STEPHEN, Sir Leslie (1832-1904)
Plaque erected in 1960 by London County Council at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington, London, SW7 5DH, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
Journalism and Publishing, Literature
SIR LESLIE STEPHEN 1832-1904 Scholar and writer lived here
Sir Leslie Stephen was the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, editor of the Cornhill Magazine (1871–82) and a noted scholar and essayist. He encouraged the work of many young writers of the time, including Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stephenson and Henry James, and was father to the novelist Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) and the artist Vanessa Bell (1879–1961).
HYDE PARK GATE
Stephen’s connection with Hyde Park Gate was long-standing. He was born at number 42 and returned to number 20 in the same street (then 11 Hyde Park Gate South) in June 1876 following the death of his first wife, Harriet (Minny), the daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray. Two doors away at number 22 (formerly 13) lived Julia Duckworth (1846–95), a widow. Stephen’s friendship with her blossomed and they married in spring 1878.
It was at number 22 that they set up house together, and where in 1904 Stephen died. They had a two-storey upward extension built, which contained Stephen’s book-lined study on the fourth floor and extra accommodation above. Seven maids were crammed into the ‘dark insanitary’ basement, according to the Stephens’ daughter, the future Virginia Woolf.
Virginia, like her sister Vanessa, was born in a first-floor bedroom here. Later, with their brothers Thoby (1880–1906) and Adrian (1883–1948), Virginia and Vanessa produced a family newspaper, the Hyde Park Gate News. The sisters now have unofficial plaques at the address.
MOUNTAINEERING AND PUBLISHING
Stephen was a skilled mountaineer, and his first book was a 1861 translation of a German work, The Alps. By 1871 he had written enough essays on mountaineering to publish them as The Playground of Europe. President of the Alpine Club and editor of the Alpine Journal from 1865 to 1868, he recorded many first Alpine ascents and was described as having ‘walked from peak to peak like a pair of one-inch compasses over a large-sized map’.
While editing the literary journal the Cornhill Magazine, Stephen encouraged many new writers, including Henry James, Robert Louis Stephenson, WG Henley and Edmund Gosse, but it was his relationship with Thomas Hardy that proved most fruitful. In 1874 he commissioned his novel Far from the Madding Crowd and published it as a serial in 12 instalments.
DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY
In 1876, Stephen published his History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, which established his reputation as an expert on the period, and his subsequent biographies of Samuel Johnson (1878) and Alexander Pope (1880) revealed his talents as a biographer. It may have been these achievements that led to his appointment as editor of the Dictionary of National Biography on its foundation in 1882.
The editorship proved an enormous challenge. ‘I am … on my treadmill [and have] been dragged into the damnable thing by fate like a careless workman passing moving machinery’, he wrote to Edmund Gosse. However, the first volume was published in 1885 to great critical acclaim.
By the time he resigned in 1891, Stephen had edited 26 volumes, and he continued to contribute biographies to the Dictionary – a total of 283 were signed by him. He was knighted in 1902, and died at 22 Hyde Park Gate on 22 February 1904.