From music to medicine: the secrets of a Kensington home
The eighteenth century saw the growth of London’s music scene. The Bohemian composer Ignaz Moscheles, the German pianist and composer Felix Mendelssohn and extraordinary violinist Joseph Joachim all furthered their musical careers in the city, and all as a result Muzio Clementi.
An Italian pianist, composer and piano manufacturer, Clementi is a highly underestimated figure in English music history. Buried in Westminster Abbey where his gravestone names him the father of the pianoforte, Clementi is the unacknowledged host of Victorian London’s burgeoning music scene.
Clementi was born in Italy but moved to England as a child where he studied before undertaking the Grand Tour, allowing him to build and further his musical career. In 1811 he moved to Kensington and his home on Kensington Church Street evolved into a central hub for music composition and private music performance, growing to accommodate high-profile European musicians.
This domicile was originally constructed as one of four houses in 1737 by the aspirant builder Richard Gittens. Despite Gittens’ endeavours, the row of four townhouses struggled to sell; the boom of the sprawling London metropolis would not happen until the beginning of the nineteenth century, Tyburn (now Marble Arch/Oxford Street) was the nearest stretch of urban land and Kensington was not yet a desirable location.
Today, Kensington Church Street boasts an assortment of eighteenth and nineteenth-century architectural builds with rows of antique shops and art galleries, while the flower-coated pub, The Churchill Arms, and Sally Clarke’s locally loved restaurant, Clarke’s, are characteristically popular hotspots. Yet this area of London was not nearly as residential at the time of Gittens’ constructional venture. Instead, 1, High Row (as it was then called) and its compatriot builds stood surrounded by the expansive, rural land of the Sheffield, Holland and Bedford estates. It was an unpopular location for new buyers and was eventually acquired by Dulwich College and James Allen Girls’ School. The houses were used to serve the local poor, to provide a home to ex-head teachers and subsequently let out on 100-year leases.
1, High Row, was built as, and remains, the traditional terraced Georgian home. A simple, symmetrical structure arranged over four storeys with the smaller rooms at the top designed for servants while small-paned, sash windows evenly punctuate the brick face. Conventionally, the Georgian style dictates that the façade of the ground floor is rendered in a white or cream plaster, yet this house maintains a brick exterior from top to bottom. The flattened roof not only highlights the proportioned structural design, but also lends itself to a panoramic roof-terrace that offers views across the Kensington skyline.
Since Clementi’s ownership, this has been a family home. Current owners, journalist and publisher Tom Stacey and his wife, the internationally renowned sculpturist, Caroline Stacey, still live in the property and the sense of warmth, comfort and serenity is apparent. This is a home that has welcomed and prompted creativity, from musical compositions, Victorian artwork, medical discovery and contemporary sculpture-work.
The front door opens straight into an entrance room, a front-room or parlour, if you will. Bookshelves line the walls and a green-leaf nineteenth-century wallpaper design wraps around the room, a greyhound sits curled in an armchair by the fire and an original eighteenth-century pianoforte sits neatly in the corner. It is like walking back in time. It is the epitome of a Victorian upper-class domestic space, but with the welcome omission of austerity and discomfort. There is no stiffness or antiquity, but instead a lived-in, well-loved home. Clementi’s presence is apparent not only in the eponymous house name, but also in the fact that the pianoforte is one of his own, manufactured in London and emblazoned with his name: Clementi is the father of the pianoforte and the father of this house.
Clementi himself lived in the house for just over ten years. He retired to Evesham in 1824, selling the remainder of his lease to William Horsley, before dying in 1832. It was during this time that the circle of London-expat musicians grew. William Horsley was a composer and knew Clementi well. Before his death, Clementi trained Ignaz Moscheles, an aspiring pianist, who came to England to teach the teenage Felix Mendelssohn. Moscheles invited Mendelssohn to Clementi House and it swiftly became Mendelssohn’s base in London. The Horsley family consisted of five children, three of which were musicians themselves. The mind-map of musicians in the London scene is intricate but apparent, and 1, High Row, was at the centre of the action.
The original, and still predominant, layout of the house is L-shaped, and this primary scheme is mirrored on each level. The L-shaped drawing room on the first floor was occupied by Mendelssohn and it is in this space that private, one-off concerts were performed along with the creation of spontaneous compositions. Mr Stacey describes how the eldest Horsley daughter, Mary, became engaged to (none other than) Isambard Kingdom Brunel on the walk from St Mary Abbot’s Church at the corner of High Street Kensington, up the hill to 1, High Row. Upon entering the house, the betrothed announced their engagement, prompting Mendelssohn to compose a piece to commemorate the occasion.
As time and tenants moved on, the house underwent minor adaptions to create and reuse space. The L-space drawing room on the first floor was altered to be sectioned into three rooms: a bedroom with an ensuite, and a study/parlour. This master bedroom is decorated in authentic Morris & Co wallpaper, recognisable by the mesmerising muted green and red vine-like stems, the circular, large-petaled flowers and the smaller, more defined, light blue flower heads, all of which indicate the infamous Pimpernel design. William Morris designed Pimpernel in 1876, using it in his own dining room in Hammersmith. The use of this wallpaper at Clementi House therefore reveals not only that the construction to the drawing room occurred in the latter part of the nineteenth century, but also that the Horsleys were at the height of interior design trends and that they operated in high-social circles, not least due to their multiple connections.
A few decades earlier, in 1841, the predominant RA artist John Horsley added a studio space to this first floor, standing on stilts and overlooking the small, walled garden. The underneath of this studio was then enclosed and converted to create a clinic space for John’s son, Victor, so that he could experiment on animal brains. Victor was a pioneer in Victorian medicine, he undertook ground-breaking research on brain function, working with Sigmund Freud in order to ascertain how the brain functioned.
In today’s Clementi House, the studio maintains its original purpose, as Caroline’s sculptures and sketches are on display, while the converted ground floor acts as a dining room. Due to the additions over the centuries, internally the structure feels pastiche: there are steps between rooms and low beamed ceilings. The staircase winds its way up three floors, with landings extending out to the left and right; the house is big for a London terrace, but it does not sprawl. It feels concise, traditional and homely.
Into the twentieth century, Clementi House remains at the centre of a web of connections between key social, cultural and historical figures. Mr Stacey bought Clementi House from economist Mr. Wynne Godley, whose wife Kitty Epstein, also lived at the house. The irony here lies in the fact that Kitty Epstein was originally married to Lucian Freud, but ultimately left him, and in the late 1960s Lucian himself moved into number 128 Kensington Church Street, the end of the High Row built by Gittens.
Mr Stacey explains how “something interesting started happening at the turn of this past century. Somebody started throwing what I thought was vegetable soup at the front window. We would wipe it off, and then sure enough, very few weeks later, back it came. This went on, and eventually the restauranteur Sally Clarke phoned me up and said, ‘Tom, I’ve got the answer to our mystery. It’s Lucian. He was having breakfast at my restaurant alone, and he turned to your window, and he gobbed and hoiked and hit your window with a good socko of phlegm!’” As it turns out, Lucian Freud, the grandson of Sigmund Freud who worked with Victor Horsley at this very same house, had never forgiven the insult of Kitty Epstein leaving him and settling in what is now Clementi House.
Clementi House is a self-confessed shrine to Muzio Clementi and the generations that followed him, but it is also a testament to the interwoven world of music and art. It remains vastly unchanged since the early twentieth century and it has always been a domestic space for families to grow, congregate and create.
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