Tag Archives: Walter William Burgess

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.


Late in the afternoon: Walter William Burgess

You have been here before. You have stood on this foreshore, seen those beached barges waiting for the next tide. You’ve walked those streets. But the last time you were looking through the eyes of the photographer, an artist who worked through light falling on a glass plate. This week you’re seeing the scenes below through the imagination of a man who worked with pencil and ink, and by scratching lines on a sheet of metal. Just as William Cowen created a rural idyll in the area between Kensington and Chelsea (Idle days in southern Kensington – see list of posts opposite) so Walter William Burgess created an urban fantasy out of what he saw in Chelsea in the second half of the 19th century.

Here is Lindsey Wharf again, the barges with their sails furled and the men walking on the mud up to the stairs.

Back on solid ground this is Lindsey Row looking west echoing the view we saw in the Hedderly post Tales of the Riverbank.

The tide is in and there seems to be more activity in the street. To me it looks like an afternoon scene. Smoke from the chimneys and people on their way home. That same horse and cart waiting in the first picture are now on their way. The sky is full of clouds, birds are on the wing. The guys from Green’s boatyard have moved a tricky job out into the street.

Past the bridge in Cheyne Walk the high tide touches the road.

A milkmaid heads towards the Old Church. Two men with time on their hands relax and talk just feet from the water. This picture has the feel of an earlier period than the others, perhaps the 1830s or 1840s when Chelsea was still half rural full of market gardens and nurseries. Burgess has slipped us into a time machine of his own.

We’re moving away from the waterfront now. This is Justice Walk. The Wesleyan Chapel building is still there even that strange cage like structure over the basement yard. The building has also  a court house been a wine merchant’s house. The street may take its name from a resident of nearby Lawrence Street the famous magistrate and founder of the Bow Street Runners Sir John Fielding. A story persists that it has a tunnel in the cellar which leads to the river. Chelsea has quite a few of those rumoured hidden passages. Very few of them can be found today.

I used to walk through this alley every evening on the way home from work. it’s quiet, tranquil rather than spooky although I once saw two of the modern equivalents of the Runners in action there. I can’t say more than that here.

Now we’re looking south down Old Church Street. There are cafes, shops, houses. A woman I think I should recognize from a Hedderly photograph walks with her son. Some other children are playing with hoops. Hoops are a bit of a craze in Burgess pictures. It looks like another late afternoon. The hint of growing shadows, more smoke in the air.

Burgess’s Chelsea has secret places too behind the public streets.

The Moravian burial ground. If you remember this patch of green has been used in our century for exercising a lion. But it has obviously always welcomed animals. Who is the figure in black on the path?

I’m not good with botany but I know that’s a cedar tree looming over the Sloane statue. In our archive room there is a cedar box made from wood from this garden. A couple of potted plants sit in front of Sloane like some kind of offering. At the left another stone deity stands surrounded by plants.  From the Physic Garden you can move on to the Royal Hospital. In the picture below two Pensioners have left the Hospital to stroll up Franklin’s Row. It’s one of my favourite Burgess pictures.

It’s the sheep that make the picture for me. But go back and look through these pictures again. You’ll find animals in every one. Horses, chickens, dogs and cats. The goat. If he couldn’t insert four legged creatures Burgess made do with birds. He couldn’t keep the animals out. Perhaps it was part of urban life in those days. Even in the city we shared our space with them. Is there an unknown animal among the exotic plants in the Physic Garden? WWB might know for sure.

Walter William Burgess lived from 1845 to 1908. Very little is known about his life but given the time he was in Chelsea it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that he knew Hedderly, the Greaves brothers and maybe Whistler as well. Many of Burgess’s pictures are collected in a folio volume called Bits of Old Chelsea.


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