Chelsea Or Montmartre?

The artists and writers who pursued the muse in fin-de-siècle London and Paris

Art Books History
“Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth”, by John Singer Sargent, 1889

The notion of Chelsea as a cheap, fringey neighbourhood where an up-and-coming artist might build himself a townhouse with a high-ceilinged studio strikes the modern observer of the London property market as laughable. Chelsea? Where a bijou cottage on Cheyne Walk sold for £28.5million last year? Where a garage, as the Evening Standard reported with cor-blimey awe, costs £500,000?

Before 1875, the Thames at Chelsea still had mud banks, but with the completion of the Chelsea Embankment, new tree planting and the introduction of street lamps, this village became a property hot spot for bohemians priced out of Kensington. In The Street of Wonderful Possibilities: Whistler, Wilde & Sargent in Tite Street, historian and Chelsea resident Devon Cox follows the transformation of one street from the arrival of James Abbott McNeill Whistler in 1878 to the departure of Augustus John in 1950. The title is borrowed from Oscar Wilde, who, spotting the actress Ellen Terry arriving at Tite Street in a carriage dressed in emerald robes to be painted by the American artist John Singer Sargent, observed: “The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia, can never again be as other streets. It must always be full of wonderful possibilities.”

Cox paints an ingenious group portrait of the artists, writers, critics, architects and luvvies who pursued the muse to Chelsea.  The new houses being built to residents’ specifications in Tite Street weren’t just homes or studios but, Cox argues, an expression of “aesthetic ideologies . . . in bricks and mortar”.

The Japanophile Whistler filled his White House on the corner of Tite Street with red-and-yellow Kaga porcelain, yellow velvet armchairs and bamboo sofas. The decoration — mustard-coloured walls and goldfish bowls — signalled to any patron arriving for a portrait sitting that Whistler was no staid Royal Academy man.

The sense that the Tite Street artists were outsiders — both professionally and geographically — brought a different sort of client. When Lady Meux, a girl from a Devon fishing village who had danced in the London casinos, caught the eye of Harry Meux, heir to a brewing fortune, and married him, wanted her portrait painted, it was Whistler she asked. “You and I always get on well together,” she wrote him. “I suppose we are both a little eccentric and not loved by all the world.”

Cox notes that The Picture of Dorian Grey, written in 1890 while Wilde and his wife Constance were living at No. 34, is very much a Tite Street novel. Any number of the street’s artists could have been the model for Wilde’s fictional portrait painter Basil Hallward.

In The Street of Wonderful Possibilities, sumptuously illustrated and written with a miniaturist’s eye for detail (Whistler serving American cream corn at his Sunday breakfasts; Oscar Wilde’s buttercup-yellow lotus-flower tea cups), Cox has given an irresistible account of fin de siècle Chelsea. Oh, to be able to afford so much as a Tite Street garage!

In 1900, the year that Sargent took the lease on No 31 Tite Street, another émigré artist, newly arrived in Paris from Barcelona, was looking for digs in Montmartre. Pablo Picasso pitched up at the Bateau Lavoir, so called because the building looked like the laundry boats moored along the Seine. The walls were damp and the place reeked of cats and mildew. There was no heat, no light, no running water and no loo, and the farmer who leased the cellar stacked his rooms with onions in the winter and mussels in the summer. Picasso kept a pet mouse in a drawer and smoked opium in his studio. When Juan Gris, the artist and a fellow Spaniard, moved into the Bateau with his lover and baby, they suspended the little boy in a sling from the studio window. You imagine him dismissing concerns with a Gallic shrug and the popular local phrase: “It’s the Montmartre way.”

Sue Roe’s In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris 1900-1910 is written with the energy and abandon of a can-can at the Moulin Rouge. What pinwheeling fun it is.

Roe doesn’t just give us Picasso and Matisse, but Juan Gris; Amedeo Modigliani (who, being fastidious about his cuffs and collars, picked up girls in the laundries rather than the brothels); the collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein; the dealer Ambroise Vollard; the designer Paul Poiret (recruited by the couturier Charles Worth to design fashionable “pommes frites” outfits to attract a younger clientele, while Worth made the “gateaux” for established clients); Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes; Vaslav Nijinsky; Igor Stravinsky; and Monsieur Henri, the bouncer at the Lapin Agile, who would bump miscreants off the dance floor with his enormous belly.

Roe sets the action against the circus and the cinema, the Moulin de la Galette and the Moulin Rouge, and the opening of the funiculaire, which brought the first tourists to the still partly rural Montmartre, with its vineyards and scrubland.

You didn’t even have to get past Henri the Bouncer to see the artists at play; Montmartre life spilled out of the bars and cabarets onto the street. Maurice de Vlaminck was nicknamed the “bougre des guinguettes fleuries” — the bloke from the open-air bars. Carles Casagemas, a poet and painter who had arrived in Paris with Picasso, shot himself in front of a local restaurant in despair over unrequited love for his Gabrielle, a Montmartroise model. Wine, Sue Roe reminds us, was tax-free in Montmartre.

Like Cox, Roe makes the place as arresting as the people. She darts from the Bateau Lavoir to the aerodrome at Issy-les-Moulineux, where Picasso and Braque made papier colle flying machines, to the Moulin de la Galette, where for four sous you could dance the polka all night.

On second thoughts, forget the garage in Tite Street — I’m moving to Montmartre.