Houses once occupied by distinguished residents are a special strand of the heritage industry that increasingly dominates a nation in thrall to all aspects of the past. We are constantly being exhorted to save and preserve this or that – a factory, a view, a manor house, a pier, a site of outstanding natural beauty, the historic habitat of wildlife, or, indeed, of the famous dead. Some of the shrines we visit are more larded with authenticity than others. Inevitably, the further back in time the illustrious lives were lived, the fewer objects there are likely to be which were familiar to the inhabitants. Was this her chair; was this really his easel? The aspic of preservation continually wobbles between the authentic and the fake. We do not always know – are not always told – whether something is ‘of the same period’ or ‘similar to’ or a ‘replica of’ what may or may not have been originally there, under the eye, the hand, the bottom or the feet of the presiding genius. Much depends on the piety of heirs and descendants, the changing ownership of the house and the fluctuating stakes of fame.
Most artists, if their house still exists and their reputation is buoyant, are given a plaque – in London perhaps Canaletto and Van Gogh are the most surprising; or a plaque is placed on a building that now occupies the site of their home (such as Thomas Lawrence on the Imperial Hotel, Russell Square); some are awarded a public statue (Reynolds, Millais, several on the façade of the Victoria and Albert Museum); less lucky ones have a street or a block of flats named after them – in London the epicentre for this is the area immediately behind Tate Britain. But only a handful have houses that can be visited.
Beyond London – where artists’ house-museums mark the presence of Hogarth, William Morris, Lord Leighton and the de Morgans – the pickings are richer. While Gainsborough’s birthplace and the home of his youth in Sudbury may have little in the way of personal furnishings, its collection is outstanding (and he has long had a statue in the town centre). G.F. Watts’s house at Compton, Surrey, is in a different league altogether, a purpose-built gallery erected in the Eminent Victorian’s lifetime. Recently extensively restored, it accommodates a large permanent collection and hosts notable exhibitions. There are works by Watts at the Bloomsbury artists’ home, Charleston in Sussex, linking the successive eras historically if not aesthetically. Barbara Hepworth’s studio in St Ives, Cornwall, has a fine display of her sculpture, especially in the garden, and the tools of her trade left at the time of her death in a fire there in 1972. At Perry Green, Hertfordshire, Henry Moore’s domestic and working spaces, his books and collection, are now viewable alongside administrative and exhibition areas (indoors and outside), all under the umbrella of the Henry Moore Foundation. In extraordinary contrast is the ‘memorial’ at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin to Francis Bacon whose work is currently coupled with that of Moore at the Ashmolean Museum.1 Bacon’s studio contents (as well as the floor and walls) were transported, down to the last crumpled, paint-stained photograph, from the artist’s mews flat in London to a specially built replica which a visitor views through three windows from above; like a waxwork behind glass, it provides a peculiarly deadening experience.
Moving further afield, the most celebrated artist-house museum is that of Monet at Giverny, although its gardens are its chief attraction. In Paris, museums in the houses of Delacroix and Moreau retain their enchantment; in Rodin’s house and studio at Meudon, the fine showing of his sculpture rather swallows up his domestic arrangements, although the whole property is undergoing ambitious restoration and redisplay. In Provence, Cézanne’s studio on the edge of Aix, a moving tribute to his generally solitary existence there, is filled with objects recognisable from his paintings, a rare survival. In Italy there are the earliest examples of artists’ houses, especially built to advertise and promote their achievements and social status – Mantegna and Giulio Romano in Mantua and Vasari in Arezzo. In contrast, in Bologna is Morandi’s very modest house, a study centre with some authentic touches. But in Amsterdam Rembrandt would recognise almost nothing that constitutes the Rembrandthuis, not even the reconstructed façade, let alone ‘his’ bed. One further European house-museum should be mentioned, that of René Magritte in Brussels and containing furniture designed by the artist himself, where he made much of his best mid-period work.
Perhaps the most celebrated house-museum in America is Olana, Frederic Edwin Church’s Hudson River home; it is a place of pilgrimage for the building itself with its eclectic Middle Eastern influences and for its works by Church rather than the somewhat dubious ‘old masters’ he acquired in Europe. The studio-home of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner in East Hampton, Long Island, is well preserved, down to the tell-tale paint splashes on the studio floor. The most recent artist’s home to be opened to the public (in June this year) is the many-floored 1870 building at 101 Spring St., New York, converted by Donald Judd from 1968. With its horse’s-mouth minimalist furnishings and exceptional works by Judd and his contemporaries, it is a salutary contrast to Olana, for example, but no less redolent of its period.
The latest appeal for an artist’s house has much to recommend it and should attract supporters beyond British shores. It concerns the restoration and preservation of J.M.W. Turner’s rural retreat at Twickenham, west London. This is an exceptional project and not simply a matter of tidying up and putting a blue plaque on the front. Turner designed this house himself, and plans for it abound in sketchbooks of c.1810–12, after he had purchased two plots of land near the Thames. The intention is to remove later additions (not serious) and reveal its compact interior, obviously influenced by his friend John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. For Turner, Sandycombe Lodge was for rest and recreation such as fishing (when he could ‘angle out the day’) and hosting friends on excursions for picnics, rather than for long residence and staying guests. Turner sold the house in 1826 and the adjoining meadow in 1848 (to the Windsor, Staines and South Western Railway). Under the auspices of the Turner’s House Trust, the appeal for £2 million is well underway, with support already assured from the Heritage Lottery Fund, among many other organisations and private donors, although further funding is still needed.2 It is expected that the public will be able to visit in 2016.
1 See the review in this issue, pp.847–48.
2 For an entertaining and informative account of the house, see C. Parry-Wingfield, with Foreword by A. Wilton: J.M.W. Turner. The Artist and his House at Twickenham, London 2012. Donations can be sent to the Trust at 11 Montpelier Row, Twickenham, tw1 2nq, or at www.turnerintwickenham.org.uk.