Peeping behind the front door of the homes of London's famous residents

Detroit Free Press

He craved more, more and even more stuff.

"I think he went a bit loopy after his wife died," whispered the woman standing next to me as we stood in Sir John Soane's Museum gazing at antiquities dangling from ceilings and perched on the rafters.

Was Soane eccentric? Definitely.

But London is full of houses of unusual people and some of them are museums, too. One day, I set off to visit as many of them as I could, those of Soane, Sigmund Freud, Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria and Sherlock Holmes.

Behind every front door was a story.

Soane's obsession

A famed British architect in his day, Soane was what you might now call a gentleman hoarder, collecting far more Roman, Egyptian and Greek statues, urns, friezes and doodads than advisable even keeping the giant sarcophagus of Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I in his basement.

After his wife died in 1815, he used her money to keep collecting. When he died in 1837, he left an endowment to run the house as a museum. Eventually, the British government took over its support.

Astonished visitors will see a home stuffed with 5,888 ancient artifacts, 17,474 architectural drawings and prints, 202 engraved seals, 160 architectural models, 7,783 books and more, displayed nearly exactly as Soane left them.

What you think of it likely depends on your sensibilities.

Some, like me, will not be able to get past the weird stuff, especially a crypt in the basement devoted to items he collected for his "imaginary friend," including a strange gold chair and a skull.

On the other hand, some will marvel at how he created an inventive personal museum for his architectural students, a way to let them see in person treasures they could not otherwise have glimpsed.

Still. Can you imagine dusting this place?

Sir John Soane's Museum: 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields; Holborn tube stop. Free.

Id and ego: Freud Museum

Objects that surround you are not just objects, but symbols of your unconscious beliefs, psychoanalysts believe.

If so, Freud had a whole bunch of inner thoughts. In 1938, he moved from his lifelong Vienna home to London when the Nazis invaded Austria, and he brought everything.

His pretty brick home in the north of London today has an optimistic sky-blue front door and a charming rose garden. Freud lived only the last year of his life here 1938 to 1939. His daughter Anna continued to live here until the 1980s, when it was turned into a museum.

Most fascinating is Freud's study, where he saw patients. Rather gloomy and full of cabinets of books, his large desk is nearly totally covered with small yet priceless ancient statues his muses. There's the green chair on which he sat, never taking notes, and the analytic couch on which his patients lay, free-associating.

The museum when I visited also had an exhibition of art by the late British cartoonist Mel Calman. "My analyst doesn't understand me," one panel said. Another showed God wondering "why don't I have anyone to pray to?"

Given his line of work, Freud likely would have enjoyed the cartoons and the gift shop, which features "Super Ego" buttons, coffee cups labeled "Freudian Sips" and books like "The Psychopathology of Everyday Life."

Freud Museum: 20 Maresfield Gardens, Finchley tube stop. Entry fee 8 pounds (about $13),

Fit for a queen

One part of elegant Kensington Palace in Hyde Park is the current living quarters of Prince William, wife Kate and their baby, plus Prince Harry. The other half the part not behind armed security fences is an enjoyable museum about the previous tenants, including Queen Victoria, Princess Diana and Queen Anne.

Inventive displays created by theater groups keep the state rooms from being a dreary plod through acres of carpets and upholstered settees. I especially loved the paper bluebirds skittering across the ceiling in the Queen's Apartments, as well as the beautifully laid-out story of Queen Victoria and the love of her life, Prince Albert. In the Fashion Hall, see Princess Diana's still-gorgeous gowns.

The gift shop here has everything from $300 royal perfume to $2 royal pencils; you also can stop here for tea.

Kensington Palace: Kensington Gardens, tube stop Queensway or High Street Kensington. Entry fee 16.50 pounds (about $27),

Hounding Sherlock Holmes

Sorry to break it to you, but Holmes is not and never was a real person. His "house" is nothing more than a re-creation of what author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle imagined in his many mysteries. Still, lines form down Baker Street for this popular attraction. The high point in my opinion is the gift shop, with souvenirs like detective caps, pipes and Sherlock Holmes ID cards.

It's a bit ironic that this place is so popular given that the author's real home, Undershaw, located south of London in Surrey, is a deplorable wreck. Even though it's where Conan Doyle actually wrote "Hound of the Baskervilles" and other classics, the home is boarded up while fans attempt to save it.

Sherlock Holmes Museum: 221B Baker Street, tube stop Baker Street. Entry fee 8 pounds, .

Charles Dickens, every one

If anyone had a sentimental view toward home life, it was Dickens. It's just that his real life didn't quite match the image.

Dickens rented this house in Bloomsbury in his 20s when he was the budding author of "The Pickwick Papers" and a newly married newspaper reporter.

Here is where he wrote "Oliver Twist" and "Nicholas Nickleby." With the largest collection of Dickens artifacts in the world, it contains a wonderful and well-used desk, his favorite cane seat chair and other bucolic touches.

He lived here at the start of his fame, when he and wife Catherine were happy and starting their family, many years before they bitterly separated. Here's a turquoise ring he gave her. There's the dining room table set for a crowd.

From its inscribed first edition of "A Christmas Carol" to a locket with Dickens' hair, this homey museum is a warm window into Dickens' life before fame complicated everything.

Charles Dickens Museum: 46 Doughty Street, tube stop Russell Square. Entry fee 8 pounds,


Open your house and let the tourists in.

That's the gripe here among legislators who are pressuring Queen Elizabeth and the staff of Buckingham Palace to raise quick cash to fix leaky roofs and other problems at the palace by admitting more tourists.

Right now, the palace is open for tours only 56 days a year (this year Aug. 2-Sept. 28,

"Let the Yanks bounce up and down on the beds; that's an easy 10 million pounds a year," suggested the Mirror newspaper, saying the queen is "down to her last 1 million pounds cash, and the boilers are 60 years out of date."

Stay tuned. Until the queen gives her consent, Americans will have to be satisfied with visiting other homes of the famous in London.


"Shakespeare in Love" will open in the West End this summer. It's a new play based on the movie.

The Tate Britain art museum has rehung its collection in chronological order, giving visitors a chance to see the progression of British paintings from the 1500s to the 2000s.

Speaking of Sherlock Holmes, a new exhibit based on the detective will open at the Museum of London in October, featuring not only historic portrayals of the Victorian private eye, but modern interpretations from the BBC "Sherlock" TV show.

Go to the top of the Shard, an 87-story skyscraper on London's south bank that is shaped like a giant shard of glass. Getting a view from the observation decks of the tallest building in western Europe (1,016 feet high) is 29 pounds (about $47) per person, but it's a bird's eye view.

"Open Garden Squares 2014" is June 14-15, when 200 small gardens in London not usually available to the public are open.

Upscale new hotels include the Shangri-La Hotel at the Shard (opening May 6), the Mondrian London (opening this summer) and the recently opened Rosewood London.

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