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  • Carlyle Resartus?No. 24 Cheyne Row
  • Sarah Olwen Jones (bio)

At the time of his death in 1881, Thomas Carlyle was at the height of his influence and among the most revered writers in Britain. A social critic, biographer, and historian, known in his later years as the “Sage of Chelsea,” Carlyle was admired by many as a moral guide, steering his readers through the tumultuous nineteenth century. Leigh Hunt had idealized Carlyle as the next Percy Bysshe Shelley (CL 153), and, in 1855, George Eliot observed, “there is hardly a superior or active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writings; there has hardly been an English book written for the last ten or twelve years that would not have been different if Carlyle had not lived” (qtd. in Seigel 409–10). For decades, Carlyle was a figure around whom luminaries, celebrities, and aristocrats gathered, and he was considered a voice of and for the times, even if his works were not universally admired. At the end of the nineteenth century, however, Carlyle’s reputation was in ruins. James Anthony Froude’s publication of Carlyle’s Reminiscences and biographies of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle exposed Carlyle’s vulnerabilities and kindled a storm of allegations (among other criticisms) regarding Carlyle’s perceived lack of manliness and social class, raising questions about Carlyle’s capacity to serve as a model of Britishness.1

In the midst of the controversy, in 1883, Mary Aitken Carlyle (commonly known as Mrs. Alexander Carlyle), Carlyle’s niece, former amanuensis, and housekeeper, with great foresight secured and opened to visitors the house in which Carlyle was born (and lived for the first three years of life) and also initiated the collection of memorabilia and artifacts connected to her uncle and aunt. While the “Arched House” in Ecclefechan became an early site of pilgrimage for those seeking the origins of the “Sage of Chelsea,” back in London the Carlyles’ Cheyne Row residence was dirty, run down, and neglected, the home’s condition being “the fitting accompaniment of all the malevolent abuse that has been heaped on Carlyle since his death” (qtd. in Carlyle’s House Catalogue 2).

More than a decade after Carlyle’s death, in 1894, the Manchester merchant George Lumsden visited the “holy ground” of No. 24 Cheyne Row, Chelsea, to pay homage to “the man whose influence upon my own life [End Page 6] had been, in many important respects, determinative” (qtd. in Carlyle’s House Catalogue 2). Lumsden, troubled by the neglected state of the house, determined that it should be bought by “Carlyle’s admirers” (qtd. in Carlyle’s House Catalogue 4) in an effort to rescue Carlyle’s reputation and (re)present him to the nation as one of the nineteenth century’s heroes. Lumsden’s arduous efforts to create a committee and raise the necessary funds eventually paid dividends: the house opened to the public in December 1895 as part of the centenary commemoration of Carlyle’s birth (fig. 1).

The transformation of No. 24 Cheyne Row, Chelsea, from a dilapidated private residence into a public museum demonstrates a process of museumization that is clearly more complex than simply recognizing the association of a surviving building with an influential public man. Over the course of a century, the Chelsea house transitioned from a derelict space, destitute of all memories when purchased in 1895, to an in-between state with “the look of something forcibly preserved” (Woolf, “Carlyle’s House” 3) in the early decades of the twentieth century, and through the subsequent acquisition of objects (originals and replicas) and the display of furniture, the house metamorphosed into a reproduction of a homely domestic scene, “snug and unpretentious,” “small and romantic” (qtd. in Fokschaner 48).

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Fig. 1.

The parlour at Carlyle’s House, 24 Cheyne Row, London.

Courtesy of National Trust Images.

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The metamorphosis of the Cheyne Row house reflects the rise of the institution of the house museum. The Chelsea house was a home, but it has become an invocation of a prior era; it is filled with traces of the life of...


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