The bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth in February inspired a proliferation of tributary books and exhibits around the world. Dickens may have been the greatest English novelist of the Victorian era, but he was also a man of many creative pursuits. In between writing such classics as Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, Dickens preoccupied himself with domestic matters, labouring over every detail of a room, from its wallpaper to its furnishings, in the hope of creating a perfect home.
Dickens’s love for interior design emerged at 48 Doughty Street in central London, his first home and now the Charles Dickens Museum, where the drawing room has been restored to its likely appearance during his tenancy from 1837-1839.
At his next home in Devonshire Terrace, Dickens – inspired by the colour schemes he discovered when in Italy in 1845 – requested that the rooms be painted blue and gold. His instructions were specific: “I should like the skirting board to be painted in imitation of Satin-Wood, the ceiling to have a faint pink blush in it, and a little wreath of flowers to be painted round the lamp.” In terms of furnishings, he selected four tables, including one of French polished mahogany (a favourite of his for secreting keys), a Brussels carpet and silk yellow damask curtains. His plans to paint the hallway and staircases green were vetoed by his wife.
In 1851 Dickens discovered that his lease at Devonshire Terrace would expire sooner than expected, a great annoyance for the author as he had, ahead of the times, recently installed gas lighting (then mostly reserved for public buildings). Determined not to rent again, Dickens bought Tavistock House in Bloomsbury, London, which he would take particular pleasure in decorating from top to bottom.
But the refurbishment took longer than expected and Dickens often expressed his dismay about the lengthy process to his brother-in-law Henry Austin. In one of his more anxious letters, Dickens lamented that “the drawing room encourages no hope whatever. Nor the study … Two men still clinking at the new stair rails. I think they must be learning a tune; I cannot make out any other object in their proceedings.”
Dickens initially planned to add a balcony and a conservatory and, to disguise a door in his study, he commissioned sham bookshelves of dummy books with fictitious titles such as Cats’ Lives in nine volumes. He decorated his daughter Mamie’s bedroom, selecting everything: wallpaper patterned with wild flowers, bedspreads of flowery chintz, twin tables and chairs.
Of all the rooms at Tavistock House, it was perhaps the bathroom that best demonstrated Dickens’s innovative approach to interiors. He installed “a cold shower of the best quality, always charged to an unlimited extent, so that I have but to pull the string, and take any shower of cold water I choose.” He drew a picture of the shower area, specifying that the curtains be “cheerful-coloured and waterproof”, and partitioned off the lavatory. “The Bather would be happier and easier in mind, if the WC did not demonstrate itself obtrusively,” he wrote.
In each of his houses, Dickens continually considered improvements. While travelling with friends two years after moving into Tavistock House, for example, Dickens wrote to his wife about adding a velvet covering to the mantelpiece in his study. He wanted it to echo the shape of the curtains’ cornice fringe, and to be a shade “that will carry through both the bookcase green and the carpet green – generally – so that all the greens tone in.” His request was rather urgent: “I wish you would have it completed at once,” he wrote.
Dickens’s passion for interiors extended to his office in Covent Garden, London, where he sent out his manservant for wallpaper samples so he could choose a vibrant pattern. At Urania Cottage – a house that Dickens established for troubled women in Shepherd’s Bush, west London – he chose furniture and ordered blinds from the drapers of Tottenham Court Road. He also wrote a 6,000-word treatise for Household Words, the magazine he edited, on the subject of wallpaper.
Dickens’s last home was Gad’s Hill Place, a country estate in Kent, south-east England. After the breakdown of his marriage, he moved his family there and in 1860 sold Tavistock House, which was demolished in 1901. While organising the move, he displayed the irritation familiar to anyone in the same situation: “I am beset with workmen. They are only making bookshelves, but they might be making Houses of Parliament.”
For the next decade, Dickens continued to make alterations, inviting friends to inspect new bedrooms in the attics, a billiard room and a larger drawing room. In the end, he boasted that he had made the drawing room “very pretty (I think unusually pretty)”. To another friend, he wrote that “a new staircase rears its modest form (gilded and brightly painted) … all the upper landing is inlaid in a banquet of precious-woods.”
Gad’s Hill Place, a school since 1924, will open next year as a heritage centre. Visitors will see the staircase and the conservatory that Dickens so loved. A grand structure with arched windows, it was the final achievement in the lifelong pursuit of his ideal home. On June 7 1870, Dickens showed off the completed conservatory to his daughter: “Well, Katie, now you see positively the last improvement at Gad’s Hill.” The words proved sadly prophetic, as the next day he suffered a stroke. He died a day later, his family gathered round him at home.
‘Charles Dickens at Home’ by Hilary Macaskill (Frances Lincoln, £25)