New Tennyson museum marks the bicentenary of the poet's birth





Although Disraeli, Darwin, Lewis Carroll, Giuseppe Garibaldi and the Queen of Hawaii have been unable to accept the invitation to Lord Alfred Tennyson's birthday party today, his library on the Isle of Wight will again be full of distinguished guests talking of literature, science and art.

A private passion for Victorian art has given rise to a new museum at Farringford House, Tennyson's home of 40 years, opening today to mark the bicentenary of the birth of a giant of the Victorian literary scene. Furniture including his writing desk and chair, and portraits – by his friend GF Watts – of the poet, his wife and their sons, have come back to the house for the first time in over a century.

The poet laureate was an A-list celebrity of his day, hounded by fans. His works, including The Charge of the Light Brigade, Maud, In Memoriam and his Arthurian cycle, Idylls of the King, were read by millions, recited, painted, sung and dramatised. He moved to Isle of Wight in 1853 when he was so stalked that he could no longer work in London. But, everyone who was anyone followed him there – many as house guests – including politicians, painters, authors, scientists and royalty.

The house became a hotel in the early 20th century, owned at different times by both Thomas Cook of the travel firm, and Sir Fred Pontin of holiday camp fame. Older islanders, including the craftsman who restored pieces for the exhibition, remember bonfires in the grounds of surviving Victorian furniture, many commissioned by the Tennysons from trees on the estate.

The hotel was bought three years ago "on a whim, not a very well-thought-out business plan", by Martin Beisly, senior expert on Victorian painting at Christie's auction house, and his friend Rebecca Fitzgerald. Beisly was brought up on the Isle of Wight, but didn't start out particularly interested in poetry, never mind Tennyson or crumbling Victorian architecture. "I really came to Tennyson through painting. Wherever I looked at the painters I loved – Millais, Holman Hunt, Watts – I realised they were completely in awe of Tennyson. The house struck me as like a work of art, too, a painting in urgent need of sensitive restoration."

Beisly and Fitzgerald spent the winter making the building watertight, before restoring the extension the Tennysons had added to make a party room and a library – with a staircase concealed in the corner so he could flee visitors. The extension was designed by another Tennyson worshipper, the architect of the Natural History Museum in London, Alfred Waterhouse.

The library has been restored to museum display standards, and will house regular exhibitions. With curator Veronica Franklin Gould, an expert on the period, they have secured major loans from national collections, including the Watts Gallery in Compton and the Tennyson study centre in Lincoln, which holds the family archives. The paintings, letters and photographs by his next-door neighbour, the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron – who kidnapped his most distinguished guests – give a vivid impression of the life of the house...

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