Day Five: In which I am diverted, entertainingly

It’s hard to make myself take it easy. Despite my best efforts, I fail to sleep in; once I wake up, that’s it, there’s no going back. But my appointment isn’t until 11:15, so I sit around the hotel being glad I have Steam’s King’s Quest package on my laptop, because that gives me something to do that isn’t wandering around. If my respiratory system and ankle were in full working order, I’d probably saddle up and walk to Kensington again, but given the circumstances, that would be dumb. (If I could brain at that hour of the morning, I would write — but I can’t, so.)

The appointment is at the Linley Sambourne House, aka 18 Stafford Terrace Museum. Sambourne was a famous cartoonist for Punch magazine, and his house forms a bookend with Carlyle’s; the latter is a bit too early for me, and the former, too late, but I can kind of triangulate from there to get an image of an 1884 house — and then scale the wealth up, using Apsley House as a model. It’s amusing to hear my guide talk about how the Victorians detested Georgian style — “their colors were too pale, their houses too plain, their furniture too spindly — characteristics you cannot accuse the Victorians of promoting, certainly. The Sambourne’s house reflects the “Aesthetic style” of Oscar Wilde et al, which would be far too trendy for the Kitterings, but there’s still a powerful feeling of darkness, of ornateness, of clutter. Sunlight faded the dark, rich colors they loved, so they put up heavy drapes — and nevermind what the smoke of all the candles and gas lamps did to those selfsame colors.

That occupies me until 1. Then it’s a Tesco’s lunch in Kensington Gardens, which are much closer than I’d somehow convinced myself they were — close enough, in fact, that when I’m done I go back to stare at the Cromwell Road terrace some more. I spent part of last night reading up on the buildings there, and have more or less decided to put the Kitterings in No. 35. That building is no longer extant, but like Freake’s at No. 21 (I can’t kick him out, not with that blue plaque and all), it would have been a detached double-fronted structure.

I should pause here, because it occurs to me that my American readers may be unfamiliar with the “terrace” notion I’m tossing around here. I know I was, when I first started encountering the word. For those of you on the East Coast, I mean row houses; for people in other parts of the country, I mean townhouses, though we sometimes use that term more broadly than is strictly appropriate here. Terraces are rows of identical (or nearly identical) houses, usually joined wall-to-wall, so that the only windows are in the front and the back; and most terraces are either two or three windows wide. Ergo, most of them are laid out with two rooms on each floor, one in the front and one in the back.

Cromwell Road is handy because the houses in that stretch are five windows wide, allowing for the plethora of public rooms I’d like the Kitterings to have. (For plot reasons. There’s one scene already written where I need a study adjoining directly onto a little-used room — probably a billiards room — and Mrs. Kittering’s boudoir has to be on a different floor.) The magical internets have a floor plan for one of the other houses in that stretch, wchich allows me to futz around labeling things until I get an arrangement I like. Also, the 1871 list of inhabitants along that row includes both peers and merchants, which suits me perfectly; the Kitterings are the sort of nouveau riche (emphasis on both nouveau and riche with both the money for such a place, and the desire to rub shoulders as closely as they can with their betters.

On my way down to Cromwell Road, I did some random photographing of interesting buildings, because I’m kind of bored with seesawing between “crappy museum reference shots” and “no photos allowed.” I want something artistic, dammit! And speaking of interesting buildings . . . I’ve now walked past the Natural History Museum three or four times, and I keep forgetting to look it up when I get home, so I don’t know whether it’s a late-Victorian monstrosity or just an imitation of a late-Victorian monstrosity, but it’s freaking RIDICULOUS and I just have to go in.

Turns out it’s genuine (dates to 1881), and so I’m justified in wandering around ignoring the exhibits and photographing the structure. Seriously — for those who have never seen it, the exterior is this giant pastel castle-thing, and inside they left no baluster, column, or arch undecorated. Foxes and rabbits peer out from staircase corner-posts, rams’ heads watch you from the bases of the pillars, and monkeys climb all the way to the roof, three storeys above — together with assorted flowers, leaves, vines, and geometric carvings. This is the cathedral the Victorians built to St. Darwin and the gospel of natural history. It is absurd, and I’m kind of in love with it. (I wonder if I can work it into the novel . . . ?)

Side note: I think every writer or TV/film designer who needs to make up alien species or fantastic beasts should take a stroll through a natural history museum. Nothing like the sight of a few extinct or exotic-to-you critters to estrange your perception and make you realize that animals are weird, yo — humans included.

My ankle is complaining some, unfortunately — I don’t think it liked me kneeling and crouching and so on for a few of those shots — so I hang out on a bench for a while, waiting for the crowds to thin enough that I can get a few shots not mobbed by people. (Remember, I’m now on a quest for Arty Photos.) Sadly, after that rest I’m still in dubious enough shape that I have to forgo my tentative plan of walking to Hyde Park Corner and catching the Tube from there; however much I like Hyde Park, it just wouldn’t be smart. Dammit, this is not how a London trip is supposed to go; I should be wearing all the tread off my shoes! <sigh>

Tomorrow, I work my brain instead of my feet. Sounds good to me.

0 Responses to “Day Five: In which I am diverted, entertainingly”

  1. shui_long

    In 1881-2, the occupants of those eight large houses in that section of Cromwell Road were:
    21 Charles James Freake
    23 The Earl of Denbigh (Rudolph William Basil Feilding, 8th Earl of Denbigh and 7th Earl of Desmond; a noted Catholic convert who founded a monastery in North Wales)
    25 Gottlieb Jacobson (born Berlin, naturalised British, a member of the Stock Exchange) and his sons Edmund (also member of the Stock Exchange) and Alfred (late an officer in the 6th Dragoon Guards)
    27 John Siltzer (born Hamburg, naturalised British, merchant)
    29 Rt Hon Earl Cairns, PC, QC, DCL (a leading Conservative politician, legal reformer, Lord Chancellor in Disraeli’s government 1868, 1874-80, Chancellor of the University of Dublin and the first President of Dr Barnado’s Homes)
    31 Henry Arthur Brassey, MP, JP, DL (Liberal MP for Sandwich, Kent; son of a leading railway contractor, younger brother of Earl Brassey)
    33 James Reiss, FRGS (born Germany, naturalised British; retired merchant)
    35 Frank Morrison (“landed proprietor”)

    … so I think you can safely say this fits your requirement for the Kitterings.

    • Marie Brennan

      Hey, Morrison’s still there! So I’m only booting out one resident, not a series of them. Good. (Not that it matters, of course — but it still pleases me.)

      • shui_long

        According to an 1895 Directory, Mr Morrison was still there then (Mr Reiss was still in no.33, and Mrs Silzer in no.27). Perhaps – for the purposes of the book – Mr Morrison sublet his town house to the Kitterings and went to live in the country for a few years?

  2. Anonymous

    Then, of course, there’s the intermediate case: Exactly two houses that share one common wall. That’s what west-coast-raised Americans think of as a “townhouse”, and it’s what England outside of London has called “semi-detached” since the mid-1800s. They tend to be in “better” parts of town, such as the one I lived in the 1980s. Unfortunately, it was a part-brick mock-Victorian that had been built just before WW1 kicked off; it survived both wars, but go 200m west and one was in a grim 1950s council housing that replaced bombing victims from WW2.

    I simply don’t know whether the term ever worked its way into London; neither, when I was living Over There, did I see any semi-detached houses inside the M25, although I wasn’t looking very hard at that type of residential architectural detail. I was more, umm, professionally interested in architecture (and security implications thereof) around Grosvenor Square…

    • shui_long

      Enormous numbers of semi-detached houses were built in the UK between the wars and in the 1950s, many to much the same design; it is the archetypal British house in any suburb, including many areas within the M25. Terraces had become associated with “working class” housing, whereas the semi-detached became a middle-class status symbol, and detached houses a mark of the upper middle-class. Town planners of the 1950s and 1960s created some appalling eyesores (and very poor environments) by building tower blocks of flats, mainly as council housing, to replace bombed-out terraces. This did nothing to improve the image of flats in general — unlike much of continental Europe, where apartment blocks are the norm in many cities, the British were quite resistant to flat-dwelling (despite the Victorian precedents, with some quite up-market apartments being built in central London from the 1870s).

    • Marie Brennan

      Or we call it a duplex. I lived in one for a couple of years.

Comments are closed.