Category Archives: 20th Century

The Electric Cinema: Portobello’s Fleapit and Picture House

I’ve spent the last few days working on a new post. But as I worked I knew that in another room far away from me my friend and colleague Isabel Hernandez was working on the final (?) post in her series on cinemas in Kensington. My efforts naturally have to give way before her magnum opus.

 

If some cinemas have become relics of the past, then how about a cinema that has survived to become a picture house worthy of its age. For the time being I have decided to conclude my cinema blogs with the Electric Cinema, given we have some excellent photographs to share with you and even if much attention has been paid to this unusually designed building over the years as both saint and sinner in various publications, I thought I would end the subject on a positive note. This one survived the cull, despite the odds, and is now apparently the oldest working cinema in the UK.

 

 

 

There are many in the North Kensington area who will know this building intimately and have come to know ‘the Bug House’, or the ‘Bughole’ as it was sometimes referred to by the local people, as a familiar fixture at 191 Portobello Road.

The Electric Cinema was built by Gerald Seymour Valentin in 1910, on the site of a timber yard owned by Thomas Henry Saunders. It was built in the midst of grocers, butchers, confectioners, decorators, plumbers, cheesemongers, fruiterers…the list is long. You can see the canopies of the many shops stretching right along the street in the image below. It was decided that an entertainment venue was probably a worthy addition in so busy a street.

 

The cinema opened on the 27th February 1911, although another source states that it was on Christmas Eve, 1910. Perhaps there was a preview? The Electric Cinema is first listed in the 1912 local directory, under the ownership of London and Provincial Cinematograph Ltd.

 

 

 

 

 

Valentin was an architect with little to go on as far as cinema building went. There was no exemplary blueprint to fall back on, and the glamorous cinemas of the 1930’s/40’s were yet to be imagined. In 1910 cinema design was still in its infancy and the age of electricity was relatively new. The development of radio, the accessibility of gramophones, and now cinemas, heralded a new era in the world of entertainment. If the industrial age was a significant cornerstone of advancement and prosperity, then technology was a cauldron of possibilities. The British film industry was still very much a new concept. Moreover, the venue was built well before ‘talkies’ became the norm.

 

It is thought that Valentin built the auditorium with a Music Hall in mind. Geoff Andrew, a former member of staff at the cinema, wrote:

 

“It was no shock to learn from detailed acoustic analyses carried out in the late Seventies that the auditorium was far more suited to live musical performance than to the reproduction of sound by electric speakers; after all, it was built eighteen years before the introduction of the ‘talkies’, during which period (1910-1929) live piano or band accompaniment would have been used to supply the emotional atmosphere for the moving images on the screen.”

 

The audience seated in an early image below gives you an idea of how little space there was within the small area. I imagine not as comfortable as the plush cinemas of later years. In fact, nearly all of the cinema space was devoted to the auditorium. It is estimated that the auditorium had the capacity for 600 seats all on one floor.

 

 

 

 

 

The cinema met with problems over the course of many years. Its age meant that costly repairs were essential if it was to continue being a viable and safe venue. During the course of the sixties, it was not uncommon to hear about the latest calamitous dysfunction within the building, such as a leaking roof, or a whole row of seats collapsing. It was when new management in 1969 took over that a much-needed refurbishment took place to improve the building – certainly the general condition of the auditorium: the roof was repaired, an efficient heating system was installed, carpets and new seats were bought – it was a welcome change.

 

 

 

 

The auditorium’s paneling does not appear remarkable in any way in these images. The walls were repainted at some point during the sixties. Some described it as lurid. Aesthetics had to take a backseat to other more important things, like keeping the cinema open and getting paying customers in to watch films as it was intended to do, with enough to make the necessary repairs when the roof or the gutters went awry in inclement weather, which is quite often in the UK, and affected the cinema numerous times. It is important to note that prior to this period the cinema had not been touched in fifty years or so.

 

 

 

 

Another view of the auditorium. Note the buckets at the back. I describe them as ‘old world’ fire hydrants.

 

 

 

 

Unlike later, larger cinemas, the frame surround to the screen was relatively simple without a distinctive proscenium arch. Nothing unusual for its time, except the screen remains the same to this day and was never modernised like some of the Electric’s counterparts were over the decades to accommodate CinemaScope – an anamorphic lens series used in the 1950’s and the precursor to the likes of Panavision which allowed for films to be projected at different ratios. I am, of course, only describing this in a very rudimentary way.

 

 

 

 

Standing enclosure for 27 persons. Not a huge space when you look at the room generally, maximising space sounds like a good idea if you do not mind being in very close proximity to other people, or indeed if you mind standing up. Generally, the community spirit of The Electric gave it a more casual approach to such things. A laid-back acceptance of how it all worked.

 

 

 

 

Below is an example of that casual atmosphere. Many of the staff at the cinema took great pride in the Electric’s friendly reputation.

 

 

 

 

Below you can see the dark brown nicotine stained ceiling. Years of tar accumulated over time and yellowed the panels giving them a rather unpleasant, greasy look. It is said that it was at least 1 inch thick. Quite grotesque in retrospect, but not surprising when smoking was usual in public spaces.

 

 

 

 

During the refurbishment already mentioned, the old projectors were replaced with new projection machines purchased from Winston Churchill’s Chartwell home. After his death they had come onto the market almost new, or so I thought…

Dave Hucker a former manager at the Electric informed me that these particular images show the ‘Italian made Cinemechanicas which were the best projectors in the world at that time and the same at the NFT.’

He goes on to say:

“These date from an upgrade in the mid/late 70s when new seating and a decent screen were installed. This brought the cinema up to a very high standard.”

 

 

 

Enormous machines compared to the digital tech we have now. A fraction of the size.

Also, we cannot fail to look upon these images and not think about a spectre of the Electric’s past, the mass murderer, John Christie of 10, Rillington Place, rumoured to have worked here as a projectionist sometime in the forties. Just one of many stories that are not verifiable, but add a certain mythos to the cinema.

 

 

 

Below you can see the signage of former times. The Electric was renamed The Imperial Playhouse around the period of the First World War, something of a grand title perhaps, but it seems fitting considering the cinema also weathered the Second World War. Initially, there was an order for cinema closures to avoid crowds gathering during the Blitz. A wise precaution. Yet not surprisingly, as London grew more resilient to the raids, cinemas simply carried on. During air raids, an announcement flashed onto the screen and audiences would head out to the nearest shelter, usually collecting a refund on the way out. A very calm attitude considering the circumstances.

 

 

 

 

The image below shows The Electric in 1977 advertising Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road. What you may not know is that the cinema, as well as showing some rare classics and notable masterpieces, would often show new films that might perhaps never have seen the light of day, given that distributors were not confident they would do well, so they regularly shelved them. In fact, directors as varying in their styles as their eras, received their first British releases at the Electric. Directors such as Orson Wells, Fritz Lang, Martin Scorsese, and John Huston. Hard to believe, but when you are starting out, or simply trying to establish yourself outside of your usual base, it isn’t always plain sailing, and it wasn’t initially for these now well-known auteurs. Creative efforts are so often thwarted, and talent is a mixed bag of luck, hard work and vision. Everybody starts at the beginning somewhere.

 

 

 

 

Double bills were part and parcel of the Electric experience in its varying incarnations. Films would be programmed together because of their similarities and it offered customers value for money. Geoff Andrew states that:

“The juxtaposition of two films can throw up interesting ideas by means of the films’ similarities and differences. For instance, in a season of movies dealing with madness, we doubled Hitchcock’s famous Psycho with John Huston’s film Freud.  Or Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers with the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup which offers a far less dark but in its way equally cynical view of political machinations.”

I don’t see that level of thought going into the general cinematic experience currently, with some exceptions, like The Prince Charles in the West End.

 

 

 

 

My husband’s programme, Shock Around the Clock, which he has kept over the years. A precursor to the continuing successful horror film festival, Frightfest. Over a period of 12 hours one would sit and watch several films back-to-back. No mean feat, as personally, I probably would have died from a migraine the size of a planet. But it shows the dedication of some film buffs and those organisers willing to go the extra mile.

 

 

 

 

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre apparently made its first run in uncut form at the Electric cinema. Although the cover you see is from the third instalment. Below a list of what was shown.

 

 

 

 

 

Programme booklet credits.

 

 

 

As with most cinemas the spectre of closure loomed over The Electric too. And it did close in May 1987 after staff, local residents and celebrities campaigned in vain to keep it open, despite efforts over several years to return the cinema to its former glory under different ownership. Mainline Pictures who took over in 1987 renovated the building and brought the cinema up to scratch, rebranding it the Electric Screen. This was no bad thing; The Electric desperately needed a facelift. Or did it? As with most information the truth can sometimes be a little stretched or simply incorrect. Dave Hucker, former manager at the Electric, points out that this was one of many myths surrounding the cinema. Unfortunately, programming was also changed, and regulars began to stay away. Changing from repertory to single-run programming proved too much of a change, altering the cinema’s personality, if such personification can be allowed here. What made it unique had been altered to the point where revenue began to fall. Whatever the reasons, as it stood, it could no longer compete with West End arthouse cinemas, even as a second-run rep house.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cinema entrance below. Interestingly, in 1938 plans were submitted detailing a proposed alteration to The Imperial Playhouse as the Electric was then. Had this been carried out, the façade of the building would have been radically transformed, making it look more like a Thirties art deco building. The dome was going to be removed completely and a permanent canopy above the entrance was to be erected, which sounds intriguing. In the end none of it came to fruition, I suspect due to a lack of money. Austerity during the war years halted a lot of ideas.

 

 

 

Below you can see the tiled floor in more detail at the entrance..

 

 

 

 

The doors leading into the auditorium.

 

 

 

 

The box office which reminds me of fair grounds for some reason. The place where you could purchase reasonably priced tickets and enjoy the inexpensive programming. Alas! No popcorn anywhere!

 

 

 

 

The Electric is currently owned by retail entrepreneur Peter Simon who was once a local trader. He invested a considerable amount in the restoration of parts of the cinema before leasing the site to Soho House.

Below is an image of what The Electric looks like today.

Gebler Tooth Architects took on the job using the original plans and any early photographs that were available:

“We’ve restored all the mouldings in the auditorium. The High-level mouldings just needed washing. It was hard to determine what colour the auditorium was painted in the first place. We’ve gone for an ivory background with mouldings and the gilding left but washed.”

They wisely acquired the shop next door and expanded the space for upgraded WC’s, an air conditioning plant, and a restaurant.

Gone are the days of the affordable fleapit. Lamentably money keeps things ticking over until it doesn’t. Without it closures happen. I say lamentably because it shows up the inequalities within communities. Not everybody can afford the changes.

 

 

 

 

Portobello Road, taken from the roof of The Electric in the 1980s before the wave of tourists took over chasing after the Notting Hill dream. Sitting on a 52 bus I have often been asked by visitors if this was the correct transportation to take them to Portobello. The Portobello of Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, a big blue door and celebrity. Prior to that, Portobello Road was a Disney song in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

And don’t forget Paddington Bear, although his claim is far more established in my opinion, as his creator lived in the area.

As a child, Portobello Road was nowhere near as glamorous as it is now portrayed on the big screen. It was the place where you went to get your fruit and veg, settled down for a cup of tea in some greasy spoon café. And if you fancied some entertainment, perhaps an obscure double bill over at the eccentric and unique 191 Portobello Road after a couple of drinks at the local pub.

For me it was Spanish School twice a week down the other end of Portobello after Secondary school, and the occasional visit to Garcia’s with mum for chorizo and bacalao. And sometimes, when I later worked in the area, it was the occasional lunch for a take-away from any one of the many options along Portobello Road. Over the decades I have noticed its gentrification. Now it’s so different I almost think I imagined what it was like before. I suspect the same can be said of our changing city and its buildings generally. But Portobello will always be Portobello and perhaps its historic cinema too will remain so. It has survived this long, we shall see.

 

 

 

 

Postscript:

It has taken me an eternity to finish this blog, not because it was particularly difficult, but because so much has happened in recent months, both personally and otherwise. I kept shelving it, not really having the time to complete it. Getting around to finishing this proved challenging, but I am grateful that I have been able to do so. Also, I realise that The Electric Cinema is well known in the area and as an iconic cinema much has been written about it. I tried to keep things succinct as far as possible and have probably not covered everything. Everyone has a wealth of memories regarding the past – an impossible task for a blog. But I hope you have enjoyed it and allowed for some escapism from the isolation. At this point many of us will be re-evaluating life and some of us will be struggling with the fallout of this for various reasons.

We live in very strange times indeed, and perhaps we are on the threshold of drastic changes given how our lives appear to have been turned upside down. I’m not sure what to make of it as the everyday now seems not so normal. And we wonder what was normal to begin with. The things we once thought were important are now in question.

Please look after yourselves and take good care. Look out for each other and help where you can. We will endeavour to keep you posted where possible and continue to offer a virtual service for Local enquiries.

 

Postscript to the postscript

My thanks to Isabel, and to her husband Paul (who added some personal knowlege) for this excellent post. Also to the many people who worked at the Electric and those who have donated material to the collection.

Dave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


River Man – William Ascroft

William Ascroft (don’t call him Ashcroft) is another of the great Chelsea artists in our collection. (The others, for the record  are Greaves, Burgess, Griffen and Marianne Rush, although those are just the ones where we have a decent amount of their work. There are plenty of others where we just have a few works.) I did a couple of posts about Ascroft in the early days of the blog back in 2012 (here and here ) and while I wouldn’t say I didn’t do him justice, I still feel I haven’t done enough. Ascroft was a successful artist in his day. He was a Royal Academician, and is probably best known now for being commissioned by the Royal Society to paint views of the sky over London after the explosion at Krakatoa in 1883.

The truth is I just wanted to do another Ascroft post. I really like his work and have a strong urge to tell people about it. I’ve been re-arranging some of our pictures and one of the Ascroft related tasks was to remove some of his small pastel sketches from some large  cardboard mounts to which they had been glued many years ago. (Rather barbarously in my opinion but I’m not a conservator so it could be argued that my opinion isn’t worth that much.) It all gave me a good reason to do some more scans of the images.

 

 

This is one of several sketches he did of the Old Swan Inn (a favourite of many Chelsea artists – the old Old Swan of course, there are not nearly so many images of the new or later Old Swan.) I’ve made some efforts not to use the same images as I have in the earlier posts, but some of the pictures just look similar.

The Old Swan is in this one too.

 

 

But you won’t mistake this one for any of his others.

 

 

The Thames at Cremorne, 1866. I haven’t cropped the edges so you can see that these sketches now look a bit rough and ragged. But they show Ascroft on the move, catching impressions at different times of day.

Some are very sketchy, like this one of the Old Church from the south side of the river.

 

 

Or this one, the point of which is the colour in the sky.

 

 

Some are barely started.

 

 

It’s nicely done. Perhaps more detail could have sprung up around the Old Church.

But even the rough ones capture the sense place. This shows the steps up to Albert Bridge.

 

 

While this one shows the gate houses on the north side of Battersea Bridge, almost looking up Beaufort Street.

 

 

I think this is before the Embankment. The story of the Ascroft sketches as told to me was that when Ascroft died, the Librarian at Chelsea Library went to his studio and bought whatever was there. Having written that sentence I thought that this was the sort of story that could be told about many of our artists. You imagine the Librarian as a kind of Lovejoy figure, haunting the galleries and studios of Chelsea. I would have liked that job. But I couldn’t believe it was quite that simple. In the spirit of fact checking I went to the Accessions Register, a ledger older than any of our libraries and found the truth. A large number of pictures by Ascroft were purchased at Pope’s Auction Rooms in Hammersmith in 1937 for the sum of £6 and 30 shillings. A pretty good investment by the perfectly respectable Librarian. No scruffy antique (or book) dealers were involved, but it’s fun to imagine the scene.

So, anyway, we do have a large number of these small pastel sketches. Back in the 20th century I once put on an exhibition of Ascroft’s work. We had a pretty good colour photocopier in those days  and I used it to make enlargements of the sketches, so I didn’t have to worry about security. That seems a bit barbarous on my part now, but it was a very good photocopier. (Although it was never the same after being assaulted by a member of staff who I will not name – she knows who she is.)

This little picture shows Lindsey Row looking east, although I think it must be unfinished by the lack of a bridge.

 

 

The picture below shows Mr Radnor’s House.

 

 

On the rear of the paper, Ascroft left copious notes. I know some readers enjoy this sort of thing so it was worthwhile adding this picture.

 

 

Some pictures leave a distinctive impression half deliberately, half by chance. I couldn’t leave this one out.

 

 

But finally, some of Ascroft’s more conventional views.

The riverside, with the Old Swan again.

 

 

A look over the rooftops, perhaps from the tower of the Old Church at the river.

 

 

And one of a church, not necessarily the one we’re most familiar with, but any church, surrounded by trees.

 

 

Waiting for a story.  Not for me to supply this time.

I’ll leave William Ascroft for now. But you’ll see him again one day.

 

Postscript

I’ve just heard of the sad death of Emma Wood (obituary), Photographer, researcher and campaigner. I had dealings with her a few years ago relating to the archive of Mike Braybrook. Her energy and determination was significant in the preservation of the archive. As a librarian I’m always impressed by a dedication to the preservation of ephemera. I saw her from time to time in the library when she was researching other matters and she was always friendly and patient. My sympathies to her family and friends. It was nice to see in the Guardian obituary a photograph of a younger Emma.


Walter Greaves: postcards and photographs

Monochrome photographs of paintings are unsatisfactory in most cases. In my travels through archives and reference stores I have come across many old art books full of black and white images which have been superseded by later colour versions. So perhaps you could forgive me if, many years back, I dismissed a small collection of photographs of Greaves paintings because  they were “only black and white”. Some of them were postcard size, and a group of larger ones had begun to deteriorate with age, but now I look at them and find them quite interesting. In addition, modern software enables me to mess about with them.

This first image though, comes from a modern postcard I acquired for myself along the way, and it’s quite striking.

 

 

Circus performers and mountebanks, as Greaves puts it. The same troupe is seen below, adding a sensational element to an ordinary day in riverside Chelsea. the giant figure and the performers bring an element of folk horror to this urban territory. It’s worth bearing in mind that this is the old Chelsea, a slightly down at heel riverside neighbourhood, somewhat dilapidated.

 

 

But as well as the working riverside this part of Chelsea was home to other entertainments.

In the background of this picture, another spectacle – the Female Blondin, crossing the river on a tightrope. We’ve covered this before in this post.

 

 

Tom Pocock suggests in Chelsea Reach that the tightrope artist, Lucy Young later became the wife of Walter’s older brother George. This is a more realistic view of the crossing than the etching seen in the old post, which gave the impression there were huge numbers of boats in the water. Miss Young had to abandon the walk part  way through when the ropes became slack but she returned later and completed a two way walk.  She was unlucky when she fell at Highbury Barn a year afterwards. Pocock reports that she was “crippled” but also notes that in marrying George she had returned to “the scene of her greatest Triumph.”

After which, with the Greaves family season ticket to Cremorne she could engage in more sedate pursuits. Here are two more views of the Gardens, in daylight,

 

 

And in the evening.

 

 

In a ghostly light.

Below, the deconstruction of the old Battersea Bridge and the construction of the new version.

 

 

 

Both Greaves, and his mentor Whistler preferred the old to the new and continued to dwell on “old Chelsea”, which was not even part of London to many of its inhabitants. Dickens, although he was married at St Lukes and was a friend of the Carlyle family called it “barbarous Chelsea”. Speaking of the “sage of Chelsea”,

 

 

Although neither Walter nor Henry were very skilled at drawing figures, they did like to enliven their pictures with a few figures. like this one of the man himself, almost a tourist attraction in his own right.

Female figures were often of one of their sisters, Eliza, Emily or the youngest, Alice.

 

 

The Strange shop, a general merchant and grocers is also seen in some of the photographs by James Hedderly. (Strange’s is one of the shops in this image.) As a professional sign writer he often provided painting materials to the Greaves brothers and Whistler. I have corresponded with a descendant of Mr Strange.

This older woman could also be Alice, pale and enigmatic on an otherwise deserted riverside, before the Embankment.

 

I wonder if her dress quite matches the pre-embankment period? The dating or Greaves paintings is sometimes questionable.

The picture below is Eliza Greaves, wearing a Tudor style outfit, in a picture called the Green Dress.

 

 

I used a green filter on the image, which also works well on other pictures like the Balcony, one of Walter’s best compositions.

 

 

And even the bowling green at the rear of the King’s Head and Six Bells. (Not to be confused with the King’s Head and Eight Bells which is in the Hedderly photo. This King’s Head was on the King’s Road, and was later the home of a jazz club.)

 

 

The two figures below could be Walter and Alice heading homeward.

 

 

These two definitely are.the siblings Alice’s parasol was actually pink so I’ve given a slightly red tinge to the image.

 

 

It’s not in particularly good condition. You can see signs of chemical deterioration around the edge.

This photograph of Walter is also showing signs of age.

 

 

But it does catch a something of his character, a diffident man who was nevertheless possessed by the desire to paint, and bring the old Chelsea back to a modern world.

Postscript

I couldn’t leave Greaves with just one post, but next time, although we’ll still be by the river, you’ll see a more vigorous and colourful version of Chelsea.

Another postscript

I was thinking that now I’m back to regular posting I should be looking out for deaths, which was an occasional part of the blog but there was nothing I’d noticed recently. Then as soon as I looked at Twitter today I saw something about David Roback, who died on Monday of this week. He was the guitarist of Mazzy Star, a group who have rather faded  into the background. I realised that I owned all four of their albums as well as a couple by their singer Hope Sandoval. They had a unique sound which I shall not attempt to put into words. My MP3 player still plays me Fade into You, a flash of languid brightness on a dull day.


Walter Greaves: a friend of Whistler

Anyone interested in the history of Chelsea has probably heard of Walter Greaves. But you won’t have seen much of his work on the blog. This is largely for technical reasons. We have quite a few works by him in the collection but many of the best are too large or in some cases too delicate to scan. The rest are often sketches or unfinished works which don’t convey how good he could be at times. He was an amateur who didn’t always have the time or the materials to achieve great work. But recently, we’ve been stock checking the art collection and I’ve had a chance to look again at his work and I’ve come to appreciate it more.

First however, let me show you one of his best works, which was photographed professionally in 2012.

 

 

[“Unloading the barge” presented by Lord Northcliffe to Chelsea Old Town Hall ]

For those of you who don’t know much about Greaves, here is a summary.

Walter Greaves grew up in the west part of Chelsea with his father and mother, a couple of brothers and a couple of younger sisters. George Greaves ran a boatyard which built, repaired and offered boats for hire. One of his customers was a mysterious old gentleman who lived a few doors away who turned out to be Joseph Mallord Turner living  incognito with just a housekeeper for company.(As seen in the recent film) His identity was almost unsuspected. On the other side of the Greaves’s house lived John Martin the painter of enormous pictures depicting apocalyptic landscapes. So the young member of the Greaves family were brought up in an artistic as well as a nautical atmosphere. When Walter and Henry were teenagers, a new neighbour came to live nearby, James McNeill Whistler.

 

 

[Photograph of a Greaves picture of Whistler at work.]

Jimmy Whistler became a friend of the whole family, using their boating services but also enrolling Walter and Henry as acolytes and (mostly) unpaid artistic assistants. He introduced them to the artistic world, and they introduced him to the pleasures of the riverside, including Cremorne Gardens which was also in the immediate vicinity. There were many decorous and educational pursuits and wonders there, as well as dancing and other licentious activity.

 

 

 

Walter and Henry were both teenagers when they met Whistler and fell under his influence. Tom Pocock’s book about Greaves and Whistler is subtitled “The brutal friendship of Whistler and Walter Greaves”. Although it was Whistler’s dominance over the brothers which made them more serious about art, he never really allowed them to step out of his shadow. For many years he was like a family member and he was a frequent visitor to the Greaves house, as was his mother and mistress (separately, I assume). He was close to Alice Greaves, although whether she was another mistress is not known. The friendship lasted longer than many of Whistler’s but eventually he dropped them. The greatest animosity came from Whistler’s eventual biographers, Joseph Pennell and his wife.

I was left with a feeling of melancholy,  reading about how Greaves and his family were treated but the pictures themselves show how the Greaves brothers, while under the spell of Whistler, forged their own artistic identity which was as much the result of their love of Chelsea as their lives as friends and pupils of the Master (as some saw him).

 

 

 

Sometime Whistler’s sartorial influence on the brothers was such that it could have been the man himself, or Henry, or Walter who appears in this picture. Who ever he is, he in many of the pictures, even as a passer-by as in the one below.

 

 

 

Greaves also tackled the traditional subject of all Chelsea artists, the riverside. He turned out small sketches like the one below constantly, and kept sketching well into old age.

 

 

We’re going to linger awhile at Cremorne though, in happy days for the Greaves family and their friends.

 

 

Walter, Henry and Alice (“Tinnie”) frequently feature in the pictures, with Jimmy as well sometimes.

 

 

[Photograph of a Greaves painting]

Walter and Tinnie sharing a bottle of beer at the table , Whistler by the fountain

Below, part of one of Walter’s larger drawings.

 

 

That could be Walter, possibly carrying his portfolio, on the left.

 

 

[Another photograph of a Greaves painting]

After he was dropped by Whistler, Greaves, made some efforts to meet his former mentor but was usually rebuffed. Walter and Henry were not invited to Whistler’s funeral. They observed part of the proceedings leaning against the embankment wall. This sketch was one his attempts to capture the event.

 

 

In his later years, short of money for himself and his sisters, Walter was reduced to hawking his pictures round the streets of Chelsea and doing impromptu portraits in public houses. Many of his best pictures were sold off cheaply, the frames having been used for firewood. But he did enjoy a brief revival in the early 1900s when a dealer acquired some of those painting and cleaned them up. There was an exhibition and proper sales. The dealer started paying Walter a weekly stipend. This fifteen minutes of fame (or three weeks as Pocock depicts it) was marred by attacks in the press and accusations of plagiarism. This hurt Walter but he also had supporters. There was a dinner for him at the Chelsea Arts Club where he was presented with a cheque (for £150, more money than he had ever seen). He ended his days comfortably, in a charitable institution in the City (only a motor-bus ride from Chelsea) having been finally recognized as an artist in his own right. He lived to see his early painting of Hammersmith Bridge on Boat Race Day bought for the nation, and you can still see it in Tate Britain.

John Rothenstein put him in his 1928 book Painters of the 1890s “Greaves was not only one of the most important artists of the period, but one whose painting and personality contrasted more sharply with Whistler’s than did those of any of his contemporaries……the similarities were accidental while the differences were essential. ….this aged man, one of the great artists of his time..sitting alone and forgotten..sketching old Chelsea from memory because he ‘couldn’t pass the time without it’.”  The chapter on Greaves sits along others about Beardsley, Sickert, Conder and of course Whistler

 

Finally, another one of his best pictures, still owned by the Council.

 

 

Postscript

Another reason why I never wrote much about Greaves before now was that I was afraid I wouldn’t do him justice. I’m still not sure about that, but here he is before it’s too late. I’m going to come back to some of the photographs and postcards of Greaves picture, of which we have many, in a future post.

This post is dedicated to the late Tom Pocock, a friend of Chelsea and the Local Studies collection, and to a former colleague of mine, Ann Holling, who was obsessed with Greaves a long time before me.


The same gates

According to the authors of the Survey of London volume four (1913) a building called Cheyne House, in Upper Cheyne Row was at the time of writing “in a derelict condition” having been “untenanted for many years“. It consisted of “two or three different blocks of buildings, none of which appear to date from earlier than the eighteenth century”. The condition of the property, it is implied, was the responsibility of Dr Phene “who had used the house and garden as a museum.” Dr Phene was probably also responsible for covering the eastern wall with fleur-de-lys. The doctor’s dubious activities (“so much was the place neglected“) meant that the interior of the house was “rapidly falling to pieces“. The authors sum up: “the whole house is in a dilapidated condition”

We know something about the good doctor. I’ve written about him before some years ago. You can also find an article about him in Fortean Times magazine of July 2013. As far as the condition of the house goes, i expect he had his reasons. He had died in 1912, so the authors of the survey could make their judgement without fear of contradiction.

An artist named Juliet Nora Williams became a little obsessed with the house, or at least a small feature of it: the gates. Here they are in autumn:

 

 

And winter:

 

 

You can guess what might be coming next. Two more pictures? In fact, there are several more than two, some amounting to little more than sketches.

 

 

I can’t say why Miss Williams was so obsessed with a single view, but she was. I set about assembling everything we had by her, perhaps hoping I might find out why. Spoiler alert. I didn’t. But one of the pictures was this one.

 

 

It’s a pretty enough piece, reminding me a little of Estella Canziani (although not as accomplished) . I recognize the spot though, a kind of walled garden and pond in Battersea Park, which I have visited many times. (Like many places it was never quite the same after the great storm of 1987). On the back of the picture was a price and the artist’s address, Oakley Studios, Upper Cheyne Row. Well that kind of explains all the pictures I had found. Battersea Park was just a pleasant stroll away From Oakley Street. Oakley Studios sounds like the kind of secluded close where a young artist might live. I couldn’t find it on the 1935 OS map (we don’t have that particular sheet) but here it is on the 1894-96 series.

 

 

Oakley Studios is the little cul-de-sac just north of Oakley Flats I think (or were the Flats another name for the Studios?). You can also see Cheyne House itself and its grounds, where Dr Phene built “The Mystery House”.  A bit more on that later. The building eventually converted into the Nursery in Glebe Place is also visible.

First, the entry for Oakley Studios in Kelly’s Directory of Chelsea.

 

 

Seven studios. Three of the residents describe themselves as artists,including Miss Juliet N Williams ,and all but one are women. (The possible exception being the enigmatic  B. Foulkes Winks or Winks B Foulkes). This proximity possibly explains Juliet’s interest in the gates, which would have been very close to her residence.

 

 

I’m assuming Juliet’s gate pictures were painted in the 1920s. After Dr Phene’s death, stories about him proliferated. One of our scrapbooks has several pages of newspaper cuttings about him and his collection of curious objects.

This is Cheyne House, a relatively innocuous 18th century dwelling.

 

 

While this is the “Mystery House” in all its weirdness, on the corner of Oakley Street.

 

 

Imagine the garden between them filled with antique statuary.

The papers worked themselves up with conflicting stories about the house and the collection: “Nightmare in a Chelsea Garden” , “Weird relics of a Chelsea recluse.” to quote just two headlines.

 

 

So you can imagine plenty of local interest, even after the collection was sold off (by the “executrix”).

The site cleared as required by the new lease. The pink area shows the whole property.

 

 

 

After the sale the walls and the gates may have been were all that was left to contain the mystery, although this night view looks strange enough.

 

 

Juliet thankfully donated the record of her obsession to the Library (also just round the corner from Upper Cheyne Row. And she moved on, possibly to Reading, possibly to Sussex. (She stayed at Oakley Studios until 1935.)

 

 

A view of Lots Road power station painted on a plain postcard. The reverse has a message for her mother, possibly.

 

 

I’ve kept the spring picture of the gates back till the end. It’s my favourite.

 

 

It seems to hold the promise of a secret garden, isolated from the surrounding world, in which a young artist might wander and find..well anything you like really, depending on your own imagination.

 

Postscript

I’m not promising a return to regular posts just yet because you really never know when serious work and serious events are going to interfere with the blogging life but I have several ideas bubbling up at the moment so let’s keep our fingers crossed. A belated happy new year to you all. And from Juliet Williams:

 


Christmas Days: realia: the girl in the fountain

Our second item of realia is something far easier to identify. Or is she?

 

 

You don’t normally see her this size though. And she can be found not in our archive rooms but Sloane Square.

Go back in time to 26th October 1953

 

 

A gathering of distinguished people listening to Sir Gerald Kelly inaugurating the Venus Fountain with a speech not everyone heard – the loudspeaker broke down and the noise of traffic drowned out his words for some listeners. The Venus Fountain was designed by Gilbert Ledward, who was born in Chelsea and who is also represented by a statue in Ropers’ Garden on the Embankment called Awakening.

We are more concerned with its small version.

 

 

Including the figures around the base. Who else but Charles II and Nell Gwynne?

 

Depicted as classical figures, in a sylvan scene with hunting dogs.

 

 

The model, or maquette, has lived at the library for many years. Normally it sits under a glass cloche, which I moved to one side for photographic purposes. One of the Monkeys of Christmas sneaked in to try it out. as you would.

 

 

 

Obscure Books

My second obscure book is another one from the 1980s, Straight Cut, by Madison Smartt Bell. I wrote about him once before on the blog about his London novel, Doctor Sleep.

Straight Cut (1986) is a straight thriller. A tale of smuggling and double crossing set in New York, Italy and Belgium in the shady world of film editing. I described it as existential thriller in the previous post, because of a certain dour atmosphere it had. Ripe for filming by a continental art house director, I would have said. French or German directors often bring a certain gravitas to American or British thrillers. (The American Friend for example?) The morally ambiguous protagonist uses dubious means to turn the tables and get his revenge. I haven’t read it for years (and with this one I won’t delay the post by going back to it) but at one time I very much liked it and saw it as a kind of secular science fiction. I should add that Bell has written several novels since I stopped reading him, none of which particularly appealed to me. But what do I know?

This is the cover of my copy of Straight Cut.

 

A pretty dour design. But while looking it up again I found it had received a more sensational retro makeover in recent years, which I can only admire.

 

 

 


The contents of the box

In the comments section after a recent post, loyal reader Marcia Howard asked what do we keep in the famous cedar wood box? Well this week I’ll tell you.

First, the box, quite a nice object in itself.

 

 

The metal plate which is now detached from the lid of the box, attests to its origin.

 

 

It reads: 1846 Made from a portion of one of the Two Cedar Trees, designated “The Brothers” planted by Sir Hans Sloane in the Botanic Garden, Chelsea AD 1683

There is also a handwritten note:

 

Conveniently transcribed:

 

 

The trees themselves, looking north.

 

 

You can just about make out the statue of Sir Hans Sloane in the distance. Here is a 1903 photograph of the last of the trees.

 

The one from which the box was made it seems.

Within the box are several small objects which were kept there so they didn’t go astray:

A pass to the King’s Road. This was given, as Chelsea aficionados would expect, by Reginald Blunt, historian and founder of the Chelsea Society.

 

 

Which King?

 

 

George. The second, as it happens.

A pass to Ranelagh House,1745

 

 

The same George. The pass is not as impressive as some of the printed invitations we have seen, like this one to the Regatta Ball, of 1775.

 

 

 

Or this one:

 

 

Hear angel trumpets and devil trombones. You are invited“, if I’m remembering the quotation correctly.

I have added a few other items to the box over the years:

Reginald Blunt’s pass to the Chelsea Physic Garden (stamped “one visit only”) and printed with the instruction “Ring the Bell at the Gate in Swan Walk and present this order” ,which sounds like it comes from a mystery story.

 

 

A small coin, or medal, a souvenir of the Gigantic Wheel at Earls Court

 

 

A pair of tickets to the Chelsea Historical Pageant of 1908,

 

 

and a useful map of the grounds.

 

 

We’ve been to the Pageant before of course. And no doubt we will go there again.

Another coin/medal which seems to commemorate the Great Exhibition.

 

 

 

With a monarch and her consort on the back.

 

 

You don’t need me to tell you who they are.

 

And of course, a blue elephant. No inventory of the contents of an old wooden box is complete without one of those.

 

 

Postscript

Even the short posts have dried up recently. And I can’t guarantee that this post represents a return to normal service. I’ve had a lot on this summer/autumn: a bit of illness, recruitment issues and other actual work problems which have detracted from the frivolous activity of blogging. And now I’m in the middle of the London History Festival, which is going pretty well, but does consume my time. I’m sure you know however that blogging is my first love, and that I’m trying to get back to it.


%d bloggers like this: