Category Archives: Chelsea

Pictures of the lockdown: Chelsea

Now that some of the restrictions of lockdown are being relaxed, is it over? Near where I live there seem to be more people on the street, so has the empty city passed into history? Probably not quite yet. In its May issue the Libraries Newsletter asked for personal accounts and pictures from readers. Response wasn’t immediate, but by word has spread and we have received pictures from residents and staff (sometimes one and the same) which Isabel and I have been sorting into groups by location and theme. This is part of an ongoing project to tell the story from this neck of the woods.

 

 

Some of them you will know, like this one.

Others will be harder to place exactly. (Although I could show you a James Hedderly picture showing the same stretch of the riverbed. Here)

 

 

Other images are new but becoming familiar.

 

 

And complicated.

 

 

Some shops make do with just the feet.

This informative notice gives you plenty of time to read.

 

 

You don’t have to spend your time reading. There are plenty of tranquil spots where you can quietly contemplate the new normal.

 

 

Where is that?

Or this?

 

 

 

Battersea Park?

Some empty streets:

 

Hortensia House.

 

Rear windows.

 

 

A lone figure.

 

 

The distinctive brickwork of the Worlds End Estate.

 

 

The London Riverside tower, (work suspended?)

 

 

Blantyre Street.

 

 

With a little bit of reflection.

 

 

An empty playground, with a  view of Chelsea Westminster Hospital in the background.

 

 

A lone jogger taking her daily exercise.

 

 

There are no credits this time. Image rights belong to the individual photographers. We’ll see how that works out. But we are still collecting. Send us more pictures, (email  zerofish@gmx.com  for the moment) or written accounts of things that have captured your imagination, or just leave a comment below. We’ll continue this series of posts alongside our regular blog activity. I might even get out a little and take some pictures myself.


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 god in the archive

Our third object is another long standing inhabitant of the archive rooms, and to be honest I don’t know much about it. I used to imagine it had been pulled from the river, but really I have no evidence it was ever underwater. We have a few odd objects like this, probably given to the Library by people  who just didn’t know what else to do with them. They have mostly taken their place on the rickety shelves of room SB03 along with other objets d’art and/or bric-a-brac, such as a policeman’s helmet, some municipal seals and a dish from Cremorne Gardens.

 

 

So then. A figure carved out of wood. (I actually promoted him to the climate controlled splendour of SB02 some years ago)

I called him Libros, and said he was the patron god of Libraries. Not very likely. I also used to say that every ten years he had to be soaked in the blood of a library assistant. There is no evidence that this ever happened.

No-one believed me of course, and such is the power of this local deity, no-one remembers the missing member of staff from 2010 either.

 

 

Monkeys were not particularly interested in having their photos taken standing next to this object so they retreated to a convenient shelf.

 

 

Today’s obscure book was going to be Veronica by  Nicolas Christopher (1997), a book I loved when I first read it which left me feeling good, in a way that tougher books like the previous two examples probably didn’t. I was sure it was on a shelf in the hall by the front door but it wasn’t there. I also realised that along with other obscure books I read in the previous century I don’t remember much detail. I looked at some reviews on Amazon and it seems that many others felt the same way as me. I got the impression it might have been a little like Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy (run, do not walk to get your own copies now should you not have read them). One reviewer mentioned Jonathan Carroll, which also sounds about right to me.  I’ve read many of his books. Are they obscure enough for this slot?  Possibly not, but I’m still going to mention The Land of Laughs (1980), Bones of the Moon and Sleeping in Flame (both 1987), books which take you in one direction and twist you around until you can’t believe where you ended up.

I’m going to carry on searching for Veronica and read it again before saying anything else about it. I had settled on White Stone Day by John MacLachlan Gray a mystery set in Victorian London featuring an investigative journalist, which has the same realistic view of the period as Michael Faber’s much more famous The Crimson Petal and the White.  Both of them are a bit grimmer than the book I first intended to mention.

Other grim news comes in the form of the death of Scottish writer and artist Alasdair Gray. Lanark (1981) was an instant classic, a work which seemed to spearhead a revival in modern Scottish literature. His other books, such as Unlikely Stories Mostly and 1982 Janine (both 1984) have been praised in pieces about him in the media. But also consider the deeply suspect and possibly subversive Something leather (1990).

The quote (not his won but much used by him) which has been repeated in recent days is still relevant to our times “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.”


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.

 

 

 


Christmas days: realia – the head in the gable

My new year’s resolution will be to get the blog back on track with regular posts. As a start, I’m returning to short posts for Christmas. The theme this year is realia.

Realia is a word which was used in the olden days of libraries to mean “real” things, objects and other non-book items. I used to like the implication that books, the main objects of my career and a large part of my life were therefore unreal, illusory things. In a way of course they are, or at least their physical forms are only the piece which sticks out from the realm of imagination into the “real” world. So this week we have some short posts about objects.

Way back in the history of this blog I wrote a post called The Famous Fish Shop about a shop owned by a Mrs Maunder which once  stood on Cheyne Walk before the Embankment. For some reason it was a favourite of local artists. You can go back to that post with the link and see some of them. This is the first, by historian Philip Norman:

 

 

The detail to look for is that plaque or medallion above the top window. A head in profile.

At Chelsea Library in the 80s and 90s there was an archives room (“Archives 4” to be precise) which had a number of objects gathering dust on slate shelves. These objects were largely ignored in my time at Chelsea and never sorted out until we consolidated the last bits of the collection at Kensington in 2012 – 2013. One of them was an oddly shaped wooden case with a glass front. This:

 

 

I can’t remember when I first looked closely at it properly and read the label.

 

 

Somehow then, the actual medallion from the wall of Maunder’s fish shop is still with us while the rest of the building didn’t even see the 20th century, let alone the 21st. The stone is crumbling and when I moved it to a position in which I could take pictures I thought for a moment the whole thing was about to collapse. But it didn’t.

 

 

I’ve now moved it to a more secure spot where it can sit quietly and remember Old Chelsea.

 

 

Obscure Books

Instead of books of the year, this time around I’m writing about obscure books I’ve enjoyed over a number of years. Regular readers know I like science fiction and the supernatural. All the books this year have elements of both, but also an indefinable quality which defies categorization.

 

Todd Grimson’s Brand New Cherry Flavour (1996) will not be obscure much longer.  An adaptation will soon be seen on Netflix. How that will work out will be interesting to see. It’s a story of decadent life in Los Angeles. Aspiring young film maker Lisa Nova seeks revenge on a producer who exploited her and seeks the aid of a sorcerer. The vengeance gets spectacularly and bizarrely out of hand.

She dreams a horror movie into existence, and some of the cast make their own leap into reality…..I decided I would read it again before publishing this post, but I haven’t finished it yet and it’s Christmas morning already. So take my word for it, it’s genuinely weird.

Grimson wrote a couple of other books including Stainless, a vampire novel also set in 80s California..

Monkeys of Christmas

You can’t leave the simian pluffies out Christmas, or keep them out of the archive.

 

 

There will be a couple more Christmas posts this week. A happy Christmas to you all.


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.


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