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:
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.
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: