Our guide to the best artists’ house museums in the UK in 2017. Discover the life story behind your favourite artist and their most treasured possessions – from ceramics, architecture and paintings to drawings, books and artefacts
Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant – Charleston Farmhouse
This seventeenth century farmhouse in Firle, Sussex was home to the English painter and designer Vanessa Bell and her friend, father of her child, and fellow artist Duncan Grant. Bell and Grant were two of the central figures of the Bloomsbury Group and their home became one of the notorious group’s rural Sussex meeting places.
The Bloomsbury group comprised many influential artists, writers and thinkers of the time, including Bell’s sister, Virgina Woolf, Woolf’s husband Leonard Woolf, economist John Maynard Keynes, art critic and Bell’s brief lover Roger Fry, her husband Clive Bell and the biographer Lytton Strachey.
Bell and Grant were both drew their inspiration from Italian fresco painting and Post-modernism, and evidence of this influence adorns the walls, fireplaces and furniture of the farmhouse. They also paid special attention to the garden, which they redesigned with mosaics, luxurious Mediterranean planting, box hedges and sculptures by Bell’s son Quentin.
Charleston opened to the public in 1986 after a major restoration. The collection includes painted furniture, ceramics, paintings and textiles, as well as pieces of art from painters that the Bloomsbury group admired, such as Renoir and Picasso.
William Morris – Red House
This art and crafts London home, situated in Bexleyheath, belonged to William Morris – the English artist, craftsman, writer and socialist who is associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and founded the Arts and Crafts movement.
Designed by Morris’ close friend, the English architect Philip Webb, it was completed in 1860. A collaborative effort, The Red House seamlessly combines Webb’s practical, sturdy architectural designs with Morris’ romanticism. It includes original features and furniture by Morris and Webb, stained glass and paintings by Edward Burne-Jones, and striking architecture.
It was at Red House that Morris co-founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. – the furnishings and decorative arts manufacturer which later became Morris & Co and saw the release of the iconic floral repeating patterns, which remain ever-popular and available today.
The Red House was home to Morris for just 5 years, acting as an idyllic first home for his two beloved daughters until his deteriorating health made the commute to his firm’s office in Bloomsbury too taxing. It passed through several hands before being anonymously purchased and donated to the National Trust, who are still uncovering original features and artworks covered up by the property’s subsequent owners.
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Ernö Goldfinger – 2 Willow Road
Situated at 2 Willow Road in Hampstead is the family home of Hungarian Architect Ernö Goldfinger. Designed in 1939, this London home was the first modernist property acquired by the National Trust in 1994, and is one of only two currently owned by the Trust. The terrace of three homes was rather controversial at the time as a row of cottages was demolished to accommodate it, to the disappointment and outrage of several neighbours. The most notable of these was Bond author Ian Fleming, who despised Goldfinger’s designs so much he named one of his most notorious villains after him.
A divisive architect, Goldfinger’s brutalist designs were often loathed by their residents and locals. It is said that J G Ballard’s dystopian novel High-Rise, in which an apartment block descends into violent chaos and societal breakdown was inspired by Goldfinger’s tower blocks, Trellick Tower and Balfron Tower. While these buildings were constructed out of necessity to provide badly-needed homes to post-war London, his own home was a labour of love, showcasing Goldfinger’s exacting designs and clean, functional aesthetic—the bespoke furniture within the house was designed solely by the man himself.
Presented as it was when the Goldfinger family occupied it, the home also contains Ernö’s collection of modern art, including works from artists such as Henry Moore, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and Bridget Riley. Today the terrace is Grade II listed, and the meticulously-designed home is visited by thousands of architecture and design fans annually, who see Goldfinger not as a villain, but as a visionary.
Thomas Gainsborough – Gainsborough’s House
This picturesque 16th century Suffolk house was the birthplace and childhood home of the English painter Thomas Gainsborough, who later returned to live in the house after the death of his father. Gainsborough showed an aptitude for painting at a very early age, and was encouraged to leave home for London to study under Hubert Gravelot and William Hogarth.
Gainsborough was an early member of the Royal Society of arts and regularly exhibited his work there. He also exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, where he was one of the founding members, until a dispute over how his work should be hung. Towards the end of the 18th century his paintings became highly fashionable and he rose to become the leading portrait painter in England, taking commissions from wealthy patrons and royals. Despite this, his real passion was landscape painting and clues to this are seen in many of his artworks which combine both disciplines in a technique that was quite innovative at the time.
Gainsborough’s House Society was formed in 1958 and comprised several influential figures, including the painter, and previous president of the Royal Academy of Arts, Alfred Munnings. The house was purchased by the society as a monument to the artist’s life and works, with the museum and art gallery opening a few years later in 1961.
The museum showcases Gainsborough’s early portraiture and landscapes, including some of his later works, and boasts 18th century furniture and memorabilia. Exhibitions throughout the year include both British and contemporary art, and the property includes a stunning garden, maintained by volunteers using only plants that were available during the artist’s lifetime.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh – The Mackintosh House at the Hunterian Art Gallery
This display is an assemblage of the original Glaswegian home of the famed architect, designer and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife, the artist Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh. The Victorian end-of-terrace house was sadly demolished in the early 1960s, but the original fixtures and contents were painstakingly reassembled in the 80s as part of the Hunterian Art Gallery, just 100 meters away from where the original Mackintosh house once stood.
The Mackintoshes gained notoriety in the Glasgow School of Art, along with Margaret’s sister Frances Macdonald and Frances’ husband Herbert MacNair. The group became known as The Four, but also gained the nickname the Spook School as their often exaggerated, elongated or misshapen human figures resembled ghosts or spirits. The Four were instrumental in the development of the Glasgow Style – a movement closely linked to Art Nouveau and influenced by Japanese and Celtic art.
Although the original Mackintosh house was not designed by Charles himself, the interior was filled with bespoke furniture, fixtures and artworks in the Mackintoshes’ signature style, which paired clean lines and right-angles with floral elements, such as the unmistakable Glasgow rose motif. The architects recreating the Mackintosh house paid meticulous detail to contemporary descriptions and photographs, and the main rooms of the house flow exactly as they would have in the original. The reproduction of the home, which sits inside a modern concrete building, is decorated as closely to Mackintosh’s designs as possible.
George Frederic Watts – Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village
Limnerslease, near Guildford in Surrey, was the home of ‘England’s Michelangelo’ – the symbolist painter George Frederic Watts, along with his wife, the designer and potter Mary Watts. Watts commissioned the Arts and Crafts architect Sir Ernest George to design and build a second home for them so they could enjoy peace and fresh air, away from the smog of London.
The house was carefully designed for the couple’s artistic needs and incorporated a large studio with plenty of natural light, so Watts could work on paintings he’d been planning but had not yet had the capacity to execute. Watts also specified that the house should contain a gallery showcasing his work, and shortly before he died this became a reality. Watts Gallery – Artists Village is now one of the only purpose-built galleries in the country to focus on the life and works of one specific artist.
The house contains a selection of Watts’ works, including his series of four social realist paintings, which he produced while staying in London, having returned from living in Italy. Watts was disturbed by the rife poverty in the capital, and created these four large-scale paintings depicting the poverty and depression facing the city.
The couple eventually moved to Limnerslease full time, and became valued members of the community. Watts turned his hand to sculpture and produced one of his most famed works here just two years before his death in 1904. The original gesso grosso maquette of Watts’ powerful sculpture Physical Energy, which depicts a man on horseback riding into the sun, sits resplendent in the gallery.
Lee Miller and Roland Penrose – Farley Farm House
This farm house in Sussex was home to a duo of surrealist artists – American photographer Lee Miller and her husband, the artist Roland Penrose. Lee Miller first entered the world of photography in New York as the model to the famous photographers Edward Steichen, Hoyningen-Huene and Arnold Genthe. She became the student, muse and lover of the celebrated surrealist photographer Man Ray; many of his most iconic images were in fact taken by Miller. While developing a set of negatives for Man Ray she accidentally rediscovered the solarisation technique – a method later mastered by Man Ray and seen often in his work.
London-born Roland Penrose moved to France in 1922, where he joined the Surrealist movement in Paris. He returned to London in the 30s and was at the centre of the surrealist movement in Britain. He was a popular figure in the art world, organising exhibitions and tours—including one of Picasso’s famous Guernica. Penrose was one of the founders of the Institute for Contemporary Arts, which became known for its ground-breaking shows, earning it a place at the heart of British contemporary art.
During WWII Miller was the official war photographer for Vogue magazine, and took many stirring images of war-torn Europe, including dead Nazi soldiers and the concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald. Although raised a pacifist, Penrose also did his bit for the war effort, utilising his artistic talents to become an expert and author on the art of camouflage. He was made a captain in the Royal Engineers and became a well-respected camoufleur, working as a senior lecturer in Norwich and Farnham.
The couple moved to the farmhouse in 1949, after the birth of their only child, and during their time there the house received visits from many notable friends and colleagues. Visitors to the house comprised some big names associated with the surrealist movement, including Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Eileen Agar, Joan Miro and Max Ernst amongst others, and works by these, and other influential artists, are on display in the house for visitors to admire.
Barbara Hepworth – Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden
One of many artists to settle in the Cornish town of St Ives during and after the Second World War, Barbara Hepworth purchased Trewyn Studio in 1949 and lived here until her death in 1975. Hepworth was the first female modernist sculptor to achieve international recognition, and was a member of the short-lived Unit One group, a modernist art movement headed by Paul Nash and comprising the likes of Henry Moore, Edward Burra and Wells Coates.
Hepworth was at the forefront of the St Ives art scene and became a founding member of the Penwith Society of Arts, along with other contemporary local artists, including her husband Ben Nicholson and the potter Bernard Leach. Trewyn Studio was exactly the space that Hepworth was looking for—she enjoyed having a garden in which to work and display her pieces, and many of the sculptures on display in the grounds remain in the same position that Hepworth originally placed them in.
It was her wish that after her death the property would be preserved as a gallery showcasing her work and, after she sadly died in the studio in an accidental fire, Trewyn and many of the artworks within it were given to the nation in 1980 and placed in the care of the Tate Gallery. The museum and garden is home to bronze, stone and wood sculptures, as well as paintings, drawings and archives. The studios at Trewyn remain much as they did when Hepworth was working in them, her tools and materials awaiting the artist to return to working on her next masterpiece.
E Chambré and Margaret Hardman – The Hardmans’ House
This 1950s Liverpool home and photography studio belonged to the Irish portrait photographer Edward Chambré Hardman and his wife Margaret Hardman. The couple lived and worked here for 40 years, with Edward taking the portraits and Margaret running the business.
Though their trade was mainly in portrait photography, the couple’s legacy is the stunning landscape photography that was E. Chambré Hardman’s true passion – the most famous example of this is the photograph The Birth of the Ark Royal, an odd juxtaposition of a residential terraced street in Birkenhead, with an enormous aircraft carrier under construction dominating the background, surrounded by cranes.
The house today is preserved much as it was during the business’ operation – the grander, brighter rooms were given over to the business’ studio, dressing room and darkroom while the living quarters are squeezed into a few modest spaces. Visitors can experience a true 1950s home, and discover the Hardmans’ photographic apparatus, unveiling processes and equipment now all but obsolete. The house has been in the care of the National Trust since E Chambre Hardman’s death – the deterioration of his mental and physical health caused by Margaret’s death in 1970 having lead him to live his final years as a recluse.
Henry Moore – Hoglands
This former farmhouse in the small hamlet of Perry Green, Hertfordshire was home to the legendary artist and sculptor Henry Moore and his Russian wife, and former art student, Irina Radetzky. One of the best-known figures in British sculpture, Moore was a student at Leeds School of Art, along with fellow sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The two became friends and compeers, both joining the Seven and Five Society—a London based art group—and later the Unit One art group.
Moore moved to Hoglands in 1940 after his London home suffered bomb damage, and remained here for the rest of his life. The house offered not only space for his family to live, but a large garden and series of outbuildings, the perfect space for Moore’s studios. More land was purchased gradually, and with it came more outbuildings for studios. The house today is surrounded by 70 acres of land and has become a beautiful sculpture park and tribute to Moore’s life, displaying his pieces in the open air, as he always intended them to be.
The Henry Moore Foundation acquired Hoglands from Irina and Henry Moore’s daughter Mary in 2004 and it was opened to visitors in 2007 after careful restoration. The Moores’ personal collection includes artefacts, books and works of art from Henry’s early career and the world famous artists including Picasso, Modigliani, Hepworth, Michelangelo and Rembrandt.
Frederic Lord Leighton – Leighton House Museum
This London museum was the elaborate home to the 19th Century English painter and draughtsman, Frederic, Lord Leighton and showcases paintings and sculptures by Leighton and some of his contemporaries. Leighton was associated with the Pre Raphaelites and his works were painted in neoclassical style—often drawing influence from the art and culture of ancient Greece.
The house was designed at a time when artists were among the elite of society, and it had to be grand to show off his status as the president of the Royal Academy. Leighton called the house his ‘private palace of art’ and, over the 30 years he lived in it, he had it extended and embellished several times. The most spectacular addition, known as the Arab Hall, is a luxurious two-storey extension with a stunning golden dome, inspired by a Moorish palace in southern Italy. It was built to house Leighton’s collection of Middle Eastern tiles—amassed from trips to Turkey and Damascus.
The house today has been restored to resemble its original state as closely as possible. Many of Leighton’s paintings, collections and personal belongings were sold after his death, and lots of these have been tracked down and purchased or loaned back to the museum.
William Hogarth – Hogarth’s House
This London museum was home to the 18th Century English painter, printmaker, pictorial satirist and editorial cartoonist William Hogarth. It includes a comprehensive collection of Hogarth’s prints and a set of his engraving plates. The house was purchased by Hogarth in 1749 as a country retreat and he lived here with his wife and several family members. The garden in front of the house has an ancient mulberry tree, which was present in Hogarth’s lifetime and is said to have provided fruit for pies baked by the family for local Foundling children.
Hogarth is best known for his satirical prints and paintings – themes in his work include poverty, alcoholism, animal cruelty, prostitution and upper-class society. He also attempted to make a name for himself as a historical painter, depicting scenes from classical and biblical tales, and was a popular portrait painter. In 1757 he became Sarjeant Painter to the King.
The collection includes pieces such as Gin Lane and Beer Street, produced in support of Parliament’s act to reduce the consumption of Gin and other spirits. Gin Lane is one of his best-known artworks and depicts the worst aspects of slum life in 18th century London. An accompanying and contrasting image, Beer Street, suggests the peace and prosperity which he believed may have resulted if beer, rather than gin, was the choice drink of the impoverished. It also houses Hogarth’s innovative sequential allegorical engravings, including A Rake’s Progress.
Dora Gordine – Dorich House Museum
This hidden gem, situated on the edge of London’s beautiful Richmond Park, was home to Estonian sculptor Dora Gordine and her husband Richard Hare—an English scholar of Russian art and literature. The self-contained apartment, studio and gallery space, named Dorich House, was completed in 1936 to Gordine’s own design. She lived here until her death in 1991, leading a reclusive life for her last 30 years following Richard’s death.
Dora Gordine is best known for creating remarkably characterful sculptures, especially skilled at capturing her sitters’ personalities. She travelled Europe and the Far East, creating a body of work studying and celebrating the people and races from Mongolia, Indonesia and Malaysia amongst others. She also turned her hand to architectural design, she made the plans for her first husband’s home in Singapore, and, of course, designed and built Dorich House—a portmanteau of Dora and Richard’s names.
The studio, now a Grade II listed building, is owned by Kingston University and holds the world’s largest collection of Gordine’s paintings, drawings and sculptures. The museum also showcases some of the couple’s significant collection of Russian art—a hobby informed by Hare’s knowledge and enjoyed by both.
Julia Margaret Cameron – Dimbola Lodge
Isle of Wight
The British pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron lived and worked in this house on the Isle of Wight, now a museum commemorating her life. Dimbola Lodge, which was named after the family’s tea and coffee plantations in Dimbula, Sri Lanka, features Cameron’s own pieces as well as holding contemporary exhibitions from photographers around the globe.
Although Cameron’s memoirs state that she originally thought the house was “glazed” and “foul”, the property soon became an important meeting place for the Freshwater Circle – a group of bohemian artists and writers which included Alfred Lord Tennyson and Lewis Carroll. Cameron took to photography when she was gifted a camera in her 40s and she built up a spectacular body of work photographing writers, artists, family members and models. Her distinct, soft focus and ethereal pieces earned her a place amongst the Pre Raphaelites, several of which, including William Holman Hunt, were also visitors to the house.
As well as Cameron’s celebrated photographs the collection also contains preserved features, such as Gothic carvings, William Morris wallpaper, Cameron’s original design stairway and Victorian glass, there is also a re-creation of Julia Margaret Cameron’s bedroom.
J. M. W. Turner – Turner’s House
This rather modest, unassuming house nestled on a street of semi-detached family homes was once home to one of Britain’s most celebrated artists of all time. Recently enjoying extensive conservation work to bring it back to its original design, it was designed by none other than J. M. W. Turner.
Before Turner found his calling as one of the country’s most accomplished landscape painters, he had a passion for architecture, and this ambition was realised he designed this house, which was completed in 1813. The landscaped gardens, which were once tended by his father but have since given way to streets of residential housing, offered Turner a retreat from London life – somewhere to relax with friends and fellow artists.
After Turner sold Sandycombe Lodge, the house had many different owners, even being used as a factory making airmen’s goggles during the Second World War. The building fell into disrepair, but was saved in 1947 by Professor Harold Livermore and his wife who lived in the house for 60 years and set up a trust to protect this important building and keep it for the nation. Today, the house is open to the public, having been restored as closely as possible to its original design – with a later extension removed, wallpaper designed from scraps found in the wall-space, and walls painted with original colours found through paint analysis.
Sir Alfred Munnings – Munnings House Museum
Castle House, set in the beautiful countryside on the border of Essex and Suffolk, was the home of Sir Alfred Munnings – one of England’s finest painters of horses. The artist lived here, with his wife Violet, for 40 years until his death in 1959 and described the small Tudor and Georgian country house, with its picturesque garden, as ‘the house of my dreams’. His studio, first built in Norfolk, was reconstructed in the garden and is from where he produced many of his renowned traditional equine paintings.
Munnings spent his childhood at Mendham Mill, where his father was the miller, and this early rural upbringing is evident in his paintings, which depict idyllic English rural life. He began his artist career at the age of 14, creating posters as an apprentice for a Norwich-based printer. During the First World War, his knowledge of horses saw him working at a remount depot at Calcott Park, Reading before being employed as a war artist with the Canadian Cavalry Brigade in 1918.
Castle House was opened as a museum after Munnings’ death, and today visitors can explore his former home and studio with almost 200 of his glorious paintings on display – charting his career from poster designer, to ‘en plein air’ painter, to high-profile horse portraitist.