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Art in Chelsea: a look at the neighbourhood’s history in art

With Frieze London imminent, Rob Ryan looks at some of the artists who made Sloane Street and Chelsea their home, and often their subject

2 October 2023

The Blue Silk Dress by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Image: Alamy

He must have been quite the sight. The year is 1887. Every weekday morning a large, flamboyantly dressed man perambulates (‘walking’ doesn’t quite do his gait justice) from number 34 Tite Street to Lower Sloane Street and heads north to Sloane Square underground. He is en route to his offices, just off Fleet Street. Each evening the dandified gentleman retraces his route back to Chelsea, cutting through the evening crowds like a galleon under full sale.

This was Oscar Wilde, who had married, found a new residence in Chelsea, and had taken up a (short-lived) position as the editor of The Woman’s World journal – ‘the organ of women of intellect, culture and position’. Quite why such a woman couldn’t be editor of said journal was probably a moot point in the office. While not an artist himself – although, like Gilbert & George a century later, he no doubt considered himself a living work of art – Wilde had plenty to say about art (and did write a novel about a creepy portrait, of course) was part of a creative community that had settled on Tite Street.

They, and the diaspora that had colonised nearby roads, especially Markham Street, Glebe Place and Cheyne Walk, were mostly responsible for Chelsea gaining its reputation as London’s premier ‘bohemian’ quarter. The founding of the Chelsea Arts Club at 101 King’s Road in 1891 (it moved to its current site on Old Church Street in 1902) only helped cement that reputation.

We know that there was substance behind this common perception because in the 1921 census it was noted that the borough had the greatest concentration of male artists in London, at 9 per 1,000 men (which must have included the notorious libertine Augustus John at 28 Mallord Street). Only Hampstead came close, with 6 per 1,000. 

And the women? Not noted. There were a number of high-profile female artists in Chelsea in the late 19th century, such as American Anna Lea Merritt who painted the popular Love Locked Out, but by the census many of them had died (like Maud Porter) or moved out of the borough.

But not all: artist, sculptor and militant suffragette Edith Elizabeth Downing and the gender-nonconforming artist known only as Gluck (born Hannah Gluckstein) were still working in Chelsea in 1921. 

Artists had been drawn to Chelsea well before Oscar Wilde’s time – in fact J.M.W. Turner lived near the river from 1846 until his death in 1851, but in wilful obscurity, careful to maintain his anonymity. He did, though, carry on painting, even as a recluse. 

Although the art crowd would eventually gravitate towards the new Chelsea Embankment, Sloane Street always had a healthy smattering of creatives. Architect Henry Holland had built a mansion called Sloane Place in 1780; it was later sold, renamed The Pavilion and subsequently sub-divided with several artists taking up residence (it sat on the current site of Shafto Mews). 

In 1863 sculptor John Birnie Philip took over the old kitchen wing of The Pavilion, using the space to sculpt the 99 figures for the Albert Memorial. His daughter later married James McNeill Whistler, who would become a pivotal, and sometimes divisive figure, in the Chelsea arts scene.

Whistler (1834-1903) was, of course, American. He came to Chelsea in the early 1860s from Paris because his half-sister Deborah and brother-in-law, Francis Seymour Haden, were living on Sloane Street. Whistler obviously liked what he found in the then rather quaint village because he decided to stay in the area. 

When Dante Gabriel Rossetti – of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – moved to Cheyne Walk in 1862 after his wife Elizabeth died of a laudanum overdose (a possible suicide), Cheyne Walk quickly became the heart of the Chelsea scene, focussed on Rossetti and his circle. 

The Brotherhood, which had once been based in Gower Street, also included the eccentric poet Algernon Swinburne and Edward Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones was another Pre-Raphaelite, but also aligned with the Arts and Crafts Movement. You can see his beautiful stained-glass work, executed with William Morris, in the east window of Holy Trinity on Sloane Street.

So, wanting to be part of the hip crowd, Whistler rented Lindsey House at number 7 Lindsey Row (now 101 Cheyne Walk), not far from Rossetti. Lindsey House also became the nexus for a gathering of intellectuals, aesthetes, authors, actors and artists. Then, in 1864, Whistler’s life changed forever: his mother came to stay.

The picture of the widow in her sombre clothes is actually titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother. But few call it that. It is popularly known as ‘Whistler’s Mother’ and it made the painter’s fortune (even though he would eventually flee the country in debt). 

A raft of new commissions meant he could purchase his own property and he chose to move out of Rossetti’s immediate orbit and commissioned The White House on Tite Street, a throughfare he modestly considered “the birthplace of art”. It too, was soon on the social circuit, particularly after the Prince of Wales and Lillie Langtry (who were lovers in the late 1870s) dropped by. Today, you can discover a tribute to Whistler’s spectacular Peacock Room (originally installed in Kensington) in the new One Sloane’s all-day restaurant

Whistler drew devoted acolytes such as Walter Sickert and Mortimer Menpes (later best known as an etcher and printmaker). In the 1970s Sickert was accused of being Jack the Ripper. Although he was indeed obsessed with the case, even lodging in what he believed was the serial killer’s rooms for a while (and painting Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom), the consensus is that he was innocent of the murders, but guilty of being a true-crime geek. 

This trio, master and two students, would stroll the streets of Chelsea, sketching en plein air, before returning to the studio for lunch and more work. Whistler’s etching, sketches and prints of Chelsea, including snapshots of the local poor, like the Rag Gatherers, and images of the river, are plentiful in galleries around the world, as are larger canvasses such as Variations in Pink and Grey: Chelsea and Cremorne Gardens, No. 2. Cremorne Gardens was a large pleasure garden running down to the Thames that the artists frequented.

Consulting The Street of Wonderful Possibilities by Devon Cox, it becomes apparent that Tite Street in the late 1900s was as incident-packed as Ramsey Street or Albert Square – a soap opera with added artists. 

There were feuds, court cases (Whistler sued critic John Ruskin for his hostile review of Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket and won a farthing in damages, multiplying his financial insecurity), complaints about noise, bankruptcies, sex scandals, and new blood in the form of another expat, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). He famously painted actress Ellen Terry in full Lady Macbeth costume. His studio at 33 Tite Street (formerly number 13 and once Whistler’s home) was also where, in 1994, the late John Nelson Shanks – also American – painted a famed, full-sized portrait of Princess Diana, which now hangs at Althorp House.

Incidentally, the Whistler/Sargent studio is still home to a working artist. There is also Rossetti Studios – a historic complex of eight recently restored artist studios that are just a stone’s throw from their namesake’s original studio. The very presence of Saatchi Gallery just along from Sloane Square also helps keep the perceived bond between the arts and Chelsea strong. Additionally, you’re likely to find Chelsea artists and/or local street scenes represented at the upcoming Frieze London in Regent’s Park (11-15 October).

There is, in fact, a physical commemoration of the contribution Chelsea has made to London’s artistic heritage on Sloane Square: The Venus Fountain by sculptor Gilbert Ledward RA. It was presented to Chelsea by the Royal Academy and includes a carving of King Charles II alongside the Thames with his mistress Nell Gwynne (who lived nearby). It was erected in 1953 and actor Greta Scacchi claims that the model for the Venus was Pamela Carsinga, her mother, who was a trainee dancer and a life model for artists in Chelsea at the time. It should, then, perhaps also be considered as honouring all those unsung models and muses who have graced Chelsea studios over the years.



Love Locked Out by Anna Lea Merritt. Image: Alamy
Oscar Wilde's home on Tite Street. Image: Alamy
The Venus Fountain by Gilbert Ledward RA in Sloane Square. Image: Alamy
Chelsea Arts Club. Image: Alamy
Oscar Wilde. Image: Alamy
Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother - James McNeill Whistler. Image: Alamy
Statue of James McNeill Whistler in Chelsea. Image: Alamy