For lovers of antiques and the decorative arts, there are few better places in the world to visit than London.
Of course, it has its superstar attractions: the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London’s pre-eminent museums of important artefacts and design, attract nearly eight million visitors per year between them.
But London also has a rich vein of lesser known – but equally impressive – collections of furniture and decorative arts. Unlike museums, many of the pieces in these collections are preserved in their original settings: that is, in the house for which they were first acquired.
The following is a run-down of the finest antiques collections currently open to the public. All of them have been chosen because they offer a rare opportunity to see antiques in their original interior settings.
From West to East, and from medieval palaces to Art Deco mansions, these are the best antique interiors in London.
Osterley Park And House
The Neoclassical interior of Osterley House. © MCAD Library via Flickr
We start with our westernmost location: Osterley Park and House. This stunning Neoclassical mansion was first bought in 1711 by Francis Child, the director of the English East India Company, then one of the most powerful banking and trading businesses in the world.
It was because of the Child family’s deep connections with global trade and the British Empire that the collection they were able to build was unparalleled in its breadth.
As directors of the East India trading Company, the Childs had access to porcelain from China, fabrics from India, and jewels from the Middle East.
One important item on display at Osterley House is a tapestry from the renowned Gobelins Factory in Paris, decorated with an image drawn specially by famed Rococo artist Francois Boucher.
Marble Hill House
The Great Room at Marble Hill House. © English Heritage
Built in the early 18th Century, Marble Hill House was originally designed as a retreat for King George II’s famous mistress, Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk.
Marble Hill House was one of the most fashionable Georgian buildings of its day, with a fine collection of early Georgian furniture and, significantly, a particularly fine collection of chinoiserie pieces.
Although today most of the collection has been sold and therefore dispersed, there are a few important pieces which have either remained in the house or have been returned to it subsequently.
A highlight of the collection today includes an exquisite Chinese lacquer and hardstone screen dating from around 1735.
Syon Park And House
The Long Gallery at Syon House. © Grahamec via Wikimedia Commons
Syon Park and House is one of a string of impressive Neoclassical palaces in west London which includes Osterley Park and Marble Hill House, as well as Chiswick House, Ham House and Strawberry Hill House.
Like Osterley, Syon House was designed by the pre-eminent architect of the Neoclassical style in Britain, Robert Adam (1728-1792).
Indeed, Syon is often said to be one of the first great examples of English Neoclassical architecture, even though it uses elements from a range of different styles, including Romantic, Baroque and Gothic.
Adam planned and designed the house in the 1760s for the Duke of Northumberland, whose family who has owned the estate ever since.
Highlight of its furniture collection include a precious early-18th Century secretaire by Andre-Charles Boulle.
The real attraction of the house, however, is Adam’s sculptural and stucco work on the walls and ceilings which make the interiors one of the most dramatic and striking in London.
Emery Walker’s House at 7 Hammersmith Terrace
The Dining Room at 7 Hammersmith Terrace. Note the Morris & Co wallpapers and Victorian style furniture. © The Emery Walker Trust
7 Hammersmith Terrace is, from the outside, an otherwise unassuming home in west London, but which contains one of London’s most fascinating interiors.
It formerly belonged to the typographer, photographer and printer Emery Walker, a leading figure in the late 19th Century Arts & Crafts Movement, and a close friend of the author, artist and utopian thinker William Morris.
The Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction to the sudden growth in mass-produced industrial goods, and emphasised traditional craftsmanship and utility over ornamentation and machine production. It was enormously popular with the newly-enriched middle classes of the period.
Emery Walker’s house is regarded as the best preserved original Arts and Crafts interior in Britain, decorated throughout with wallpapers produced by William Morris’s company, 18th Century English furniture, and Chinese and North African ceramics.
Particularly notable is the collection of late 19th Century English porcelain produced by the Wedgwood company.
Leighton House and Museum
The magnificent Arab Hall at Leighton House. © Will Pryce
Our next stop is another wonderful late-19th Century interior, this time owned by the artist and aristocrat Frederic Lord Leighton (1830-1896).
Leighton – something of an eccentric – had his fabulous home in Holland Park built as an art studio, but it grew over time to house his ever-expanding art collection.
The collection was acquired from all over the globe, but especially from Leighton’s travels in the Middle East, where he became enamoured with Oriental art and design.
The clear influence of Arabic decoration can be felt all over the house, but particularly in the house’s magnificent entertaining room, the ‘Arab Hall’ (pictured above).
Sadly, most of Leighton’s collection was dispersed following his death in 1896. Over the next 100 years, however, the museum has made a concerted effort to re-acquire many of these pieces, as well as to collect Leighton’s own original artworks.
There have been some major successes, including, in 1997, the return of an inlaid cabinet-on-stand which disappeared following the 1896 sale.
Still, the major attractions of this astonishing house museum are the bold, striking interiors.
The drawing room at 18 Stafford Terrace. © Kevin Moran Photography
Just around the corner from Leighton House is an altogether different type of Victorian interior. 18 Stafford Terrace used to be the home of Edward Linley Sambourne, a cartoonist at the iconic 19th Century British satirical magazine Punch.
Sambourne owned it from 1875, and decorated the house in what we would now call an ‘Aesthetic’ style. The décor is a curious but striking mix of Georgian and Victorian furniture, Arts and Crafts wallpaper, Oriental porcelain and Middle Eastern tapestries.
A particularly important influence on the Aesthetic style, and on Sambourne’s house, was Japanese art and craft, which was enormously popular in the 1870s and 1880s. There is, for example, an important Japanese lacquer desk in the drawing room, together with an embroidered Japanese fire screen and Japanese woodblock prints all over the walls.
But alongside these Eastern influences, there are more standard European pieces: a fine Boulle clock on the mantelpiece, for example, and a number of Renaissance style bronze figures dotted throughout the house.
Sambourne’s aim in creating his ‘Aesthetic’ interior was to put an ‘exotic’ twist on traditional Victorian décor.
One of the display cabinets at Fenton House, showing some of the collection of 18th Century Meissen figures. © PictureThisuk.org
We head north for the next stop in our tour of the best antiques and interiors in London, to the charming district of Hampstead.
Fenton House is unusual for a stately home in that, in comparison to many of its peers, it appears rather modest from first sight. Moreover, almost nothing is known about the family who first owned it in the 17th Century, nor about the architect who designed it.
It was only from the 1790s that the house started to become important in terms of art and antiques, when it was purchased by the Fentons, an important family of Baltic merchants. It was at this time that the house acquired its current name, Fenton House.
The Fentons built up a reasonable collection of 18th Century European furniture and decorative arts, much of which remains preserved in the house’s current interior.
It was not, however, until the 1920s that the house gained its finest pieces. Bought by Lady Binning, an avid art collector, Fenton House was soon filled with a sizeable collection of 18th Century porcelain, including pieces by Meissen, Sevres, and Royal Worcester, as well as a wide range of Chinese blue-and-white ceramics.
Upon her death in 1952, Lady Binning left her entire vast collection to the National Trust, which now maintains Fenton House.
It’s because of this extraordinary bequest that this unusual house in a quiet corner of North London has one of the finest collections of porcelain on display in the capital.
The Robert Adam Library in Kenwood House, Hampstead. © English Heritage
17th Century mansion Kenwood House benefits from its enviable location at the top of Hampstead Heath.
But as well as exceptional views across the whole city, the house boasts an impressive collection of art and antiques.
Its owner in the late 18th Century, the Third Earl of Mansfield, was a renowned collection of Boulle and Boulle-style pieces; and the house contains a selection of French furniture and clocks, an impressive chinoiserie fireplace, and a large collection of portrait miniatures.
Though a house clearance auction in 1922 resulted in the important sale of much of the best furniture, a sustained restoration effort in the years since has led to many of the originals being returned to their former home.
The Wallace Collection
The Billiards Room at Hertford House, home of the Wallace Collection. © M.Chohan via Wikimedia Commons
The Wallace Collection at Hertford House in Manchester Square in London is perhaps the best-known of all the house museums in London, and is home to perhaps the finest individual collection of 18th Century French decorative arts in the UK.
The house was the London residence of the first four Marquesses of Hertford in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and was finally left, in the late 19th Century, to the 4th Marquess’s illegitimate son Richard Wallace.
The Hertfords, particularly the 3rd and 4th Marquesses, were famously avid art collectors, and purchased vast amounts of art and antiques on their trips to France.
Many of these pieces were newly for sale following the upheavals of the French Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.
As a result, the collection contains furniture by Boulle, Riesener, Oeben, and Cressent, paintings by Boucher, and porcelain by Sevres, all arranged as it would have been laid out nearly 200 years ago. It’s a must visit for anyone with even a passing interest in the decorative arts.
Apsley House on Hyde Park Corner, seen from the outside. © Elliott Brown via Flickr
This beautiful Georgian palace had the honour for many years of having the (unofficial) address of ‘Number 1 London’. Situated on Hyde Park Corner, then the major toll road into central London, Apsley House was for years the first major landmark for anyone approaching London from the West.
Like many of the 18th Century estates on this list, Apsley House was the brainchild of Neoclassical architect Robert Adam. By 1807 the house belonged to Richard Wellesley, brother of the Duke of Wellington Arthur Wellesley.
It was when Arthur purchased the house from his brother in 1817 that Apsley acquired its magnificent collection, almost all of which is still on display there.
Most of the pieces in the collection were gifts to the Duke following his famous victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
These included paintings from the Spanish Royal Collection, sculptures by Antonio Canova, and a personalised Meissen porcelain dessert service.
Perhaps the most spectacular piece at Apsley House is the ‘Portuguese Service’, an exquisitely-crafted silver-gilt dinner service which contains over 1,000 individual pieces.
Spencer House, Painted Room. © Spencer House. Photography: Mike Fear.
Spencer House in St James is yet another fine example of English Neoclassical architecture in London.
Today it’s the home of the Earl Spencer (brother of Princess Diana), but the interiors were first completed in the 1760s by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart (1713-1788), before being updated by Henry Holland (1745-1806). Both men were famed architects, and heavily associated with the development of Neoclassicism in England.
The building changed hands over the course of the 19th and 20th Century, including a long stretch between the Second World War and 1985 when it was used as offices.
It’s thanks to a seriously ambitious restoration project, financed by the Rothschild Foundation, that most of the original interiors have been uncovered and returned to their former Neoclassical grandeur.
2 Temple Place
The stained glass windows and Gothic style carvings inside Two Temple Place. © Garry Campbell-Hall via Flickr
The house at 2 Temple Place was completed in 1895, for William Waldorf Astor, a member of what was then the richest family in the world.
The Astors had made their fortune from the American shipping industry in the 18th Century; and William Waldorf Astor, upon deciding to have a London residence built, gave his architect, John Loughborough Pearson, an unlimited budget to design this exceptional building.
Astor had a strong interest in the arts, and played a direct role in commissioning and designing the interior décor of the building, and had it designed in the Neo-Gothic and French Renaissance styles.
Some of the finest features of the building, for example, are the stunning stained glass windows around the main entrance halls.
The Wernher Collection at Ranger House
Items from the Wernher Collection on display at Ranger House. © English Heritage
Ranger House is a stylish Georgian villa located in the beautiful surroundings of Greenwich Park. It's a pretty house from the exterior, but largely unremarkable: the true beauty of the house lies inside.
Ranger House is home to the Wernher Collection, a truly vast and unusual collection of art and antiques from all over the world.
The collection was built up in the late 19th Century by the South African diamond magnate Julius Wernher, and includes an astounding variety of different pieces, including medieval Limoges enamels, Renaissance bronzes, silverware and ivory, and 18th Century Sevres porcelain.
The entirety of the collection is currently on display at Ranger House, and has been largely untouched since it was first purchased.
Eltham Palace in Greenwich London, showing the 16th Century exterior together with the Art Deco entrace hall interior designed by Rolf Engstrom. © Nessy-Pic via Wikimedia Commons and Nathan Williams via Flickr
Our final stop is a true off-the-beaten-track gem, and quite unlike anywhere else in London. Eltham Palace is a medieval castle turned Art Deco wonderland, featuring rooms and furniture created by the most sought-after designers of the 1930s.
If you have ever wanted to know how to marry the new with the old in interior design, then look no further than Eltham Palace.
The palace was originally built in the Middle Ages as a royal residence, and was the house in which the young King Henry VIII grew up.
Over the centuries the house fell into decay, only to be revived in the 1930s by the 'eccentric millionaires' Stephen and Virginia Courtauld, who decked out the Tudor mansion with, among other features, a fabulous entrance hall designed by Swedish architect Rolf Engstromer and furniture by Italian designer Peter Malacrida.
Perhaps the highlight of the whole house is Virginia Courtauld’s bathroom, in which one wall is lined entirely with gold mosaic tiles.
Main image: Kenwood House. © English Heritage