Ever fancied snooping round the home of some uber-famous celeb? In London you can do just that.
Admittedly, these famous people are all long-since dead (except for the one who never lived at all...), so you won't be rooting through their bathroom cabinets and underwear drawers, but it is an excellent way to get an insight into how they lived.
The below list, alas, isn't particularly diverse. As is often the way, it's predominantly men who are celebrated, with women and those from ethnic minority backgrounds somewhat overlooked.
The Charles Dickens Museum
Probably the most famous person on this list is Charles Dickens, who flitted about all over place, including two years on Doughty Street in Clerkenwell between 1837-9. Today, the house he shared with his wife Catherine and son Charlie functions as a museum of his life and work, with many rooms set up as they would have been when the Great Expectations author lived here.
Various objects owned by the Dickens family are on display, and there's a regular exhibition programme which delves further into aspects of Dickens' life and work. For our money, the museum is best seen in December, when it's festively festooned in celebration of Dickens' contribution to making Christmas the occasion it is today.
The museum cafe is worth a visit too, even if you haven't got time to tour the whole collection.
The Charles Dickens Museum, 48-49 Doughty Street, WC1N 2LX
Van Gogh House London
The link between Stockwell's 87 Hackford Road and Vincent Van Gogh wasn't shouted from the rooftops until 1971, but the Sunflowers artist lived in this house between 1873 and 1877. These days, you can take tours of the residence, though not much survives of Van Gogh's time at the address — the stairs, the floors and the mantelpiece are about it. It is, however, fitted out with wonderful works by more recent artists and designers.
Van Gogh House London, 87 Hackford Road, SW9 0RE
Benjamin Franklin House
This is one of London's most central museums (if you're counting Trafalgar Square as the centre of London), and yet Benjamin Franklin House is not all that well known. The American Founding Father lived here for 16 years in the 18th century, though it's been though several reincarnations since then. The house does, however, retain some architectural features from Franklin's time. These days, sound and visual projections are used to tell the story of the famous American in London. The star attraction is the glass armonica, an instrument invented by the great man, which you can listen to played live on guided tours.
Benjamin Franklin House, 36 Craven Street, WC2N 5NF
Sir John Soane's Museum
The Bank of England, Dulwich Picture Gallery and parts of Royal Hospital Chelsea are among the buildings designed by architect Sir John Soane during his lifetime. But it's Sir John Soane's Museum, his former home in Lincoln's Inn Fields, which will tell you the most about Soane; he repurposed it himself into a museum for students of architecture.
He was quite the collector too; the house museum is packed with antiques, furniture, sculptures, architectural models and drawings, and paintings by the likes of Hogarth, Turner and Canaletto, spread across three floors. There's even the sarcophagus of Egyptian pharaoh Seti I. Visit the museum on one of the monthly candlelight evenings for extra ambience.
Dr Johnson's House
Writer and dictionary compiler Dr Samuel Johnson lived in a townhouse just off Fleet Street from 1748-1759, during which time he completed work on his dictionary (in between visits to his local boozer, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese). Though the building has been through several uses since then, it's now restored to how it would have been in Johnson's time, with artefacts relating to his life and work on show, as well as a research library. First editions of his dictionary are on show, featuring such dubious definitions as 'Porridge: A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.' Look out for the statue of Hodge the cat, Johnson's beloved pet, at the opposite end of the square.
Dr Johnson's House, 17 Gough Square, EC4A 3DE
Handel & Hendrix in London
Currently closed until 2023.
Probably London's best-known pair of famous bedfellows — although their tenancies were separated by about two centuries — George Frideric Handel and Jimi Hendrix both lived at the same address in Mayfair. Visitors to the building today can visit Handel's elegant townhouse, where he composed and occasionally rehearsed his pieces. Then step into the Hendrix flat on the upper floors; though the musician didn't spend much time there due to being on tour, he did undertake photo shoots and interviews on the premises, and undoubtedly got merry on a bottle of his favourite Mateus rosé wine, while watching Corrie.
Handel & Hendrix in London, 25 Brook Street, W1K 4HB
Freud Museum, Hampstead
The final home of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud — which he shared with his daughter Anna — houses his famous couch. His study, which is as he left it, also contains his desk, chair and some of his antiques. It's also got his collection of Greek and Roman phalluses, because, well, Freud. The former family dining room gives some of the background on Freud's life, as well as his work in psychoanalysis, and Anna Freud's room offers an insight into her own work on child psychoanalysis.
Freud Museum, 20 Maresfield Gardens, NW3 5SX
Down House, Biggin Hill
Naturalist Charles Darwin may have done much of his research in the Galapagos Islands, but he wrote the bulk of On The Origin Of The Species in his study at Down House, on what is now the London-Kent border — though at the time it was considered something of a 'country retreat'.
Darwin and his sizeable family lived here, organising extension and renovations of the house from 1842 until his death (at the house itself) in 1882. These days, the house is run by English Heritage, which gives visitors a chance to see inside the family's rooms, and explore the gardens which inspired Darwin, where he conducted many experiments on the natural world.
Down House, Luxted Road, Downe, BR6 7JT
Keats House Museum, Hampstead
Romantic poet John Keats spent his last few months in London in this Hampstead abode, from December 1818 until he moved to Rome just over a year later, where he died of tuberculosis. It was at this address that Keats fell in love with his neighbour, Fanny Brawne, which inspired him to write poems including La Belle Dame Sans Merci and The Eve of St Agnes. These days, the house is open to the public as a museum on certain days of the week, operated by the City of London Corporation.
Keats House Museum, 10 Keats Grove, NW3 2RR.
Sherlock Holmes Museum, Baker Street
It's coming to something when London has a house museum for a fictional man, but none dedicated to the lives of real women*.
The Sherlock Holmes Museum is located at the famous 221b Baker Street (or is it?), the four-storey townhouse it occupies recreating the gas-lit world of the iconic detective via a mix of authentic furniture of the era, pastiche props and "items belonging to Sherlock, his friends and adversaries". (Once again: Sherlock Holmes was not a real person and didn't actually exist.)
Still, it sets an atmospheric Victorian scene, and keeps thousands of tourists happy every year — even if they can spend up to two hours queuing to get in.
The Sherlock Holmes Museum, 221b/239 Baker Street, NW1 6XE
Houses of lesser-known people:
- Dennis Severs wasn't well-known in his own right, but Dennis Severs House now is. The Californian-turned-Londoner designed the Spitalfields building to reveal the history of the area in the 18th and 19th centuries, following an imaginary Huguenot family through the generations.
- Leighton House Museum is the former studio and home of Victorian artist Lord Leighton. Nearby is the Sambourne House (temporarily closed), former home of the Punch cartoonist, and starring his erotica-filled bathroom.
Of course, mansion houses, palaces and stately homes which are open to the public were — and often still are — home to someone well-known. We could continue this list with the likes of Apsley House, home to the Duke of Wellington; Eltham Palace, where Tudor royals and, later, the Courtaulds lived; and Strawberry Hill House, the residence of Horace Walpole.
*The only two London museums we can think of which are dedicated to women are the Florence Nightingale Museum and the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Gallery, neither of which are located in their subjects' former homes, so haven't made it onto this list.