passing the bathroom/darkroom, the children’s night nursery was repurposed as Edward’s studio. Next to this is the maid’s bedroom; sparingly bare, a bell dangles above the doorway, awaiting further orders.

This house is really something special and occupies a memorable corner of my brain for its unique state of preservation and immersion. Often overshadowed by the nearby Leighton House, it’s really worth a visit.

Meanwhile, the new refurbishment has managed to make Leighton House more museum-like than it ever did before, with a beautiful new visitor entrance, more exhibition spaces, and a brightly-lit cafe!

Back in my volunteer days, the house was nothing more than an eclectic and bizarre historic house with a modern exhibition space attached on the top floor. From a visitor standpoint, it didn’t offer much else by way of repeat visits. The programming was a bit stale outside of special exhibitions and, being a historic house with preserved interiors, the walls couldn’t be changed very much across all the spaces. Nonetheless, its famous Arab Hall allowed it to remain London’s worst kept secret.

The experience is a lot more circular now (literally). Most of the house has stayed the same since I was last there several years but with better inventory information for visitors to spot each object in the room; they’ve actually clarified which objects were part of Leighton’s original furnishings.

With the visitor entrance relocated, one has a far better view of the original entrance hall with the imposing painting by Domenico Tintoretto’s workshop in its original location (sadly with a stupid amount of glare). One can also finally access the adjacent library room, not that there’s much to see.

Little has changed upstairs, except for the Winter Studio at the end of the historic house route, which has finally opened to the public, with a view of the garden and the surrounding former artist houses. From here, one can exit to an accessible lift, a spiral staircase with a mural by Shahrzad Ghaffari, and the modern exhibition space they had years ago.

But the basement has changed dramatically, practically unrecognisable, with an audio-visual introduction, a little permanent display, renovated learning space, and fancy toilets. This is also where the new drawings space is located, enabling wider programming of their rarely-seen works on paper collection.

Everything just feels better integrated, a bit like the Watts Gallery in Compton, and makes Leighton House a much more commendable destination for a cultured day out.

Adult tickets (per venue), £11; joint ticket, £20. Concessions also available.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: