Making the most of this year’s National Trust membership, I travelled down to Chelsea to visit the Queen Anne house at 24 (originally 5) Cheyne Row that was once rented by Jane Welsh (14 January 1801 – 21 April 1866) and Thomas Carlyle (4 December 1795 – 5 February 1881). The house stands close to the Embankment, on a surprisingly quiet street, not far from Chelsea Old Church. A few doors along is the former home of women’s police service co-founder, Margaret Damer Dawson (12 June 1873 – 18 May 1920).
Today, Carlyle’s House is worth millions of pounds, but in the early 18th century the area was a working dockland and regarded as unfashionable by wealthy society figures.
Jane and Thomas counted among their friends and acquaintances an impressive list of Victorian celebrities. This present for Thomas’s 80th birthday in 1875 is signed by a hundred contemporaries, including Robert Browning, Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, and Anthony Trollope.
Thomas Carlyle was something of a literary prodigy, beginning life as the working-class son of a Dumfries and Galloway stonemason. His academic prowess and parents’ ambition led to him leaving his Ecclefechan home, aged 13, to walk 84 miles to Edinburgh, where he attended university.
After marrying the more middle-class Jane Welsh, Thomas was persuaded to move to London where he embarked in earnest on a writing career in philosophy and history. The couple moved to Cheyne Row in 1834. Although initially focussed on German literature, Carlyle became renowned for his The French Revolution: A History (3 volumes, 1837), which was written in this house. The book was hugely popular and influential; it was used by Dickens as the major source for his novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Carlyle was described by contemporaries with great reverence. George Eliot, for example, wrote that, “there is hardly a superior mind of this generation that has not been modified by his writings”.
Although Jane was a talented writer in her own right (see her published letters), Thomas gave her little encouragement. Their marriage has been described as an unhappy of two contrasting characters. Jane’s middle-class tastes are reflected in the original furniture and fittings, many of which can be seen in the below painting, “A Chelsea Interior” by Robert Tait.
In 1849, Jane created this decoupage screen below, which reminded me a little of my university days creating improvised turn-of-the-century wallpaper from A4 magazine cuttings.
A narrow house of five storeys, with a relaxing garden at the back and views of neighbouring buildings.
Lack of significant income prevented the Carlyles from having more than one servant. Much of her day (and night) would have been spent in this cold, dark basement kitchen.
In contrast, Thomas retreated to the top of the house, whiling away his time in this rather splendid reading chair.
I must finish this post with brief thanks to the National Trust guides who went out of their way to be helpful and informative. Every question I asked was answered with detail and enthusiasm, considerably enhancing my visit.