Tag Archives: Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Walter Burgess presents Homes of the rich and famous

It’s been some time since I last featured Walter W Burgess on the blog. I was recently searching for a picture of Madame Venturi’s house and found one of Burgess’s liveliest street scenes, full of characteristic detail, showing the King’s Road as a quiet suburban road.

Madame Venturi's house

The delivery man with his baskets, the ladies walking a dog straining against the leash, the eccentric tricycle, pursued by another dog (Burgess included many animals in his pictures and often had this little dog somewhere, in this case almost in duplicate.) Madame Venturi’s neat villa with a smoking chimney is right in the middle. (For more on Madame Venturi see last week’s post)

Burgess’s best work has precision (a key skill for an engraver) and a quirky character which saves it from the prettiness of which it might be otherwise be accused. Compare it with the water colourist (and engraver) W.Hosmer Shepherd who covered similar ground.

Burgess had  a bit of a penchant for the houses of local celebrities and featured many in his book of etchings Bits of Old Chelsea (1894), so we can have a Hollywood style tour of Chelsea picking them out. No film stars, but famous names nonetheless.

George Eliot's house

This house, number 4 Cheyne Walk was the home of the novelist George Eliot. She moved in there with her husband John Walter Cross. You might argue that Burgess was pushing his luck in this case. George Eliot (alias Marian Evans and Mary Ann Cross) only lived there for three weeks in December 1880. Her husband, who suffered from depression had thrown himself into a Venetian canal on their honeymoon but survived. Although both of them loved the house with its views of the river, Eliot became ill with a recurrence of a kidney condition she had suffered from for years and died before the year was out. I don’t think that Burgess is suggesting that the woman following another dog in the picture is the author herself.

Cheyne Walk provided many subjects for Burgess. At number 59 was the house of W Holman Hunt.

W Holman Hunt's house 59 Cheyne Walk33A

This was a slightly more modest residence further down Cheyne Walk, close to the Old Church. When Hunt became more famous he moved to Melbury Road in Kensington – from the early Chelsea haunts of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to the more affluent neighbourhood of Lord Leighton.

(Apologies for the wavy picture on the scan. The original is a pencil drawing in a thick mount)

By contrast that other famous member of the Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti moved to a big house at the other end of Cheyne Walk.

16 Cheyne Walk Rossetti's house 2

Number 16, also known as Queen House and Tudor House was the house Rossetti moved into in 1862 after the death of Elizabeth Siddall. Rossetti’s brother lived there for a while as did the poet Algernon Swinburne. I’ve mentioned Rossetti’s menagerie before, which included armadillos and wallabies but Burgess’s collaborator Richard Le Gallienne (who wrote the text of Bits of Old Chelsea) reports an incident I’d never heard before attributed to James McNeill Whistler. Apparently Rossetti acquired a zebu (an African species of cow) which had to be conveyed into the garden through the house tied up. It was tethered to a tree, a condition it disliked (or perhaps it never forgot its undignified entry into the property), and one day it managed to uproot the tree and charge at Rossetti who had to climb the garden wall to escape its vengeance. Rossetti never found a buyer and had to give it away although we don’t know to whom.

Once again I cannot say if Burgess intends the muffled up figure standing by the gate to be any of the residents. Intentionally or not Burgess has created a slightly disturbing character.

Whistler himself had several addresses in Chelsea. This is one of the Cheyne Walk ones:

Whistler's house

That could almost be the same figure outside, looking a little like some of the pictures of Whistler.

This is another pencil drawing of number 6 Cheyne Walk, the house of Dr Dominceti.

Dr Dominiceti's house 6 Cheyne Walk 715C

Bartholomew Dominceti bought the house in 1766 and provided therapy with medicated steam baths. There were 30 sweating chambers in the garden and four fumigating bedchambers. Although he attracted many famous names to the house, Dr Johnson decried his work. He left the house encumbered with debt but was remembered by many.

Mr Burgess’s tour takes us away from the river now to Upper Cheyne Row, at the end of which stood the house that Dr Phene built.  The the picture below, “the house where the coal man has just made his delivery” was the residence of the frequently impecunious journalist and poet Leigh Hunt.

Leigh Hunt's house - Upper Cheyne Row 3904

Hunt was supposedly the model for Harold Skimpole in Dickens’s novel Bleak House. Although Hunt was recognisable to all his friends he seems to have remained on friendly terms with Dickens. He was also on good terms with a man who lived round the corner in Cheyne Row , someone who was definitely the greatest Chelsea celebrity of his day.

Great Cheyne Row Carlyle's house 3899

Thomas Carlyle,historian, critic and “The Sage of Chelsea” lived in the house which is now a museum dedicated to him from 1834 (Hunt was at the door to welcome him and his wife Jane as they arrived by hansom cab) In his old age he took frequent solitary walks and has been depicted by other Chelsea artists such as Walter Greaves. This might be him in the view below:

Thomas Carlyle's house 24 Cheyne Row 710B

In deference to the great man, let’s have one more view of the house.

Carlyle's house 3900

I think that plaque is a depiction of Carlyle so presumably this is a later view, after his death and the creation of the museum .

I’ve used this picture before but Belle Vue House, on the right was the home not only of the poet and painter William Scott Bell, an early member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but also the birthplace of the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell.

Belle Vue House Lindsey Row

Bell bought the house later in his life. Unlike the other members of the Brotherhood, Bell was not championed by John Ruskin but he retained the friendship of Rossetti.

Turner's house 3903

Burgess also takes us to JMW Turner’s house with this small sketch. Turner lived there incognito with his housekeeper Mrs Booth and died there in 1851. Compare the picture with a similar view by W Hosmer Shepherd in this post.

The house of Thomas More was also long gone by the time Burgess was working but there may have been remants of it, such as this mulberry tree in the grounds of a Catholic seminary in Beaufort Street. A picturesque view in any case.

A corner of Thomas More's garden

Heading west again the tour takes us out of Chelsea for a final celebrity resident.

Sandford Manor House Nell Gwynne's house 719C

Sandford Manor, in Fulham, is often said to have been the home of Nell Gwynne, the mistress of Charles II, and a key figure in Chelsea history and/or mythology, so I couldn’t leave her out. However very few of the many biographies of her mention this. One says that a great many houses have been associated with her, too many to be entirely credible.

But let’s think of “pretty witty Nell” as she was sometimes known walking in her garden. One of these days she can have a post all to herself.

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The Chelsea Murders: fiction in Kensington and Chelsea 2

Lionel Davidson was a famous writer in his day, although not much mentioned these days. Many of his books are still in print though. He was big in the 60s. He wrote what you might call international thrillers -The Night of Wenceslas (1960) set in cold war Czechoslovakia, The Rose of Tibet (1962) set in India and Tibet and A long way to Shiloh (1966) set in Israel and Jordan. They were all bestsellers. The paperbacks were published by Penguin which made them look serious, like Len Deighton novels. (People sometimes forget now how innovative and influential Deighton was with books such as the Ipcress File and Billion Dollar Brain). Davidson himself is a literary ancestor of the modern authors of spy novels and techo-thrillers.

Chelsea Murders 01 - Copy (2)

The covers of his books from the 60s and 70s tell their own story:

LionelDavidson covers

In the centre a classic Penguin crime cover – green for crime. On the left a later Penguin edition typical of the early 70s – the arty but somewhat gratuitous notion of a map projected on a naked body was used on a series of Davidson novels. On the right the semi-surreal hardback cover for the Sun Chemist also typical of books from Jonathan Cape

In 1978 Cape published another Davidson crime thriller (with a tasteful cover ) in another exotic setting – The Chelsea Murders.

Chelsea Murders 01 - Copy - Copy

The novel begins with a lone woman who is surprised by a grotesquely masked man and killed. But she is not the first victim.

Unknown woman from JB2 02

Previously another woman was murdered in Jubilee Place, and a man in Bywater Street.

Jubilee Place 17817 23

The police begin to wonder if  a maniac is killing people in Chelsea.

I have read that Davidson never visited Chelsea before writing the book and employed researchers to get the local colour. He lived in Israel by this time so his own knowledge of London may be a little out of date – for example there’s no mention in the book of the punk scene which would have been well established by 1978.

There are some scenes set in Chelsea Library. In the book it’s the reference library at the old Chelsea Library in Manresa Road (well before my time although I have been in the old reference libary with its dark curving shelves and balcony). Here it is in a picture from the 50s 0r early 60s:

Manresa Road- ref - Copy

Several characters visit the library where Brenda the library assistant supplies information about famous local residents to a police detective. Mason notices her shelving – “Very nice bird,(he) thought. Victorian looking, yellow hair, parted in the middle; something a bit classical happened to it at the back.” Artie Johnson who will become one of the suspects notices Brenda in the first few pages of the and notes that she had “the look of a Pre-Raphaelite chick.”

Unfortunately for the police Brenda also tells Mary Mooney, an ambitious young reporter following the case (and are there any other kinds of journalists in thrillers?), and some of the suspects. One of those two women ends up in the killer’s sights but I won’t give away which one.

The exterior of the 1890s building, which you can still see today in Manresa Road:

Library exterior - Copy

When ITV did an adaptation of the book, those scenes were filmed in the new Chelsea Library at Chelsea Old Town Hall. I was already working for the Libraries then, and several years later I was reference librarian there, so whatever Davidson’s personal experience of Chelsea was, I feel like this is a book set more or less  in my own habitat.

There are some characters familiar from the 60s and 70s:

Filming under Battersea Bridge 1970 jb63b - Copy

A group of former art students who are making a film. Two of them and their mentor, a sleazy academic become the main suspects in the series of murders in which it seems that the killer is choosing his victims by their initials which match the names of some of those famous residents.

Rossetti VAW

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, (hence the painting on the cover of the book) is the first of the series which also features James McNeill Whistler, Algernon Swinburne, Leigh Hunt, AA Milne, W S Gilbert and even Oscar Wilde.

DGR was a woman murdered and dumped in the river. Ogden Wu, the owner of a slightly seedy shop selling denim in all its forms like in this market off the King’s Road is one of the later victims:

Chelsea Village Market 1970 - Copy

One of the desperate film makers works for Wu and finds himself even more deeply embroiled in the investigation after his boss’s death.

The police fixate on the suspects fairly early on. They trail them around, create a card index for the case (no mention of a computer in the book), even consult a reference book at the library to trace the provenance of a poem.

As you might expect they spend some time in one of the famous Chelsea pubs of thr era.

Chelsea Potter

Some of the language in the book has dated in a way which modern readers might find distasteful. The character Artie Johnson, the producer of the film is described (by a tabloid journalist ) as “a spade..a real one, all black” and Mooney thinks of him as “a long black cat, his golliwog smile in place under his beehive” (afro, presumably). That’s a phrase you couldn’t use (and wouldn’t want to) these days, but in 1978 casual racism was still prevalent in life as well as literature. The author was not of course necessarily endorsing the attitudes of his characters. Thrillers from previous eras exhibit many archaic attutudes whether it’s the off putting right wing opinions of Dennis Wheatley or the less offensive 1930s mannerisms of Michael Innes. The modern reader has to tread carefully when reading and the modern blogger when recommending books.

In fact I’m not sure whether I’d actually recommend the Chelsea Murders to anyone who wasn’t interested in the Chelsea setting. The local colour is the thing. It’s not quite the 1978 I remember, but then Chelsea in those days probably still contained pockets of previous eras.

Also, the serial killer genre has moved on since 1978 for better or worse. Davidson’s book is also a traditional whodunnit and the two genres don’t work very well together. The motivation of the killer is rather perfunctory and  you get the impression that he is simply play acting.

Although, like the Chelsea Murders, that can sometimes be effective:

Satan triumphant 1958 - Copy

And there is a decent twist at the end.

Postscript

The last picture is unmistakeably one of John Bignell’s arty but playful images, called Satan triumphant (1958). As with many of his pictures there’s no hint as to why it was taken. Some of the other pictures in this post are also by Bignell.

I’ve been tinkering with this post for weeks and reading the book in installments (I hate being obliged to read a book even when it was my own idea) so I’m glad to finally put it to bed. I hope it was worth the effort.


Victorian dreamtime – in the walled garden

If you don’t mind me referring you back to previous posts do you remember the post on William Cowen?  (Idle days in southern Kensington – link opposite) One of my favourites from the Cowen collection was the enigmatically titled “Avenue to Cresswell Lodge” with its peaceful looking line of trees, Narnian lamp post and solitary figure. Cresswell Lodge in its time a private house and a school seemed like a mysterious hidden place lost in time. When I wrote the post I didn’t realise that we had one further work by Cowen, not a watercolour but an etching. And honestly I didn’t know that it was a view of Cresswell Lodge.

 

 

Cresswell Lodge didn’t disappoint me. It’s not an obviously Victorian building, not even obviously 19th century so it has exactly the timeless quality I would have expected, sheltered by trees with a still lawn on which young women go about silent business behind a wall of trees. The notion of a secret garden is deeply embedded in our view of the Victorian era. Look at this view of the Rectory at Chelsea.

 

 

 

I don’t know who the couple are, or the figure sitting inside. Charles Kingsley, father of the novelist of the same name was the Rector there until his death in 1860. His son didn’t write the Water Babies for another couple of years but he may have conceived it on one of those long afternoons in the rectory garden hiding out from his father’s parishioners. It was one of the largest private gardens in London as you can see below.

 

 

The Water Babies is not much read now. It’s a strange mixture of social concerns about child labour and life after death fantasy. Alasdair Gray used elements of it in his own metaphysical fantasy Lanark.

The next incumbent at the Rectory was the Reverend Gerald Blunt. His son Reginald was also an author, one of the historians of Chelsea, and the founder of the Chelsea Society. An interesting man, but more of him another day.

Not far away from the Rectory was another Chelsea garden where quite a different group of people lived. In contrast with the muscular Christianity at the Rectory Tudor House in Cheyne Walk was where Dante Gabriel Rossetti came to live a few months after the death of Lizzie Siddall.

 

At first he lived there with the novelist George Meredith and the diminutive and erratic poet Algernon Swinburne who was given to frequent bouts of drunkenness and wandering around naked. It’s reminiscent of the strange world depicted in the film Performance in which Mick Jagger played the debauched rock star Turner. Many years later Jagger lived at Tudor House himself.

Rossetti soon had the whole house for himself and his family along with a menagerie which featured amongst others a murderous kangaroo, a raccoon, a wombat, several burrowing  armadillos and a bad tempered white peacock. This photo features only humans.

 

 

Rossetti, his sister Christina (who wrote another strange and half-forgotten Victorian fantasy the poem Goblin Market), their mother and his brother William who kept an eye on them all. The photographer was apparently fascinated by Rossetti’s wombat and put it into one of his own books as a dormouse. He was Charles Dodgson of course, a talented photographer as well as a writer. Another of his photographs:

 

 

Alice and her sisters. A little older than the views we’re used to seeing.  Still sitting quietly in one of those walled gardens like these two:

 

 

They’re sitting a few miles north of Tudor House at Garden Lodge Notting Hill.

 

 

It all looks a little dull.  Perhaps the pleasures of the secret garden were wearing thin by the end of the century. I’ve hopped around Victorian west London to get you from my fantasy of Cresswell Lodge in the 1840s in rural Chelsea to the Kensington of a few decades later. The still walled gardens are now surrounded by the growing noise and motion of urban life. But those strange little sanctuaries endured a while longer. A little further west and south was another quiet garden.

 

Another of my favourites. Ivy covered walls, a wide lawn. Two young women read in the afternoon light of another endless summer while a third waits disconsolately for someone to break the silence by playing tennis. Anyone?

 

The final house is Aubrey House, like Cresswell House also in its day both private house and school.

I found the photo of the Liddell sisters in Story of Alice by Christina Bjork.


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