Last updated on May 24th, 2023
London has some of the world’s most iconic museums displaying the finest art money can’t buy, but it’s the capital’s little treasures that I want to share with you today. Ensconced in these historical gems, you can amble around at a snail’s pace, savour every museum inch and still have time for tea and cake when you’ve finished. So, without further ado, here are London’s best historic house museums (time machine not required).
“Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart” (Winnie-the-Pooh)
Best historic House Museums of London
Charles Dickens Museum
The table is set for dinner at the Charles Dickens museum at No 48 Doughty Street in Bloomsbury. It’s 1838, the carriages have arrived and the fire is lit. Dickens is sipping sherry (his favourite tipple), and the kitchen servants below are preparing a Victorian feast. “Can you come and take a cutlet with us today at 5? Let me know and we’ll add a bit of fish,” he wrote to a friend. Can you guess who the other guests might be at this illustrious dinner?
The presence of the literary giant is palpable as you wander around the home where he completed The Pickwick Papers and wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. He lived at No 48 Doughty Street for two and half years with his wife, Catherine, and three of his ten children. Here, you can explore how Dickens entertained, where he wrote and slept and see personal letters, paintings, ornaments and the everyday objects that he used.
Charles Dickens Museum. Loved by Dickens devotees, of course.
Emery Walker’s House
Hammersmith has London’s best pub crawl, dreamy riverside walks and Britain’s most perfectly preserved Arts and Crafts interior at No 7, Hammersmith Terrace. This may be a museum, but it feels more like someone’s home with a penchant for all things William Morris.
Enter the pretty Georgian terrace, and there’s a Morris and Co linoleum floor (the only one of its kind in a domestic setting), and as you head into reception rooms and bedrooms, more Morris apparitions, this time in the form of wallpapers and beautifully restored rugs.
The printer and typographer Emery Walker moved here in 1903, having previously lived in No 3. He was a close friend of Morris’s who “did not think the day complete without a sight of Walker.” Like Morris, he was a prominent member of the Socialist League and a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. The friends famously collaborated on the Kelmscott Press typefaces up until Morris’s death in 1896.
Emery Walker’s House. Loved by Arts and Crafts addicts
Please note: Handel House is currently closed for renovation.
George Frideric Handel lived and died at No 25 Brook Street in Mayfair. Over the centuries, the house was completely stripped of all of its original features and furnishings, but in 2001, was lovingly restored to match its original Georgian finishes. Thanks to the discovery of some original 18th century panelling, the restorers were able to scrape away 28 layers of paint to reveal the original lead grey colour from 1723. The new paint, which has been created to match the original colour, is called ‘Handel Grey.’
The property was perfectly located for the composer, close to the King’s Theatre in Haymarket (now known as Her Majesty’s Theatre) where he was co-manager. Handel composed some of his greatest works in Brook Street, including Music for the Royal Fireworks, The Arrival of the Queen of Shebah, Zadok the Priest and Messiah, which he wrote in only 24 days.
Handel and Hendrix Museum. Loved by Baroque buffs
Welcome to No 18 Folgate Street in London’s East End, a life-size cabinet of curiosities. Step inside this time-capsule in Spitafields, and you’ll instantly forget you’re in 21st century London. Built in 1724, the house is four stories high and ten rooms deep in history.
The American artist Dennis Severs bought the house in 1979 and spent 20 years restoring it and cramming it full of antique objects (he died at the age of 51). The result is an 18th century immersive experience which follows the fictional Jarvis family of Huguenot silk-weavers who “lived” here from 1724 to 1914. As you wander from room to room, you can hear them chatting somewhere in the house. Horses are trotting on old cobblestones outside, and the doorbell rings. There’s a half-eaten meal on a table, and you can smell bread baking in the oven. The house is lit by candle and by crackling logs. The clock tick-tocks. There’s a cat purring on the bed. In the nursery, you can hear someone reading books to the children.
Leave your 21st century version behind as you enter No 18 Folgate Street and walk into a tableau of life in the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s a dizzying adventure or, as David Hockney dubbed it, one of the world’s great operatic experiences.
Dennis Severs House. Loved by anyone looking for a date with the past
Sir John Soane Museum
Those who regularly read this blog will be rolling their eyeballs now. Not the John Soane again. Sorry, yes, the John Soane again. It’s my favourite hideaway in this city, perfectly formed and literally, stuffed full of character.
John Soane (1753-1837) was one of the country’s best-loved architects, the creative genius who gave us the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Bank of England. Soane bought three houses adjacent to each other on Lincoln’s Inn Fields in Holborn, and today, No 13 has been preserved as a facsimile of the home as it was when Soane lived in it. Nos 12 and 14 are also part of the museum, the Soane being a national centre for the study of architecture.
As you cross the threshold into the Soane, you enter what must be one of the world’s most exquisite architectural gems. And the house is not just beautifully, no exquisitely designed – it’s also a treasure trove of antiques, paintings and sculptures. There’s even a sarcophagus of Seti I, purchased in 1824 for £2000.
This little baby is not to be missed if you are visiting London, and if you live here, what the heck have you been waiting for?
Sir John Soane Museum. Loved by Londoness, admirers of architecture (and Hogarth devotees)
Holland Park has some of London’s most exclusive, jaw-droppingly expensive homes. You’d be forgiven for walking past Lord Frederic Leighton’s former home and shrugging it off as an ambassadorial residence. But move from the Victorian façade into the entrails of the house and you’re suddenly on the set of Arabian Nights.
Lord Leighton was a Victorian painter and sculptor and President of the Royal Academy of Arts. He was the first painter to be given a peerage, but he died the day after receiving it.
Leighton House is the only purpose-built studio house open to the public in the UK. Leighton spent 30 years renovating and extending the house. He designed a superlative Winter Studio upstairs, where he entertained the who’s who of the age, not limited to Queen Victoria herself who visited in 1859.
Leighton House Museum. Loved by Orientalists
Feature Image: Will Price