I admit it: I'm a house museum junkie. (I'm guessing you are, too.) Visiting the homes of the individuals I'm researching never fails to give me a frisson of pleasure at the thought that I'm walking where they walked (more or less) and seeing what they saw (more or less). They often provide intimate insights into past lives that are impossible to gain any other way. In the words of the biographer Richard Holmes, writing in Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985), such places provide an essential reversal of perspective: instead of looking in from the outside, you are quite literally looking outward from within a life...it allows the historian to recapture time by "turning the viewpoint inside out, if only for a moment." For more on the various delights of house museums, see this article by Tony Perrottet at Smithsonian.com.
The two house museums below -- the first an artist's spectacular palazzo in the middle of bustling London and the second a modest family home in a tiny Scottish village -- are not to be missed.
Even before its recent £1.6 million ($2.4 million) restoration was completed, Leighton House, the Holland Park home of the painter Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896), was a magical place to visit.
Designed by George Aitchison and built in several stages between 1865 and 1895, the house included private living quarters, an expansive working studio, and glamorous reception rooms that became the hub of Victorian artistic life in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. Its centerpiece is the gorgeous Arab Hall, built to accommodate Leighton's priceless collection of Islamic tiles. The meticulous restoration, undertaken by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which owns the house, involved extensive repairs to the original fabric of the building as well as the redecoration of the main rooms. There's no substitute for visiting this stunning temple of art in person but you can enjoy several of its glories -- including the Arab Hall, Narcissus Hall, and Leighton's studio -- by way of a cleverly designed interactive online tour. Read more: The Guardian (26 May 2010); The Guardian (17 April 2010); The Telegraph (5 April 2010).
The Arched House in Ecclefechan, Scotland, in which the writer and historian Thomas Carlyle was born on 4 December 1795, reopened its doors to the public earlier this month. “Thomas Carlyle is one of Scotland’s greatest men and his birthplace provides an insight into the times he inhabited as well as his life," says Richard Clarkson of the National Trust for Scotland, which manages the house.
Built in 1791 by Carlyle's father and uncle (both of whom were master masons), the simple two-story, whitewashed house (shown above) is currently furnished to reflect domestic life in the early nineteenth century and contains a fascinating collection of portraits and some of Carlyle's personal belongings. It owes its name to the large keyed arch that divides the house in two and leads to a courtyard and garden. Carlyle reportedly was born in a small room directly above the arch. He lived in this house until he was 13, when he left to study at the University of Edinburgh. Carlyle's grave is located in the nearby Ecclefechan churchyard. When he was buried there next to his parents in 1881, the village had fewer than 800 residents, approximately the same number it has today. Ecclefechan is located off the M74 about five-and-a-half miles southeast of Lockerbie. (You can also visit Carlyle's London house, which is decidedly more upscale than his humble birthplace; its peaceful walled garden is one of my favorite spots in the entire city. Another Carlyle home, Craigenputtock, located just 30 miles by road from Ecclefechan, is open to the public by appointment. Carlyle lived there with his wife, Jane Welsh Carlyle, from 1828 to 1834, when the couple moved to London. It remained a cherished retreat for the rest of Carlyle's life.)
Do you have a favorite house museum? Please share in the comments.