Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Long Last Day in London: Linley-Sambourne House and West End Theater

Saturday, January 24, 2015


            My last days in London always tend to get a bit frenzied because there is so much I desperately wish to finish doing before the day is done. It began, as usual, with Jonas climbing into bed with me, watching a couple of his cartoons while I caught up with my blog. But soon he was hurrying off to his ice-skating class with his mother while I had my breakfast (walnut bread with peanut butter, hazelnut yoghurt and coffee) and left to make some food purchases. First off, I walked to Panzers, a gourmet food store at St. John’s Wood, to buy some Scumshus Granola as I had heard through Twitter how fabulous it was. I found it rather quickly, bought a jar and then hopped on to the Tube to get to Holborn to buy some bags of muesli and Three Fruits Marmalade from Sainsbury. That done, I requested the sales staff to hold on to my bags as they were much too heavy to be carted around for the rest of the day.

            I walked briskly then to one of my other favorite food stores in Bloomsbury called Bury Food and Wine on Bury Street right by the British Museum for my supply of biscuits: Border’s Dark Chocolate Gingers. And it was here that I found lovely round biscuit barrels of Borders’ Assorted Biscuits—I thought it would be a good thing to take back home—so buy one I did. With those bags, I returned to Sainsbury at Holborn and requested the clerk to add them to my existing bags.


Visiting the Linley-Sambourne House:

            While at Bury Food and Wine, I called the office at the Linley-Sambourne House at 18 Stafford Street in Kensington when it opened at 10. 15 am to find out if they could accommodate one more person for their 11.15 am tour—and they could! There was no time to waste. I hopped straight on the Tube at Holborn, got off at Notting Hill Gate, then switched to the Circle Line train for one stop to alight at Kensington High Street. I found the place very easily using my trusty map of London and soon I was joining a group of 7 other enthusiasts to see this very interesting home.

            So here is a historical word about the Linley-Sambourne House: It is only a stone’s throw from the much more well-known Lord Leighton’s House, only a block away. It was the home of a man called Edward Linley-Sambourne who was one of the principal cartoonists for Punch magazine and who lived in the house for 35 years between 1875 and 1910 with his wife Marion from the time he married her and bought it to the time he died at the age of 66.

If the name Linley appears familiar to you, you would be right in associating it with Viscount Linley, now a famous designer of bespoke wooden furniture and son of the late Princess Margaret, sister of the present Queen of England whose husband Lord Snowdon was born Anthony (Tony) Armstrong-Jones and who was related to the original owner of the house, Lord Linley-Samborne.

The reason the house is on public display today is because ‘Lin’ (as he was known) and Marion spent their lifetime creating a very special family home by making every manner of purchase you can imagine in contemporary decorative arts. The home is, therefore, a fine receptacle of Victoriana as it flourished in the reign of the erstwhile Queen who gave the age its name. Lin and Marion had two children: a son, Roy (who remained unmarried and, therefore, childless) and a daughter Maude who eventually inherited the house and then passed it on to her daughter Rose who married the Irish Count of Rosse. It was she, eventually, who decided to preserve her parents’ immense collection of art and artifacts by turning it over to the nation by involving people like Sir John Betjeman, Sir Nicholas Pevsner, Hugh Casson and others who gathered in the house in 1956 to found the Victorian Society for the conservation and preservation of such items at a time when they had fallen out of fashion and people were getting rid of them by the ton. Today, the house is in the possession of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea who manage it well and keep it maintained through the running of tours. I had first read about this home through the writings of one of my favorite British architects and illustrators,     Sir Hugh Casson, one-time President of the Royal Academy whose beautifully-illustrated book entitled Hugh Casson’s London has led me to some of London’s most secret corners and offered me untold delights through the decades.

            The tour began on the lower level, the basement, what was then the kitchen (although it is not a kitchen today) and a pantry (which, I learned, was not the kitchen storeroom but, in fact, the room used for sleeping by all the servants of which, at that time, there were four: a cook, a nurse/governess for the children, a housekeeper to supervise the running of the house and a housemaid to clean, fetch and open front doors). A 15 minute film introduced us to the principal characters in this drama and to the artistic work of Linley-Sambourne who, apart from producing cartoons for Punch, also illustrated contemporary novels (his best-known work is for The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley), and a photographer (he used photography quite effectively to perfect the poses of the characters in his cartoons and to produce art). The short film was a fine introduction to the dramatis personae in this story.

            Our tour then began in earnest. It was given by a little old lady whose knowledge of the house, the objects in it and its inhabitants was prodigious, to say the least. No matter what question she was asked, she could answer it and in detail. I was terribly impressed by the extent and the depth of her knowledge. As we went through the Dining Room, the Morning Room, the spectacular Drawing Room (the principal room in the house and the one most crammed with objets d’art), the bedrooms, the childrens’ bedroom and the nursery on five levels till we reached the very top, we got the sense that, for the Victorians, less was certainly not more. In fact, for them, more was never enough! Layer upon layer of decoration overwhelmed the eye from the original wallpapers by famed contemporary William Morris (of course!) to the vases, ceramic bowls, lamps and figurines of the Arts and Crafts Movement (also known as the Aesthetic Movement)—they were all there. Furthermore, the Victorians were known to have a great love-affair with foreign lands and the home is cluttered with items from the Far East: Japanese wood block prints, chinoisserie, etc.

Plus, rather unusually, this home is simply filled to the rafters with framed prints such as I have never seen anywhere before. When I asked the guide about them, she said that the couple could not afford to buy real contemporary art so they contended themselves by buying black and white prints of famous paintings and then framing them to fill every bit of wall. There isn’t anything particularly Pre-Raphaelite in here except for some prints of paintings by Millais who was actually known to Lin. He wasn’t friends with any of the other names associated with the movement either. While this house is not as grand at Lord Leighton’s, it is a great example of a Victorian-Edwardian home of a normal middle class family, similar I would say to the home of Thomas Carlyle at Chelsea (which has far fewer objects in it) or even Charles Dickens’ home at 48 Doughty Street that I re-visited on this trip. Do go and see it to get a glimpse into the lifestyle of Kensington folks of 150 years ago at a time when tony Kensington was a brand-new ‘suburb’ of London and when ordinary folk were buying modestly-priced property there to create family homes for themselves. The Linley-Sambournes did not have an alternative place in the country but they did often rent a home in the south of France for three months each winter to escape the cold. As such, this is the only home they ever owned and the only place where their passion for collecting was made known.

The tour lasted one hour so that by 12.30, I was on the Tube again headed for the Theater District in the West End as I was keen to obtain a ticket to see a matinee show. I could not believe that I had actually been in London for a whole week and had not yet been to the theater! But not before I found the time to nip into several of the thrift shops on Kensington High Street from which you can find real treasures such as the lovely pair of vintage ear-rings that I snagged for a mere five pounds from Oxfam!


A Matinee on The Strand:

            I was delighted, therefore, to score a ticket to see Di and Viv and Rose, a new tragi-comedy that has recently opened in the West End to good reviews. I guess I could have seen a musical right across the street; but I was keen to see this first work by playwright Amelia Bullmore with whose work I am familiar through a British TV series called Scott and Bailey (currently showing on PBS in America). Bullmore, who is also an actress, plays a police inspector on the series of which she has written a couple of episodes herself. I find her multiple talents endlessly fascinating and was keen to support her work by seeing the play.

            Finding a branch of EAT nearby, I got myself a Singapore Laksa soup which was thick with noodles and coconut milk and made a very filling, if late lunch indeed. Then I hurried off towards the theater.

            The 3.00 pm show allowed me to take in some of the delights of Covent Garden on a particularly crowded morning. The sun was out, people had descended upon London’s sights and from Trafalgar Square to Covent Garden, tourists were swarming. I walked through the lovely colonnaded arches of this magnificent structure by Inigo Jones, visited the Jubilee Market to inspect its wares and then hurried to the Strand to pick up a ticket for just 15 pounds. As it turned out, although the acting was very good and the play did tear at my heart strings, the writing was not as tight as it could have been although the concept was great. The plot followed the fortunes of three women who had met in college at the age of 18 to become roommates and whose friendship was cemented during those heady days. One of them (Di) is a lesbian, one is focused and career-driven (Viv) and one is carelessly promiscuous (Rose). As the next forty years in their lives are documented through their personal ups and downs, the drama swings from funny to sad. Their highs and their lows bring them closer together until one of them dies and the other two are left to mourn not just their friend but the death of their friendship as a threesome. Good acting redeemed a rather thin plot and I guess I was too tired after a whole week’s traipsing around London to really enjoy it. It was with relief that we reached the end of the play  


Back Home for a Very Restful Last Evening:

            It was 5. 30 pm and quite dark when I left the theater to spy Paul’s, my favorite French patisserie on the opposite side of The Strand. It was the perfect time for two of my best-loved treats—Paul’s lovely hot chocolate and an almond croissant (filled with gooey marzipan and studded with flaked almonds). I sat down in the cozy interior and enjoyed my goodies before hopping into a 91 bus across the street (what would I ever do without my Central London bus map?) that took me to Aldwych and then down Kingsway to Holborn station from where I picked up by bags of groceries at Sainsbury and made my way back home to St. John’s Wood on the Tube.

            It was about 6. 45 pm when I walked in the door. My friends Raquel and Chris were leaving soon to see the movie A Most Violent Year and asked if I wished to join them. I declined as I had a load of packing to do in readiness of my early-morning departure. I was, in fact, all set to call a cab to pick me up on the morrow, when I discovered that Chris was headed to Heathrow airport too for a business trip to Athens. Naturally, we decided to share a cab and I was so pleased to have both his company and his help in handling my heavy baggage—for on this return journey, I have two full suitcases as I had brought one suitcase inside the other when I had arrived from India! Yes, these are the tricks one picks up from years of experienced travel!

            I spent the next couple of hours organizing my packing, dividing weight between two suitcases, carefully weighing my loads on Raquel’s scale, taking a shower, having a small glass of white wine and fixing myself a sandwich dinner with the last of my bits and bobs in the fridge—walnut bread and cold ox tongue—as I sat with my laptop to watch the BBC’s Wolf Hall on I-Player based on the novels by Hilary Mantel. It was deeply absorbing especially as Mark Rylance is playing the principal role of Thomas Cromwell and Damien Lewis is playing King Henry VIII. Having read both of Mantel’s novels (Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up The Bodies), I found the series enthralling and easy to follow. But by 10.30 pm, I set my alarm, took a few last pictures with Jonas and was out like a light.

            My last full day in London had been just as full as my first one and I was ready to hit the sack while thanking the Lord for another really splendid time in my favorite city.

            Until tomorrow, cheerio!

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