So there he is. Dr Phene in his garden. A neatly dressed elderly man with a flamboyant beard. Dr Phene was a minor celebrity in his own time. He is still famous in a small way. A local eccentric who collected artworks from all over the world. A poor man’s Sir John Soane if you want to be cruel.
He built a famous house which he never lived in. Shall we look at the house?
The house is as famous as the man. Stories abound about Dr Phene and his house. His wife or his fiancé died and the wedding breakfast, already laid out was preserved untouched in the house just like Miss Havisham’s. I’m glad to say this is not true. A woman to whom he was engaged died of a rheumatic fever but that was many years before he built the house. He later married his cousin Margaretta. Some say the marriage soon failed others that it lasted for some time before Margaretta left and went to live in Paris. He did name a street after her though – Margaretta Terrace.
Another story told about Dr Phene is that Queen Victoria came to see the new houses he was building off Oakley Street and was pleased enough with them to say he could name the new street after her, but he declined as he had already promised the name to his wife. If this is true it sounds quite a daring thing to do. He may have made up for the slight later by writing a long narrative poem: “Victoria Queen of Albion – an idyll of the world’s advance in her life and reign” published in 1897. (I have a copy of the book here with me but I’m going to spare you any quotations from this work. It doesn’t make much sense to me even with the explanatory footnotes and illustrations.)
It’s also true that Dr Phene never actually lived in the house but he and his friends seem to have spent time in it, long enough to have created among other features a mortuary for cats within its walls. Or would that be another apocryphal story? The house is described as being in the style of a French chateau or an Italian palazzo depending on the source and either way as a celebration of Dr Phene’s rich and varied ancestry. He is said to have avoided completing the building because of a dispute over the rates with the Chelsea Vestry, which is a dull enough explanation to be plausible, but perhaps he simply never got around to finishing it. He had another house nearby in Oakley Street which wasn’t exactly conventional in appearance either.
I love the composition of this photograph. Dr Phene, Dr Phene’s dog, Dr Phene’s maid posing for another illustration of his eccentricity.
For the record then, Dr John Samuel Phene: a traveller, a collector, a scholar, a poet, a recluse (who nevertheless seems to have had many friends), a property developer. An innovator in architecture and planning, he was the first person to think of planting trees in streets but also perhaps a lover of decay. The famous house was on the corner of Oakley Street and Upper Cheyne Row. It was built in the grounds of the literally crumbling eighteenth century mansion Cheyne House. The garden was overgrown and unkempt except where Dr Phene had carved out a section for the display of his collection of sculptures.
I think these two photos, probably taken after Dr Phene’s death, demonstrate the sheer strangeness of the house and garden better than any number of stories. And the depth of Phene’s obsession with collecting exotic objects. That is still real long after the rumours have been forgotten.
The garden and its contents are looking a little the worse for wear. Perhaps this was at the time of the sale of the house. The building itself continued to stand empty until its demolition in the 1920s.
I haven’t exhausted the mine of contradictory stories about Dr Phene. The photographs tell their own story. I always come back to the first picture: Dr Phene in his garden. Aloof, diffident but quietly satisfied with his efforts and the persona he has created.
But I can’t help adding one more picture, one more mystery. Here is Dr Phene in a more sociable setting on a charabanc tour in 1860.
I think he’s the man on the far left with the casual pose and the already impressive moustache. But he could be deceiving me.