152 King’s Road is the address of the grandest looking pizza restaurant in London. The wall in front is surmounted by a pair of eagles, a couple of caryatids and a quadriga and the entrance is flanked by two more carvings of classical figures.These household gods may have protected the building during its mixed history. The Pheasantry has proved to be a survivor.
It has seen difficult times as in these pictures from 1974 and 1970 when the threat of demolition was looming over it.
The Pheasantry is so called because a farmer named Evans formerly sold live pheasants from the site. But the building served all kinds of purposes in its day. The cabinet makers and interior design company of Felix Joubert and his family worked from there for many years. From 1932 until the mid 1960s it was a nightclub. You can make out the words Pheasantry Club above the door.
The club closed in 1966 when the then owner Mario Cazzini died. It was in 1969 when Bevis Hillier wrote: “what a profoundly insipid name for this perverted palace, which might be a chapel of Beelzebub, Aleister Crowley’s pied a terre, A creche for Rosemary’s baby or a finishing school for vampires…”
It was probably none of those things but does seem to have been a lively haunt for the bohemian crowd in Chelsea in the 50s, 40s and the 30s.
Note the old Chelsea exchange name Flaxman and the three categories of members. (Artists paid the least). Then look at the entry below the advert.
One of the other tenants of the building was the Russian Academy of Dancing: proprietor Madame Seraphine Astafieva.
Princess Serafine Astafieva to give her her proper title died the following year, 1934. Her Academy had been at the Pheasantry since 1916.
Although she had been a dancer herself Astafieva’s main fame is as a teacher. Dame Margot Fonteyn spent the last year of Astafieva’s life at the academy. Another dame, Anna Neagle had also attended. But the most famous of her pupils were Anton Dolin and Alicia Marks who we now know as Dame Alicia Markova.
This pictture shows Astafieva (on the right) preparing some of her pupils for the Ypres ball of 1922. The young Markova is among them, possibly the one at the front but I’ll leave that to the experts. The year before both Dolin and Markova had been spotted by Serge Diaghilev at Astafieva’s studio. Markova was only ten at the time. After auditions for the choreographers Nijinsky and Balachine she joined his company in 1925.
Diaghelev had been a friend of Astafieva’s since her days in the Russian Ballet. She joined the company in 1909 and when it came to London in 1911 she took on a role created for Ida Rubinstein, Cleopatra.
Astafieva was not apparently a great dancer but was tall, beautiful and she had the right kind of exotic look for that period . The fin de siecle decadence of the 1890s hangs over pictures of her as well as the aura of the early sex symbols of the silent cinema like Theda Bara (who also played Cleopatra, in 1917). This pair of images shows Astafieva as an early vamp.
Astafieva was born in 1876. She was related to Tolstoy and it is said that it was he who suggested when she was recovering from an illness that she would benefit from entering the Imperial School of Ballet in St Petersburg.
It’s hard to date the pictures we have of her in the collection, most of which come from a display donated to the Library by the writer and photographer Nesta MacDonald. So I don’t know quite when this last picture of Astafieva was taken. Probably later than the previous ones judging by the costume. But it shows her as she might have liked to be remembered best – as a dancer.
The Pheasantry deserves a post of its own but I thought I’d start with Princess Astafieva as a tribute to the (presumably) late Nesta MacDonald. Nesta was sometimes difficult to cope with as the people who tried to demolish the Pheasantry discovered but her first love was the world of ballet.
Postscript to the postscript
January 2015. We now know of course that Nesta Macdonald was still alive when I wrote this post and that she died only a few days ago, aged 100.