It can be hard to persuade people to visit historic houses, which makes you wonder why the owners of 18 Stafford Terrace don’t make more of the secrets that are hidden in the attic.
Stafford Terrace in Kensington is also known as Linley Sambourne’s House. Sambourne was a cartoonist for Punch who bought the five-storey terrace in 1875 and decided to decorate it as fashionably as he could, along aesthetic principles. This meant much William Morris wallpaper and exotic furniture. The problem was, Sambourne was not a wealthy man, so he purchased the latter from house clearances and junk shops and to make the former go further, he would cut out bits of wallpaper that were hidden from sight behind paintings and furniture and use them to paper other parts of the house. And he had a lot of paintings and furniture.
When Sambourne died, his son kept it exactly as it had been left, as did the following generations, until Stafford Terrace, now essentially a time capsule of Victorian middle-class life, was purchased by the GLC.
And that is how it has remained. The house is now owned by Kensington & Chelsea and run by nearby Leighton House. Visitors get to see inside a fascinating interior and learn about the fashions of the Victorian middle-class first-hand.
But there’s more.
Sambourne was a cartoonist, but he also developed an interest in photography. He realised that instead of drawing his caricatures from scratch, he could get people to assume certain positions, photograph them, and then sketch the results. In his backyard he would get the coach-driver to dress as the statue of Eros, or pretend himself to be a tennis player or Roman soldier, using props from around the house. Here’s an example.
But there’s more.
Sambourne also started a Camera Club. Here his subjects tended to be more specialist.
For some reason, Camera Club always took place when Sambourne’s wife was visiting friends in the country.
In the attic of 18 Stafford Terrace, on a very high shelf, are several unmarked volumes packed with this sort of photographic work. Some are displayed in the bathroom for public study.
Mocked up in the same attic room is a demonstration of how Sambourne worked. An easel contains a cartoon of three women on a bicycle, copied from an adjacent photograph of three women pretending to be on a bike. In the photograph, all the women are nude; not so in the cartoon.
But it doesn’t end there.
Sambourne would also take his camera out with him when he was in Hyde Park or mooching around Kensington, and take surreptitious images of passing nursemaids, which he would carefully file as ‘Zoological Studies’. He even purchased a special camera with a secret lens that took pictures at right-angles so his subjects would be completely unaware as to what was going on. He still received a number of warnings for his behaviour.
And he also liked to take pictures of his maid. In bed. Asleep.
There’s nothing quite as creepy as a middle-aged Victorian male, is there?
See also The Man From London and Virtual Victorian.