The rooms of Charles Dickens’ Birthplace take you on a journey not just into the life of the great author, but through lifestyles and preferences of people at the time. A great deal of hard work, effort and insight went into decorating the house to the Regency style favoured by the middle classes of the time.
A previous Curator of Art for Portsmouth Museums carefully examined the layers of wallpaper and paint inside the home, ahead of the plaster being stripped off, to identify the paint colours or types of papers used in the original decorations. This meant that any replacement interior finishes could be carefully matched to these originals.
An interesting discovery made during the restoration was that the kitchen dresser in the basement was firmly built into the party wall, and was therefore an original fitting of the house.
Here’s what else you can see on a tour of the birthplace museum.
Parlour or Withdrawing Room
Beneath the window is a late 18th century painted beech-wood sofa in the Adam style. The madder-coloured velvet with which it is covered is original – although it has been restored. To the right of the sofa is a fine mahogany sofa table of similar date.
To the left of the doorway is a chiffonier – bookshelves with a mirrored back extending above the main horizontal surface which also carries two additional shelves. The piece was made in about 1810 of rosewood with brass fittings. Above the fireplace is a mirrored and gilt overmantel; the decorative frieze showing an allegory of Victory being pulled in a chariot by four lions. Its design was based on a similar piece by John Flaxman.
The bureau bookcase to the right of the fireplace dates from the middle of the 18th century and is a fine piece, made from oak.
The furniture is completed by a cane-seated bergere armchair, a fire screen and a torchere bearing an oil lamp – all dating from about 1800 to 1810. The pottery and glass are all of good quality, but attention should perhaps be drawn to the fine Sheffield Plate teapot, salver and wine coasters. These also date from 1810.
The modern curtains are an 18th century design in glazed chintz and the colour of the wallpaper is similar to the original decoration.
The table, dining chairs and sideboard are all in the Sheraton style and were made in about 1800. The oak dresser, to the right of the doorway, dates back fifty years earlier and is stained to imitate mahogany, the fashionable wood of that period.
The pottery in this room is a little more utilitarian than that in the parlour, but most of the glass is of equal quality and dates from 1800 to 1810.
Attention is again drawn to the fine Sheffield Plate, this time a tea tray carrying a tea service and a matching coffee pot made by Matthew Boulton in about 1810.
The curtains and wallpaper are modern but based on originals suitable for the period and status of the house. The carpets in both the parlour and the dining room were specially woven for the house, based on 18th century designs.
This is the room in which Charles Dickens was born. This event is commemorated by a small notice and a nineteenth-century bust of the author in Parian ware, a type of unglazed pottery.
The dominant piece of furniture in this room is the four-post bed of 1810, with a fairly common design featuring an arched canopy. It is made of oak except for the carved mahogany columns at the foot. The patchwork bedspread was made in about 1870. There’s also a pine cradle, from the 18th century.
Near the doorway is a high, two-part chest of drawers (tallboy) with fluted corners, dating from about 1750 and in the style of Thomas Chippendale. Two finely made smaller chests, the square washstand and towel horse were all made around 1800; the toilet glass is of a slightly later date.
Birthplace Museum Collection
The most important item directly connected with Charles Dickens which the museum possesses is the couch on which he died at Gad’s Hill Place on 9 June 1870. Thus, the museum symbolises both the beginning and the end of this great writer.
The couch was presented to the museum in 1909 by Georgina Hogarth, Charles Dickens’ sister-in-law and executrix. In addition to two simple bentwood chairs also from Gad’s Hill Place, the collection is formed by a number of cheques and letters written by Dickens, together with a few personal items.
The museum also has items connected with Dickens’ friends and acquaintances. Among these is a work-box which was owned and partly made by Mrs Mary Ann Cooper – who was Dickens’ model for Little Dorrit in the novel of the same name.
Further, the museum collections are rich in pictorial material. These include photographs and paintings of Charles Dickens and buildings with which he was connected, and a great number of illustrations of the characters who appear in his books. Perhaps the most interesting original painting is a watercolour by Clarkson Stanfield of Elizabeth Dickens dating back to around 1845.
The museum collections contain many examples of work by artists who illustrated the original and subsequent editions of his books – as well as those who produced the additional illustrations which have been published from time to time.
These illustrations formed an integral part of the books; the comedy was essentially of a visual nature and artists such as ‘Phiz’ have done much to help create the images we have today of Dickens’ world. A selection of works from the collection is always shown in the display gallery on the upper floor of the museum.