Posts Tagged ‘georgian houses’

London — By Andrea Kirkby on August 13, 2009 at 10:09 am
Filed under: Americans in London, Attractions, Benjamin-Franklin, georgian houses

Benjamin Franklin House

While I was on holiday in the Loire valley, I remember seeing a collection of terracotta medallions in the chateau at Chaumont. Louis Seize, Louis Quinze, the Marechal of this and the Comte or Duc of that… and a characteristic, familiar, pudgy little American face, with spectacles and a beaver hat… Benjamin Franklin himself. Odd, I thought, and filed the information away for future use.

Well, on my morning off from the Beer Festival, I found myself wandering towards the tube station at Embankment when I noticed a little sign pointing to Benjamin Franklin House. I could hardly ignore this – the finger of Fate was obviously pointing me there! – and since I had ten minutes or so spare, I decided to go and take a look. Rob Taylor, who runs education activities there, kindly took me round.

It’s a narrow, tall Georgian terraced house in a narrow Georgian street, running between the Strand and the River Thames. Look down the street from the Strand and you can just see the green shade of the trees on the Embankment. These were lodging-houses at the time – the family who ran the house had their rooms on the ground floor, and Franklin along with other lodgers had apartments upstairs.

We know an awful lot about the family in charge; Franklin writes about them, treating them as his ’second family’, and his letters tell us exactly what he did and where he did it. We know which of the rooms was his study, we even know at which of the three great windows in his living room he took his notorious ‘air baths’, standing naked with the window open for the good of his health.

(It’s the window nearest the fireplace – for obvious reasons given that London weather isn’t often good enough to sunbathe. His air-bathing may have been weird, but given that the house had no bathroom – chamber pots were tipped out every morning and a quick strip wash was all most people managed in the name of hygiene – Franklin was probably one of the best-smelling men in London. If not one of the best-looking.)

The house is bare, though. It’s atmospheric – the staircase with its original carved banisters, painted in ‘Franklin green’; the tall rooms, with their high windows; but there’s not much here. Unlike many other houses of famous men, it’s not stuffed with mementoes or information panels. It feels slightly ghostly.

(In a way, that’s rather fitting as a tribute to Franklin’s sixteen years in London. He came as a diplomat, to try to avoid war between England and the Colonies – and he failed, utterly.)

It’s when you see the ‘Historical Experience’ show that the house comes to life. The script has been taken from Franklin’s own letters and other writings, and as you move around the house you’re introduced to other eminent characters of his day – scientist Dr Joseph Priestley, the former Prime Minister William Pitt, and George III’s physician Dr Pringle – as well as the other people living in the house. It’s the words and the actions of Franklin, not physicial mementoes, that are important – “It’s about honouring the man, and honouring the house,” I was told.

I was fascinated by the stories of Franklin and his many ‘hats’ – diplomat, scientist, man of letters. Even more fascinating was the glass harmonica, kept upstairs, which was demonstrated for me – its strange, rather spooky sound rang through the entire house.

This is a really different place from most museums and houses you can visit in London. If you’re into history and want to get a real feeling for the late eighteenth century – a time of revolution in both France and America, a time of scientific endeavour and social ferment – Benjamin Franklin House is worth the detour.

Where: 36 Craven Street, London WC2N 5NF

Photo by Mark Skrobola on flickr

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