Ever since 1874, when the embankment was completed that removed forever the mud flats, tree-shaded shoreline and country lanes of this bankside community along the Thames, Chelsea has been populated by artists, writers and those of a bohemian bent. It is not primarily a residential district of stately houses, but rather one of nineteenth- and twentieth-century terrace houses, cottages and flats, with bustling streets filled with antique shops and boutiques crowded in between.
Cromwell Road and Cromwell Place
Our walk begins on the north border of Chelsea, across from the Victoria and Albert Museum, where the bus stops on the corner of Cromwell Road and Cromwell Place.
Residence of Sir Charles James Freake
21 Cromwell Road
This fine corner house, which is now the French Consulate, was the home of a builder and patron of the arts called "the cleverest of all the speculating builders" of his time. Freake was not clever enough, however, to make Lillie Langtry receptive to the Prince of Wales's first seduction attempt at an amorous assignation in his house.
Freake lived in the imposing residence he had built in 1860 with his wife and daughter, three female relations, a butler, two footmen and seven other servants. By arranging nefarious financial favours, he had managed to obtain the patronage of the Prince of Wales, who sometimes attended musical and theatrical performances staged in the great ballroom of the house.
After the prince had been introduced to Lillie, she was astonished a short time later to be taken aside by the heavy-handed Mr. Freake and informed that the prince was interested in paying his respects to her in the privacy of the Freake mansion. The date was set and the appointment kept, but unlike other ladies summoned by the prince, Lillie cunningly postponed the actual seduction, allowing time for the prince to become acquainted with her more enduring charms. This ingenious strategy may have been responsible for her ascension to the position of his first officially recognized royal mistress.
The son of a coal merchant and publican, Freake was granted a baronetcy in 1882, some years after he had built, at his own cost, the National Training School for Music (now the Royal College of Organists) in 1875 and made his mansion available for other princely assignations. The prince was particularly interested in the school and, according to Gladstone's political secretary, had "persistently and somewhat questionably [if not fishily] pressed Freake's name on the prime minister"; hence the reward of the title.
2. Residence of Sir John Everett Millais
7 Cromwell Place
This artist, who ranks among England's greatest, lived here early in his career, while he was struggling for recognition, along with fellow Pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. When Millais learned that he could do better by painting in a more popular mode, he quietly drifted away from his colleagues' philosophical approach and produced the kind of paintings the public wanted to see. It paid off handsomely. He soon built a much grander abode in Kensington. We shall pick up his story again there.
At the south end of Cromwell Place, turn into Thurloe Square, a short block to the east on Thurloe Street.
3. Residence of the Edmund Maghlin Blood Family
46 Thurloe Square
It was when she lived in this house with her parents, the Bloods, that their daughter Gertrude became engaged to marry Lord Colin Campbell. Although a well-respected family, the Bloods lived a relatively quiet life and were not household names in London until the notorious divorce trial of their daughter, after she had become Lady Colin Campbell. Lord Colin had postponed the wedding twice due to health problems, and then finally demanded a prenuptial agreement, stating that Gertrude would be prepared to nurse him until his doctor gave permission to consummate the marriage. The Bloods had every reason to suspect foul play. Still, when Gertrude's father asked Lord Colin point-blank if he had that "loathsome" disease, he claimed it was only a fistula. In Victorian times such delicate matters were not discussed.
Gertrude was eager for the marriage, and her mother no less so, possibly because it presented an opportunity for her daughter to move into the aristocracy. Lord Colin's father, the Duke of Argyll, plainly opposed the match, wishing a more auspicious mate for his son and heir. The marriage appeared doomed from the start. Nevertheless the Bloods stood by their daughter throughout the trial and lived in seclusion when it was over.
You will notice windows which have been bricked in on the exposed side of this corner house, as well as on others. This resulted from a "window tax" once levied on home owners. To reduce taxes, residents blocked in unnecessary windows. Later, when the tax was removed, many preferred the interior wall space to windows, and left them blocked. Retrace your steps to Cromwell Place and proceed south to Onslow Square.
4. Residence of William Makepeace Thackeray
36 Onslow Square
After his children were teenagers, the famous novelist moved to this charming square with its Georgian houses graced by white-columned porticoes supporting balconies. It was here that he completed his classic novel, The Virginians. The dramatic stone steeple of St. Paul's Onslow Square Church creates a striking focal point for the lovely garden around which the square is built. In 1862 Thackeray's health was failing and he moved back to Kensington. We shall visit an earlier house he had built and learn more about his life on the Kensington walk.
William Makepeace Thackeray
Pass through Onslow Square to Onslow Gardens.
5. Residence of James Anthony Froude
5 Onslow Gardens
Historian and man of letters, Froude met Thomas Carlyle in 1849 and became a frequent visitor to his Chelsea home. He shared Carlyle's ideas. "If I wrote anything," he confessed, "I fancied myself writing to him, reflecting at each word on what he would think of it as a check on affectations." He was Carlyle's literary executor and wrote a full and frank biography of him. His reputation as one of the great masters of English prose in the nineteenth century was established with the publication of his twelve-volume A History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth. This work brought him to the attention of London society and until his death in 1894, he made his home at Onslow Gardens.
Now walk south on Old Church Street, which extends from the centre of Onslow Gardens, and follow it to Mulberry Walk. En route, at 125 Old Church Street, you will pass a charming house with a large front studio, built at the turn of the century by ceramist William de Morgan and his artist-wife Evelyn. Some of his rich tiles enhance the fanciful Leighton House museum we shall visit on the Kensington walk.
Turn right off Old Church Street onto Mulberry Walk, a short, charming thoroughfare of cottage-type houses with leaded window muntins and little gardens. Note the interesting old sundial atop the Victorian house at number 23. Then turn left onto The Vale.
6. Residence of James A. McNeill Whistler
For a short time around 1885, Whistler took a place here before moving to Cheyne Walk. The Vale is "an amazing place," he said. "You might be in the heart of the country, and there, two steps away, is the King's Road. Mine is the first on the right after you go through the iron gates."
It was part of Whistler's policy at this time to keep himself in the public eye, so many things were written about the Vale house and his friends. A description in the Court and Society Review on July 1, 1886 describes the house with plain whitewashed walls and unadorned wooden rafters, which partly form a loft for the stowing of canvases, pastels, etcetera: "Vast space is unencumbered by furniture and a large table-palate gives the appearance of a serious working place. Whistler paints in a velvet coat and embroidered smoking cap or black clothes of his ordinary wear, straight from the street to his easel."
In his studio in The Vale, Whistler painted a full-length portrait of Walter Sickert, a favourite pupil and one of his cleverest disciples. He also painted several portraits of Mrs. Godwin, the wife of the architect who had designed his beloved "White House," whom he was destined to marry in August 1888, a little over a year following her husband's death.
It was after his marriage, and to escape lingering memories of Maud, a former model and mistress, that Whistler and his bride left The Vale and moved to Tower House on Tite Street. The new place was in such disorder from the hasty marriage and move that he ordered the wedding breakfast sent in from the Cafe Royal.
Walk a short distance along The Vale and then turn left (east) onto Mallord Street, another "old English" atmospheric street, with colourful window boxes and individually designed, freestanding houses.
7. Residence of Augustus John
24 Mallord Street
This colourful Welsh artist is celebrated today for his portraits of notable people, among them Bernard Shaw and Thomas Hardy. Resembling a great and grand figure from the Old Testament, he was a popular character around Chelsea and liked by Wilde. Considered a "bohemian," he lusted and drank to excess, but was careful never to use profanity. A number of the portraits he painted now hang in the National Portrait Gallery.
John also resided for a time at 33 Tite Street.
8. Residence of A.A. Milne
13 Mallord Street
This red-brick house, with its curlicue wrought-iron fence, flagstone entrance and leaded windows, is what one might expect to find as the residence of the author of Winnie-the-Pooh. Milne took up free-lance journalism after obtaining a degree at Cambridge. His light, witty style was at home in the pages of Punch, and in 1906 he became assistant editor. The stage comedies he wrote in 1920 and 1921-Mr. Pim Passes By and The Truth about Gladys Blayds - established his reputation, although he was always peevish that critics didn't regard him as a heavyweight. His son Christopher Robin inspired the world of Winnie-the-Pooh and its sequels.
Probably the best line Milne ever came up with occurred on his deathbed, when he observed, "My exit is the result of too many entrees."
Turn right to King's Road and follow it in an eastward direction. This street acquired its name when it was a private royal way from Hampton Court to St. James's until 1801.
9. Residence of Ellen Terry and James Carew
215 Kings Road
In 1902 Ellen Terry moved from South Kensington to Chelsea, but unhappiness followed her here. She had finished her last provincial tour with Henry Irving and had begun acting with her own company, assisted by her son Teddy, until he suddenly disappeared. When she next heard from him, he was in Germany and in love with Isadora Duncan, the eccentric originator of modern dance, whose life ended so dramatically in the south of France when her long scarf got caught in the wheels of an open car and choked her to death.
Teddy was married when he met Isadora Duncan, so the relationship was doomed from the start. They had a daughter, Deidre, born after Teddy had returned to his wife in London for the birth of their son. Isadora never stopped suffering over her loss of Teddy and wrote disturbing letters to Ellen. Compounding Ellen's distress over the situation, her granddaughter's life ended tragically while she was still an infant. She was riding in a car in Paris with her half brother Patrick when the car plunged out of control into the Seine. They both drowned.
In 1907 Ellen married James Carew, a young American actor who had come to the London stage a year earlier to forward his career. Ellen took Carew to America as her leading man and they were secretly married in Pittsburgh. Upon hearing of their marriage, G.B. Shaw, now safely married himself, said, "There, but for the grace of God, goes Bernard Shaw."
When Terry and Carew returned to London, they lived together in her Chelsea house. Carew loved her as much as any man in his thirties could love a beautiful woman pushing sixty, but recurrent rows and reconciliations, along with her daughter's rejection of him, doomed the marriage. Eventually they separated, but remained friends and never divorced.
Around the corner from Terry lived Charles Kingsley, who wrote The Water Babies, a classic read by every Victorian youngster. Continue along King's Road to Oakley Street and turn right. Follow Oakley Street south to Oakley Gardens.
10. Residence of Lady "Speranza" Wilde and Willie Wilde
87 Oakley Street
After several moves Lady Wilde finally settled here until she died in 1895. She was, perhaps, fonder of Willie than of Oscar, as Willie lived with her before and between his marriages. Willie was tall, bulky, bearded, vivacious, and so entertaining that one wealthy old lady paid him an annual salary of three hundred pounds just to visit her every afternoon and keep her amused for several hours. When he wasn't thus occupied, he worked as a journalist.
Unfortunately his Irish charm proved his undoing. A wealthy American widow, who had inherited a popular periodical, met him in London and decided that, as her husband, he would be a valuable asset to her journal. They married and immediately set sail for America. To her consternation, his ideas of marriage differed from hers. She had anticipated a quiet domestic life, but when they landed on the other side of the Atlantic, Willie couldn't understand why, since she was so rich, he should be expected to work. What America sadly lacked, he observed, was a leisure class - something he intended to rectify. While she sat home pining, he enjoyed jolly evenings with the boys-and sometimes the girls. Finally she divorced him. "He was of no use to me either by day or night," she told reporters.
Willie came home to Mama. Now Oscar was at the height of his fame - successful, in demand socially. Oscar had everything; Willie had nothing except a second-rate job on one of the newspapers. He took every opportunity to dig at his brother, even writing a disparaging notice of Lady Windermere's Fan, the hit show of the season. Oscar, although a little put out, simply shrugged and said, "After a good dinner one could forgive anybody, even one's own relations."
In 1894 Willie sobered up long enough to take another chance at marriage, this time to a pleasant woman named Lily Lees. It grieved Lady Wilde that so much enmity existed between her two sons, and she begged them to make up, to no avail. And then came a day between the infamous trials when no hotel would accept Oscar, and he, too, came home to Mama.
This was Willie's hour. His famous brother, fortune's darling, who had on occasion demonstrated his contempt for Willie's drunken habits and disreputable friends, was now at his mercy. Not one to let bygones be bygones, Willie sanctimoniously remarked, "Thank God my vices are decent ones!"
After Oscar's fall Lady Wilde went into seclusion, bearing his disgrace as if all Ireland were defying the universe in the person of her second-born son. Everyone else who knew and admired his talents urged him to escape before he went to trial. Money was presented and a yacht placed at his disposal, but Wilde could not be persuaded - perhaps due to his mother. "If you stay, even if you go to prison, you will always be my son," she said. "It will make no difference to my affection; but if you go, I will never speak to you again." She never spoke to him again in any event, as she passed away while he was in prison.
Wilde was in Switzerland recovering from his years in prison when he heard of his brother Willie's death in 1898 - at the same time that he heard of the artist Beardsley's. Wilde suffered deeply over Beardsley's talent being snuffed at such an early age, but could not bring himself to mourn for his brother.
At Upper Cheyne Row turn off of Oakley Street and follow it the short distance to Cheyne Row.
11. Residence of George Gissing
33 Oakley Gardens
This controversial novelist lived in sometimes-shabby, sometimes-genteel poverty all of his life. His ill fortune was of his own making. He first married a prostitute who died, then another working-class girl, and he spent the last five years of his life living with Gabrielle Fleury, who translated his novels into French. He died in France in 1903.
While living in Chelsea, he wrote The Unclassed, a novel about exiles from society, a group with which he strongly identified. He would have received little sympathy from Wilde. "Misfortunes one can endure - they come from outside, they are accidents. But to suffer for one's own faults - Ah! - there is the sting of life," Wilde wrote in Lady Windermere's Fan.
Retrace your steps north on Oakley Street.
12. Residence of Thomas Carlyle
24 Cheyne Row
Known as the "Sage of Chelsea," Carlyle moved here in 1834 and remained until he died. His house had been built in the early eighteenth century, and Carlyle found it "a right old strong roomy brick house, likely to see three races of the modern fashionable fall before it comes down." But Cheyne Row became increasingly busy, and he found the noise unbearable when he was trying to write; it even seeped in through the double walls he had constructed for his attic study. Jane, his wife, was knocked down by a cab in 1863 and died three years later. His niece, Mary Aitken, and her husband went to look after him for the last sad- and-silent fifteen years of his life. Like many famous writers, he shunned social life, once writing to his father, "Plenty of people come about us; but we go out little to anything like parties, and never to dinners; or anywhere willingly, except for profit." The house has been restored and now belongs to the National Trust, so it is open to the public.
Oscar Wilde's first trip to London, accompanied by his mother and brother Willie, was to celebrate his having passed the examination to win the Magdalen College demyship (scholarship) in classics. The trip resulted in visits to literary acquaintances of Lady Wilde's, so she could show off her brilliant son. They called upon Thomas Carlyle, whom Wilde later characterized as "a Rabelaisian moralist." However, after Carlyle's death, Oscar was proud to purchase his desk, expecting to find inspiration by using it.
Now continue south to Cheyne Walk (pronounced "chainy"), which runs perpendicular to Cheyne Row.
13. Cheyne Walk
This long, riverside walk is lined with houses overlooking picturesque bridges, and at the turn of the century was a haunt of London's most noted poets and painters. Today's poets might find it more difficult to hear "nature sing the exquisite song heard by artists alone" that so thrilled Whistler. We suggest this walk be scheduled for a Sunday, when traffic is reduced to a lull. If the day is foggy, all the better. Let your imagination concentrate on the scene of so many of Whistler's "impressions" and "nocturnes" as you listen to his words: ". . . when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, fairyland is before us." Others besides Whistler captured Cheyne Walk's beauty, and consequently Chelsea became the centre for an artist colony.
Battersea Bridge, an iron structure erected in 1890 which crosses the river at the end of Beaufort Street, replaced the picturesque old wooden bridge, which was a favourite subject with Whistler and other artists. The marvellous "cat's cradle" suspension bridge to the east is Albert Bridge, opened in 1873. On the corner of Cheyne Walk and Cheyne Row is King's Head and Eight Bells, a popular pub once favoured by neighbours Whistler, Greaves and Carlyle.
There were so many outstanding residents on Cheyne Walk that we suggest you turn right from Cheyne Row and walk westward to Battersea Bridge. Then turn back and retrace your path along Cheyne Walk, continuing on to its east end as far as Tite Street.
14. Residences of James A. McNeill Whistler
101 and also 96 Cheyne Walk
This great American artist first took lodging here in 1862 while doing illustrations for Once a Week. Cocky and opinionated, he demonstrated right from the beginning a talent for alienating friends. A female admirer once asked him whether he thought genius was hereditary. "I cannot tell you, madam," he replied. "Heaven has granted me no offspring."
Only the road separated his house from the river, and he often painted the Thames from his window. Two doors from Whistler lived Greaves, a boat builder Whistler often used as a model, whose two sons would take him out in a boat any hour, day or night, to paint on the Thames.
A neighbour meeting Whistler on Cheyne Walk one day enthused, "I just came up from the country this morning along the Thames and there was an exquisite haze in the atmosphere which reminded me so much of some of your little things. It was really a perfect series of Whistlers."
"Yes, madam," Whistler responded gravely. "Nature is catching up."
He was the first artist to do night paintings. Mr. Leyland, a patron, suggested the name "nocturne." Whistler painted them for many years, but most were painted from his window. It was here that he resolved for himself that a painting should be a pattern of line and colour independent of subject matter-not because it told a story or appeared lifelike, but because it was a thing of sheer beauty-a concept which differed from the current school of thinking in regard to art. He was very outspoken in his opinion that the detailed realism of Pre-Raphaelism was on the wane: "An artist should look at a flower not with the enlarging lens, that he may gather facts for the botanist, but with the light of the one who sees choice selections of brilliant tones and delicate tints, suggestions of future harmonies."
James A. McNeill Whistler
Whistler had no real studio at this time, but created his Japanese-type paintings in a modest, little second-story back room. Paint was laid on thickly at first, but later more subtly. He was thrilled to finally sell one of his new paintings, until the buyer objected to his huge signature across its bottom. When he refused to change it, the sale fell through, although someone else soon bought it. Whistler never admitted defeat on the signature issue, but soon afterward he started interlacing his initials, Japanese fashion, into a more refined oblong or circular frame. Gradually the design evolved into a butterfly in silhouette and continued in various forms. Eventually the butterfly became the distinctive signature on all of his work, sometimes introduced into the design of a fabric or as a note of colour, often appearing as a piece of decoration. Soon he was using the butterfly along with his signature to sign letters and invitations, until finally he used only the butterfly. In his book, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, he used the butterfly as punctuation as well.
It was in 1864 that he painted The Little White Girl, which artists rank as one of the few great pictures of the world. Whistler painted her (his model and mistress, Jo) in a simple white gown, leaning against the mantel with her face reflected in the mirror. The room shows his blue-and-white Nankin china on the mantel. The girl holds a Japanese fan, and a spray of azaleas trails across her dress.
On a whim Whistler gave up his lodging to join with a group of friends, who left overnight to help fight an uprising in Valparaiso. After more misadventure than adventure, he returned to London in 1866 and moved into number 96 Cheyne Walk. This three-story house with an attic, part of a remodelled old palace, also looked onto the river.
On February 5, 1867 he threw a housewarming party. He had painted the dining room blue with a darker blue dado and doors, adding accents with purple Japanese fans tacked to the walls and ceilings. The beauty of the decor in all of Whistler's houses was its simplicity, an innovation when others were wavering between the riot of Victorian vulgarity and the overpowering opulence of Morris medievalism. He also had acquired a magnificent Chinese pagoda cabinet he was anxious to show off. (It is now displayed in the Leighton House museum in Kensington.)
In this house he continued to astound with his celebrated breakfasts. They began at 12:00 noon instead of 9:00 A.M. Nothing like them had ever been known in London. He sent invitations and arranged the table beautifully with his blue-and-white Nankin china, old silver, and a Japanese bowl of goldfish for a centrepiece. His menu was wholly bewildering to joint-loving Britons-the green corn and buckwheat cakes he sometimes called flapjacks were a sensation. Sometimes eighteen or twenty people sat down on packing cases, since he had only one chair, but more often he limited his guests to an exclusive eight or ten. Those invited were always distinguished royals or friends who were successful artists, actors and writers. Sometimes he would read out two or three stories of Bret Harte's - "The Luck of Roaring Camp," or "The Outcasts of Poker Flat." He also liked to recite Mark Twain's haunting jingle about the tramcar:
Punch-punch-punch with care
Punch in the presence of the passenger (faire)
He was constantly in debt, and had bailiffs camped in his house, refusing to leave until paid. He fed them and ended up charming them into waiting table and helping out when he had guests, which was much of the time.
Whistler was a man who could never bear to be alone. His door was always open, and he liked to think that all doors were open to him. Lord Redesdale, who came to live on the Walk in 1875, said that Whistler was always running in and out, invited or not. At the same time a guest who once came to dinner in Whistler's house asked to stay overnight and remained for three years. He was a musician - a prince of parasites - but he amused Whistler and would accompany him on dark nights when he went out to paint his nocturnes.
Still, for all his hospitality, he was a snob. A notorious boor once approached him at a gathering and launched into conversation. "You know, Mr. Whistler, I passed your house last night ..."
"Thank you," interrupted Whistler, and moved away.
During this period Whistler's straitlaced mother arrived unexpectedly from America. As the coach delivered her, a friend at the window sounded the alarm. Whistler's mistress, Jo Heffernan, was hilariously evicted out the window while his mother was walking in the door. The poor lady suffered many trials. Once she came into his studio to find the parlour maid posing in "the all over!"
She was patient, though, and posed serenely on his only chair for the Arrangement in Gray and Black, better known today as "Whistler's Mother," which now hangs in the Louvre in Paris. In 1872, however, it was refused by the Royal Academy in London, until strong objections from one or two members forced the committee to reconsider. It finally was hung in a poor place where groups gathered to laugh at it, as they had earlier laughed at his nocturnes. It was the last time he ever showed at the Academy.
15. Residence of Walter Greaves
104 Cheyne Walk
Son of a boat builder employed by J.M.W. Turner to row him across the river, Walter Greaves and his brother Henry lived near Whistler and they became close friends. Having been exposed to working artists all their lives, the brothers studied with Whistler, hoping to improve their own mediocre talents. Walter once pointed out that there was a basic difference in their attitudes toward boats: "Mr. Whistler put his boats in wherever he wanted them, but we left them just where they were .... to Mr. Whistler, a boat was a tone, but to us it was always a boat." Walter Greaves spent most of his life in virtual obscurity, but a few of his paintings became quite well known. One hangs in the Tate Gallery.
16. Residence of Hillaire Belloc
107 Cheyne Walk
This prolific poet, historian and essayist, who was born in France, moved to Chelsea in 1900, after Wilde had departed. Paradoxically described by contemporaries as both a "riveting conversationalist" and as a "dirty, noisy figure, an opinionated supertramp," he and Wilde would probably not have had much in common. He professed to be an intimate friend of novelist G.K. Chesterton's, but mutual friends observed that Belloc failed to turn up when Chesterton was received into the Catholic church. He did, however, attend the requiem for Chesterton in Westminster Cathedral, and in the course of the mass managed to sell an exclusive obituary of his friend to four different editors.
17. Residence of Wilson Steer
109 Cheyne Walk
Steer painted in his first-floor drawing-room studio here, but most of his time was taken up with introducing the work of French impressionists to England. A bachelor, he was inordinately proud of his collections of pictures, antiques, coins, bronzes and Chelsea porcelain, which filled the house. He lived more quietly than most of the other artists in Chelsea. Walter Sickert, George Moore, John Singer Sargent and William Rothenstein formed his regular circle.
18. Residence of Joseph Mallord William Turner
118 Cheyne Walk
This beloved English artist, the critic John Ruskin's favourite painter, was called "that old amateur" by his jealous, competitive neighbour, Jimmy Whistler. Turner, who lived here under the name of Booth, captured the enchanting light, as did Whistler, in a painting of Battersea Bridge from his window. Turner's landscapes are the star attraction of London's Tate Gallery's Clore Wing, which houses the Turner bequest.
When you come to the embankment on Cheyne Walk, continue eastward alongside the parking lot. Note the old iron Victorian post-box which still collects mail for Chelsea residents.
19. Residence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne
16 Cheyne Walk
Rossetti, painter and poet, moved to Chelsea from Bloomsbury in 1862 and lived in this house he called "Queen's House" until he died. Earlier he had joined with John Everett Millais, Edward Coley Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt and others to found the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, typified by the sincerity in art which they believed had imbued the Italian painters before Raphael. In literature, especially in poetry, they made a similar attempt to follow nature and attend to the minutest details. Some of the best poetry of the time was printed in their journal, and a number of their paintings hang today in the Tate Gallery.
In 1860 Rossetti married his model, Elizabeth Siddal, whom he called "Guggums," but continued to see other women. After two years of marriage, Guggums gave up and killed herself with an overdose of laudanum. Rossetti was overwhelmed with grief. Many of his poems had been written for her. At the burial he wrapped the book containing the only copies of these poems in her long golden hair and consigned them to the grave. As the years passed, however, he began to think with regret of the poems, considering it was pointless to leave the finest work of his career to moulder in the grave. After much business to obtain permission, he had the grave opened and retrieved his book. Its contents were published in 1870 under the title Poems. It was very successful. After Guggums committed suicide, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Edward Burne Jones and George Meredith lived with him at different times.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
One day Rossetti announced that he wanted to buy an elephant. When asked what on earth for, he replied, "So I can teach it to wash the windows of my house," adding that then everyone would stare and say, "That elephant is washing the windows of the house in which lives Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the famous artist."
Any results of that novel idea are not recorded, but it didn't discourage Rossetti from filling his house and garden with other strange beasts-peacocks, a gazelle, a bull, monkeys, a Virginia owl, a Japanese salamander, hedgehogs and a sluggish pet wombat that came to the table to entertain guests. He used to talk to his bull. On one occasion the bull apparently took offence, pulled out his stake, and Rossetti barely escaped into his rear door, calling for his servant to come and tie up the beast. The servant was thoroughly exasperated. He'd gone about the house with peacocks tucked under his arms, he'd rescued an escaped armadillo from irate neighbours, and he had captured a monkey from the top of a chimney, but he was not about to tie up a mad bull.
He gave notice and resigned on the spot.
Whistler and Rossetti shared an interest in the spiritual, and their circle often held sťances at Queen's House. On one occasion a cousin of Whistler's from the American South, long dead, told him of an incident that nobody else could have known about. It alarmed Whistler to the extent that he gave up spiritualism because he was beginning to find it so engrossing that it was taking his time away from painting.
Whistler and Rossetti also shared an interest in things Japanese, which Whistler had been introduced to while studying in Paris. They haunted galleries in search of blue-and-white Nankin china and Japanese prints, with which Whistler decorated his house. It was he who started the craze in England for oriental bric-a-brac and purity in design, which gradually replaced the overcrowded Victorian decor, where price was the measure of quality.
Even though Whistler had little respect for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he and Rossetti remained neighbours and friends. On one occasion the feisty Whistler had engaged in a fracas with his brother-in-law in Paris, which had resulted in fisticuffs. On his return to London, he attended a dinner party given in his honour. Rossetti teased him with the following poem:
There's a combative artist named Whistler Who is, like his own hog-hairs, a bristler:: A tube of white lead
And a punch in the head
Offer varied attractions to Whistler.
The Pre-Raphaelite poet Algernon Charles Swinburne lived with Rossetti until he was taken in hand by his friend, Theodore Watts-Dunton, and moved to Putney Hill further out of the city. Swinburne was seriously ill from having led a dissipated life, and also suffered from a form of epilepsy.
When the poet laureateship fell vacant upon the death of Lord Alfred Tennyson, Swinburne was among the likely candidates to succeed him, but unlike the frustrated poetaster Sir Lewis Morris, he didn't take his chances seriously enough to campaign. (The eager Morris complained to Wilde, "It is a complete conspiracy of silence against me. What should I do?" "Join it," Wilde advised.) After a decorous period Queen Victoria appointed Alfred Austin.
Theodore Watts-Dunton, also a friend of the Pre-Raphaelites, had given up his career as a solicitor to become a critic, novelist and poet. He succeeded in stifling Swinburne's creative talents, but did satisfy some of the poet's more unusual desires. At The Pines, their house at Putney Hill, Swinburne liked to slide down the wooden banisters in order to experience the sheer pleasure of Watts-Dunton removing splinters from his posterior.
20. Residence of Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot)
4 Cheyne Walk
Born Mary Ann Evans, this novelist adopted a male name, believing that it would forward her career. She moved to Chelsea from Holly Lodge on the outskirts of London, where she had been living with a married man, the critic George Henry Lewes; thus she was a social outcast. She had written The Mill on the Floss there. Lewes died in 1878, and in 1880 George Eliot married John Cross, who, though twenty years her junior, had been an intimate friend of Lewes and herself. Cross took the lease on the Chelsea house before they married, but they spent only a short time there, as Eliot died in 1880. She had become a very wealthy woman in the 1870s after the success of Middlemarch and was acknowledged as one of the greatest novelists of the age.
Wilde once remarked that Eliot's style was cumbersome, but he didn't hesitate to poach her aphorism from Middlemarch: "Women are too poetical to be poets." Wilde's adaptation: "We Irish are too poetical to be poets; we are a nation of brilliant failures, but we are the greatest talkers since the Greeks."
Continue along the Chelsea Embankment to Tite Street and turn left. Like Cheyne Walk, Tite Street hosted a lively group of artists and writers, among them Augustus John, who lived at number 33 prior to moving to Mallord Street, and the frequent movers, Whistler and Wilde, both of whom had addresses here at various times.
21. Residence of Frank Miles and Oscar Wilde
3 Tite Street
Early in 1881 Wilde and Frank Miles quit their elegant quarters off the Strand at Salisbury Street and moved to Chelsea. Miles, who was supported by his father, a canon of the church, managed to coerce him into contributing enough cash to commission Edward Godwin, the architect who had done Whistler's White House, to redesign theirs on the same street. The design used interlocking rectangles of red and yellow brickwork, a roof covered in green slates, and windows with balconies. The result was an aesthetic pleasure. Wilde named it "Keats House," because two sisters named Skeates had occupied it before them, and Shelley House, occupied by a descendant of the poet, was just around the corner.
All went well for about a year; then Wilde published a small book of poems that shocked Miles's religious father to such an extent that he demanded Miles evict Wilde from the house. Since Miles was dependent upon the good canon for financial support, he acquiesced. The most shocking of the poems was "Charmides." Its theme was based on Wilde's memory of a classical Greek story about a young man embracing a statue of Aphrodite. Canon Miles was appalled. He considered the coupling with statues, suggested in the following lines, monstrous and sinful:
And nigher came, and touched her throat, and with hands violate
Undid the cuirass, and the crocus gown, And bared the breasts of polished ivory, Till from the waist the peplos falling down Left visible the secret mystery
Which no lover will Athena show,
The grand cool flanks, the crescent thighs, the bossy hills of snow.
An outraged Wilde retorted that his verse had larger purposes than to flatter the public. Moreover he had reason to suspect some hanky-panky between Miles and the very-young models he sometimes solicited-he was certainly suspicious enough to resent Miles's father's sanctimonious accusations of his immorality because of the poem. Wilde tore upstairs, flung his clothes into a large trunk, and tipped it over the banister, smashing an antique table. Then he swept out of the house, slammed the door, and never spoke to Miles again.
Some years later Miles's acts as a molester of children became public. He was arrested and later died in Brislington Asylum.
22. Residence of Constance and Oscar Wilde
34 Tite Street
Tite Street had not seen the last of Wilde. Some years later, flushed with success after his second American lecture tour and slightly richer, due to the dowry acquired by his marriage to Constance, the happy groom took a lease on number 34 Tite Street and commissioned architect E.W. Godwin and his friend Whistler to convert the interior of a commonplace Victorian house into a thing of beauty.
The walls of the dining room on the ground floor were white, blended with delicate tints of blue and yellow. The mantelpiece, carpet and chairs were also white. Wilde's study on the first floor had an Eastern flavour - oriental divans, Japanese prints, Moorish casements and numerous bookshelves. He only used this room for a smoking lounge, however, preferring to do his writing on the old Carlyle desk in a small downstairs room with buttercup walls, red-lacquered woodwork, a statue of Hermes and pictures by Monticelli and Simeon Solomon.
The drawing room was primarily Constance's domain. She chose faded brocades against a background of white and cream paint. Some of Whistler's Venetian studies lined the walls, and above a carved white mantelpiece was a huge gilt-copper bas-relief by Donaghue. On the opposite wall from it hung an oil portrait of Wilde by an American, Harper Pennington. Mounted on the ceiling were two many-hued Japanese feather fans, a typical Whistler accent.
Two sons were born to the Wildes - Cyril in 1885, and Vyvyan a year later. As time passed, Wilde spent less and less time at home. He once related to a friend how he had been telling his sons stories the night before about little boys who were naughty and made their mothers cry, and what dreadful things would happen to them unless they behaved better. "And do you know what one of them answered?" he marvelled to his friend. "He asked me what punishment would be reserved for naughty papas who did not come home till the early morning and made mothers cry far more!"
Before much more time had passed, he was caustically citing such epigrams as: "When one is in love, one begins by deceiving oneself, one ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls romance"; or, "In married life three is company and two is none."
23. Residence of John Singer Sargent
31 Tite Street
The famed American portrait painter and artist lived here for twenty-four years until he died, in this house that Whistler had occupied earlier. Sargent had studied painting in Florence and Paris. His first public success in England was Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, depicting children in a lovely garden lighting Japanese lanterns hung on trees. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887 and now hangs in the Tate Gallery.
Sargent became a royal academician ten years later, having gained an international reputation as a portrait painter. He was especially appreciated in Boston, where a number of his portraits hang on permanent exhibition. Among his celebrated portraits were one of Lady Londonderry, who dominated London society at the time, and Lord Ribbesdale's splendid likeness, that hung for many years on the stairway of Rosa Lewis's Cavendish Hotel in St. James's, where she used to raise her champagne glass and toast, "To Lordy - the greatest gentleman of them all!"
Sargent was indirectly responsible for Wilde's choice of Tite Street as a site for the house he built to live in with his bride. During the short period Wilde shared Tite Street quarters with Miles, he had witnessed Ellen Terry arriving at Sargent's nearby studio, costumed for his famous portrait of her as Lady Macbeth. Wilde wrote, "The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth, in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler, can never again be as other streets; it must always be full of wonderful possibilities." Wilde was never one to pass up a possibility.
24. Residence of James A. McNeill Whistler
13 Tite Street
With the sale of a few paintings and an ambitious commission to decorate Leyland House in the offing, the dauntless Whistler hired architect Edward Godwin and proceeded to build a house he named the White House (now demolished) on Tite Street. It had facilities for printing and etching on the top floor and was the first of his houses to have a real studio. Lillie Langtry, Wilde, Frank Miles and countless other friends often gathered here for the famous breakfasts. Whistler loved his house, but Fate intervened in the form of the powerful critic, John Ruskin, who had "made" the Pre-Raphaelites and now set out to "unmake" Whistler.
Critiquing Whistler's painting The Falling Rocket (now in the Tate Gallery) in an 1877 show at the Grosvenor Gallery, Ruskin wrote that he had never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face. Whistler sued him for libel and won a mere farthing, but he considered it a moral victory. The legal costs, however, combined with Leyland's refusal to meet costs on the elaborate decorating job, rendered him bankrupt. In September of 1879 Whistler fled to Venice. There he recapped his fortune with a series of brilliant etchings, but when he returned to London in November of 1880, art critic Harry Quilter had taken over his house and refused to give it up.
Whistler then moved into number 13, close to the White House, and a near neighbour to Wilde's and Miles's house. Here he reacted to his exile by deliberately wrapping himself for protection in malicious, extravagant wit and painting all of the fashionables - views of crowds competing for portrait sittings, carriages along streets. He resumed his Sunday breakfasts and again became a fashion setter with his blue-and-white china, old silver, and quixotic centrepieces. He invented amazing costumes, using a new fawn-coloured, long-skirted frock coat, and he carried an extraordinarily long cane. The crowds came, but not the portrait sitters. To be painted by Whistler in the eighties required courage-it courted notoriety, if not ridicule. Lady Meux was the first to give him a commission, and two full-lengths of her are among his most distinguished portraits.
Until she became involved with the Prince of Wales, Lillie Langtry was a daily visitor. Whistler planned to paint her as An Arrangement in Yellow, a companion piece to the portrait of his mother, but they found other diversions and the work never progressed.
It was during this era that the two most grandiose egos and sharpest wits of London, Whistler and Wilde, discovered each other. One of their oft-quoted repartees followed the publication of an imagined conversation between the two in Punch. After reading it, Wilde sent Whistler the following telegram: "Punch too ridiculous. When you and I are together, we never talk about anything except ourselves."
Back came the reply from Whistler: "No, no, Oscar, you forget. When you and I are together, we never talk about anything except me."
But Wilde had the last word. "We may talk about you, Whistler," he agreed, "but I am thinking of myself." Follow Tite Street north to Tedworth Square.
25. Residence of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain)
23 Tedworth Square
The famous American humorist lived here from 1896 to 1897. Before Samuel Langhorne Clemens took up writing and adopted the name of Twain, he had worked as a journalist and a river pilot on the Mississippi River, and had tried gold mining in Nevada during the Civil War. His novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1885, made him a fortune. He lived extravagantly, speculating in inventions which eventually left him bankrupt. He came to Europe in 1891 to earn money to pay his debts. After the death of his daughter Suzy in 1896, he led a secluded life in Tedworth Square, seeing only a few friends. The New York Herald started a public benefit fund to repay his debts, and Twain returned to America in 1897.
St. Leonard's Terrace, your next destination, lies next to Tedworth Square on the east.
26. Residence of Bram Stoker
18 St. Leonard's Terrace
Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, moved to Chelsea in 1896, the year before Dracula was published. He wrote drama criticism for newspapers, and in 1878 joined Sir Henry Irving in the management of the Lyceum Theatre. Later, in 1906, Stoker published a biography of Irving.
Back in his Oxford days when he was twenty, Wilde had fallen in love with an "exquisitely pretty" seventeen-year-old girl named Florence Balcombe. He wrote love poems to her for several years and was seriously considering proposing when he received news that she was engaged to marry Bram Stoker. They remained friends, though, and the Stokers attended most of Wilde's opening nights.
Walk the short block north from St. Leonard's Square to King's Road, a major bus route that will get you to most destinations.