Category Archives: 20th Century

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.


Short posts – leisure

From time to time I have to scan pictures for enquiries and requests and inevitably you see other images you like in the picture chests and think “I should scan that as well”. So I often do, on the assumption that we’ll need to scan them all eventually so why not now. So another batch of pictures get done which are only connected by the fact that they have caught my interest. And this is what we have today.

 

 

The embankment. Two girls wearing some kind of harness are pulling a third, in the riverside gardens on Cheyne Walk, in 1927, but the driver isn’t sitting in a carriage, she’s running with them. It doesn’t look like that much fun to me, but in the 1920s you had to find your fun where you could. At least they’re getting some exercise.

The picture below is from a slightly later period.

 

 

A picturesque view down Old Church Street, showing a dog being walked (he is showing some interest in another dog, which has been picked up by a girl in school uniform, while a young couple look on with interest), a pair of men delivering milk or groceries (the one in the distance has the benefit of a horse drawn wagon, the nearest one has to pull his own wagon), while a couple of boys are lingering at the edge of the picture (it looks to me as though one of them is having his ear examined by his mother, but that could be me reading too much into it.

The image below is a photograph of a painting by Philip Norman, who was also a London historian.


 

“The back of old houses in Cheyne Walk”. With rather a large garden for the use of young children and small animals. I’m not sure precisely where these houses were but my impression is that they were near Beaufort Street.

Chelsea, of course has one or two celebrated gardens, like this one.

 

 

This shows “the last of the old cedars” in the Apothecaries Garden. The cedars were famous  from Fuge’s print. (He did one image from each direction. This is north, I think. The version I had was in colour but it didn’t seem quite right to me so I put a filter on this to tone down the red. Not enough?

 

 

(Archive trivia: In addition to images of the Physic Garden, the Local Studies also possesses a wooden box, reportedly made from the wood of one of these trees.)

The picture below also features the trees, along with a group of botanists engaged in detailed study.

 

 

The next picture also comes from the 18th century, where as you can see, a number of people are entertaining themselves or being entertained in a small but ornate walled garden. Drinking, dancing, listening to a musician (playing what, exactly?) or taking a turn round the fountain. This according to the caption is Spring Gardens, a small establishment which was located on a site where Lowndes Square was subsequently built.

 

 

I naturally turned to Warwick Wroth’s “London Pleasure Gardens of the 18th Century” (1896, reprinted 1979), a pleasantly exhaustive survey of gardens large and small to learn a little more. It turns out to be more complicated than I thought.  It seems there was a Chelsea Spring Gardens and a Knightsbridge Spring Gardens. Both were “places of public entertainment” featuring displays of “fireworks and horsemanship” with other devices employing fire and water. One of them was connected with a couple of taverns, the Star and Garter and the Dwarf’s Tavern. The co-proprietor of the latter was the celebrated John Coan (“the unparalleled Norfolk Dwarf”) who laid on for his guests “a most excellent ham, some collared eel, potted beef etc, with plenty of sound old bright wine and punch like nectar”. The quotation is from a notice reprinted in Faulkner’s History of Chelsea. On this occasion Mr Coan was available to guest, but for another shilling they could see “The bird of knowledge”. I would have looked in on that.

In the picture though, it seems to be a quiet day. I can’t leave John Coan without showing you this picture by Marianne Rush entitled “The house at the Five Fields where Coan the Norfolk Dwarf exhibited himself”. How much of this is the artist’s imagination I can’t say. But there is plenty of interesting (though out of scale?) detail. Rush is one of my favourite artists in our collection.

 

 

Finally a picture of a private garden, which is definitely quiet. In Kensington, this is a view from Bullingham House which was off Kensington Church Street. (There is a photo of the house from the garden showing these same steps in this post. )

 

 

This is a pretty and well composed picture (it has been used on a greetings card) showing the typical large garden of a house of the 1860s, when much of Kensington was suburban. The crinoline dress is well suited to a sunny afternoon in a quiet corner of London with a privileged young woman enjoying some hours of leisure. Compare it to a the pictures in this post , taken a decade or so later, particularly the first image which shows another lady walking down steps into a garden. (The last photo in the post shows her doing some serious relaxing.)

In the end a theme did emerge from this near random collection of images: leisure, hence the title. I should do a whole post on people relaxing in gardens. One day.


Short posts – Bignell in the Park

I’ve been continuing my trawl through photographs from the Planning department connected to Kensington High Street. The ones dealing with The former Commonwealth Institute have been especially interesting. Today’s pictures are notable because they are the work of a photographer well knows to regular readers of the blog, John Bignell, who has been featured  here many times.

 

 

On this occasion he concerned himself with trees, as you can see from the writing on some of the pictures. Bignell was just doing the work of a jobbing photographer, recording the existence or non-existence of the trees

 

 

The question that always arises with me is that given Bignell’s undoubted talents as a photographer, is there something special about this set of pictures? Has he seen more, done a better composition than a more workaday practitioner or an amateur might?

 

 

Or is the view enough in itself? A sunny day, a couple of people in deckchairs at the centre of the image, and a feeling of relaxation, with the iconic and still photogenic building in the background?

 


 

Why not? The offending tree is gone. We see a couple of guys sunbathing, and looking back at Bignell. In this picture you probably can’t see the woman in a  bikini sitting behind them, also sitting up and asking why is that guy taking a picture of me?

 

 

The admin block behind the wall is also gone now but the streamlined building with the sweeping roof is still there and you can still enjoy a view rather like this one. On a sunny day like this you can probably also sunbathe free from photography.


Short posts: looking back at the Commonwealth Institute part one

As part of my continuing trawl through photographs from our Planning collection I’ve been looking at the section preceding and following Earls Court Road. This of course includes the Commonwealth Institute. I have an odd selection of images which wouldn’t hang together for one big post but make sense in small batches. Hence, a few more short posts.

 

Who he?

Well, some sort of stylised ape, maybe a baboon. West African I would think although I can’t pin it down any further. In this picture he is sitting peaceably on a stone floor. But that’s not why Planning had a picture of him.

 

Can you see the place marked out for him on the right of the picture?

Here it is slightly clearer:

An orange shape next to the stairs and the path which takes you to the walkway entrance. It’s as though he was about to be beamed in, to materialize on a rainy day in Kensington.

Did it ever happen? Does anyone know?

Today of course the walkway is gone and one of the two Holland Green buildings stands in front of the former Institute. You still walk in that direction to get into the Design Museum, as my son and I did recently to see the Stanley Kubrick exhibition. ( Which finishes on September 15th so if you’re at all interested get down there quick. It’s well worth it. And it contains one image supplied by this department. Any guesses?)

More on the former Institute soon.

 


Short posts – the back of the card

The first time I wrote about the May Queens of Whitelands College was in 2011 in a jokey post called “Games for May” (a reference to the Pink Floyd song See Emily Play). I didn’t know that the Local Studies collection had a lot more material both on the May Queen Festival and the Chelsea Pageant, and that I would eventually find even more pictures and ephemera. In that post I just said I had found pictures in a dusty old box in a basement room. This was actually true. The old Print Room at Chelsea had a great deal of abandoned stuff which hadn’t made it into scrapbooks or filing cabinets. This particular selection of pictures were pasted to some loose sheets of scrapbook paper. On both sides of the paper, which is always irritating. (We have rescued many items which have been stuck to unsuitable backings and are now preserved in polyester sheets in picture/document chests). I expressed irritation about the both side of the paper thing and a friend gave me the solution. Take them home, put some cold water in the bath, put the pages in and float the photos and postcards off. You can dry them with tissue paper and flatten them again. It’s a recognised technique for separating photos which have stuck together. (Don’t try it on water colours though.).

This technique, as well as giving you a nice new set of photos and postcards also reveals what’s on the back.

 

 

[This is a photo taken in the Common Room (Coronation Room) of all the Queens. The new Queen, Agnes, is on her throne, & is being crowned by the oldest Queen.]

This is the reverse of a picture we’ve seen before from the 1909 May Queen Festival.

 

 

(Left to right: Mildred I, Florence, Elizabeth II, Ellen I, Agnes II, Dorothy, Elsie II, Evelyn, Elizabeth I, Ellen II, Annie II, Gertrude.)

Below, Agnes is enthroned in front of a painting of the 1903 ceremonies.

 

 

On the back is this caption.

 

 

[The Present Queen “Agnes” (seated) and the Dowager Queen “Dorothy” with the two train bearers “Girlie” and “Chappie” niece and nephew of Miss Smith ( the lecturer who arranges all Chapel functions.) ]

I don’t know why Girlie and Chappie have chosen to conceal their actual identities behind a couple of bland nicknames. Girlie’s in the next picture too , actually bearing the train.

 

 

As the caption says.

 

 

All the hand writing on the postcards is the same person. The last picture has some crosses inked onto it.

 

 

[May Travers is the middle maiden of the three with pitchers. Immediately below her is Millie Ford, “Persephone” and the second one from the right on the back row is “the daughter of King Kateos” alias, Yours v.sincerely E. Imogen Rust]

 

 

And here she is, the writer of the postcards, standing on a box. Nice shoes, my wife said. And they are.

 

 

It’s not often you can get to zero in on a name and a face from one hundred and ten years ago.

 

Postscript

I know I’ve done a May Queen post this year but this post has actually been sitting around for some time in a half-written state so I thought it was worth finishing off. If you’ve never read about this subject before try this one or this one.


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