THE STREET OF WONDERFUL POSSIBILITIES: WHISTLER, WILDE & SARGENT IN TITE STREET
By Devon Cox
Frances Lincoln Limited. 287 pages. £25/$40. ISBN 978-0-7112-3673-8
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Tite Street in London’s Chelsea is a relatively short thoroughfare between Queen’s Road and the Embankment. It probably doesn’t ring as many bells as Cheyne Walk or the King’s Road if it’s mentioned in conversation, and yet, for a period between roughly 1880 and 1914, it was home to a variety of artists, writers, and others, and constituted what might be seen as London’s bohemia. It was, it needs to be said, a bohemia that mostly excluded the poverty-stricken artists and students often associated with notions of bohemian living, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that the life-styles of many of the inhabitants of the houses on Tite Street would have seemed to observers to fit into a context of bohemia. “Gentlemen bohemians” might be a handy way to describe them. I ought to mention at this point that in referring to the years 1880 to 1914 I’m not denying that artists continued to live in Tite Street in later years. They did, but I think it’s probably true to say that the period concerned was Tite Street’s heyday, no matter that Devon Cox records that, as late as 1994, Princess Diana came to Tite Street to sit for a portrait being painted by the American artist, Nelson Shanks. The real action in Tite Street had taken place around a century before.
Cox points out that much of the physical appeal of Tite Street resided in the fact that many of the houses had been built to specifications laid down by artists and their architects, in particular a noted one called E.W. Godwin. He gave them an individual appearance. He was also someone who understood what artists required, both in terms of studio space with adequate lighting and of residencies that would highlight their good taste and their material success. In an age when many artists depended on patrons and their commissions for a living it was considered essential to be able to present a confident front (house and person) to visitors.
One of the first artists to establish himself in Tite Street was the American, James Abbott McNeill Whistler. He had kicked off his career in Paris, mixing with painters, writers, and art students. Among the people he knew was George du Maurier who would satirise Whistler as Joe Sibley, the “idle apprentice, the king of bohemia,” when he published his novel, Trilby, in serial form in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1894. Du Maurier never did have much patience with the kind of affectations that Whistler projected, and in true English fashion preferred artists who extolled common-sense and practicality, and were down-to-earth in their behaviour. By that time Whistler had established a reputation as an artist and he quickly threatened to sue unless the character was changed when Trilby appeared as a book. The required alteration was made and Sibley disappeared from the text. It’s of interest to note that an edition of Trilby based on the version that appeared in Harper’s was published by W.H.Allen in 1982. But all that came later, and in the early-1860s Whistler moved to London, where he found a different atmosphere: “There was no café culture, no artistic quarter, no friendly exchange of ideas. In Paris, studios had been open ateliers and salons where fellow artists were free to come and go at will, inspecting their work, and engaging in discussion.” According to Cox, artists in London locked themselves away and the Royal Academy ruled the roost when it came to judgements on what was acceptable.
Whistler initially had some success with the British art establishment, and one of his paintings was accepted by the Royal Academy and praised by John Everett Millais. And there was something of a little bohemia in Britain centred on a house in Cheyne Walk where Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the leading Pre-Raphaelite painter, lived alongside the poet Algernon Swinburne, novelist George Meredith, and several others. Cox recounts how the habit of Swinburne and Simeon Solomon (an artist who would later die in St Giles’s workhouse of chronic alcoholism) sliding naked down the banister handrails upset some of more-straight-laced inhabitants of the property. When Whistler found accommodation in nearby Queen’s Road he quickly established a routine of open house on Sundays and began to attract artists, writers, and intellectuals. Swinburne was among the guests and later published a poem, “Before the Mirror,” inspired by a Whistler painting, Symphony in White No.2: The Little White Girl, that the Royal Academy had accepted. Poems by Swinburne, and paintings by Whistler and Rossetti, soon began to be lumped together as belonging to the “fleshly school.” A better way of describing what was happening could be that it was the start of the “aesthetic adventure” that would culminate in the late-1890s when the sensational trial of Oscar Wilde brought not just the weight of the law down on so-called decadent behaviour, but also the weight of public opinion down on writers and artists who appeared to have any kind of connection to avant-garde, offbeat, or effete-seeming paintings and poems. William Gaunt once summed up the situation following the Wilde affair: “It had caused a wholesale literary and social fumigation. An exaggerated robustness was one of the consequences.”
But that had yet to arrive, and by the late-1860s and early-1870s Whistler had established a reputation as a portrait artist and as something of a character, flamboyant in dress and behaviour. The flamboyancy may have been somewhat tame when compared to what went on in Paris, but it frequently shocked the respectable in London. As did Whistler’s capacity for making enemies. Still, he was earning good money with his paintings and in 1877 he signed an agreement to have a house built in Tite Street. As Cox indicates, the location had several advantages from Whistler’s point of view. The land was cheap to lease from the Metropolitan Board of Works, it was in Chelsea, and it gave the artist instant access to the Thames which had begun to provide subject-matter for him.
It may have been the case that artists, at least if they were successful, could be acceptable in polite society, but their mistresses weren’t. Maud Franklin, Whistler’s model and mistress, may have lived with him, and had his child, and she could be at home to the male visitors who came to his Sunday soirees, but she would never be invited to call at the houses of married fellow-artists or his rich patrons. Cox describes Franklin as “a typical Whistler girl – demure, Celtic-looking, pale-skinned and red-headed.” But a friend of Whistler’s had a more-downbeat opinion of her as “not pretty, with prominent teeth, a real British type.”
If Whistler had openings to the upper reaches of London society he also knew some of its rogues and rascals. The agent and dealer, Charles Augustus Howell, had worked as Ruskin’s secretary until he was fired, helped Rossetti retrieve his poems from Lizzie Siddall’s grave, and had come to Whistler’s assistance during a financial crisis by selling some of his sketches. The artist later saw one of them in a pawnbroker’s window described as a first study for St Peter’s by Michelangelo. Howell also paid Whistler to paint a portrait of his mistress, Rosa Corder, a talented artist who may not have been as disreputable as Howell, but fell under his influence, and cheerfully helped him to forge paintings and etchings by Millais, Rossetti, and others. There’s a reproduction of Whistler’s Arrangement in Brown and Black:Portrait of Miss Rosa Corder in the book, and a description by the actress, Ellen Terry, which points to her being the kind of person who would immediately attract attention when she walked into a room. Someone said of Corder, she “exuded sex appeal and knew it.”
Whistler’s fame, or notoriety, soon received something of a setback. As well as painting portraits that were looked on favourably, he had been producing pictures of scenes along the Thames and elsewhere which were more-experimental and influenced by what he had seen in Paris. His Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket had been exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in London and viewed there by the noted critic, John Ruskin. He was outraged by what he saw and in an article for the magazine, Fors Clavigera, he said, among other things, that he “never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler was equally outraged and sued Ruskin for libel. The trial that followed allowed Whistler to make some assertive statements regarding his skills as an artists, and the jury found in his favour. But he was awarded only a derisory one farthing in damages and had to pay costs, almost as a comment on his making such a ridiculous issue about Ruskin’s remarks, and perhaps because a certain arrogance in Whistler’s attitude was noted and it annoyed people. Whistler was bankrupted and had to sell his Tite Street house, along with many of his possessions, though Charles Augustus Howell seems to have turned up to help smuggle some paintings out, and help himself to a few of them. And then Whistler headed for Venice to fulfil a commission from the Fine Arts Society, leaving behind his pregnant mistress, Maud Franklin.
Oscar Wilde’s wealthy friend, Frank Miles, asked E.W.Godwin to design a house for construction in Tite Street, and when it was completed the pair moved in together. Despite Wilde’s later obvious leanings their relationship may not have had a sexual side to it (opinions vary about this), and Miles, an artist, seems to have shown a preference for young girls. One of his “discoveries” was Sally Higgs, “a pretty girl about sixteen years of age” who functioned as a maid and model. Previously a flower seller outside Victoria Station, she was described as “a born Bohemian” and was soon “one of the most sought-after models in London.” She could be seen in Lord Leighton’s Day Dreams, a painting exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1882. Cox doesn’t relate what happened to Sally Higgs as she got older, though he does refer to an anecdote about her turning up at Miles’s house some years after his death and requesting to be allowed to have a look around it to remind herself of “the scene of her triumphs and happiness.” That might be taken to suggest that all had not gone well for her later in life. As for Frank Miles, his penchant for teenage girls brought on brushes with the law and attempts to blackmail him, according to Cox. He did have some success as an artist, but became almost a recluse in his Tite Street house and spent more time in his garden than his studio. He eventually committed himself to an asylum in Bristol suffering from syphilis and died there in 1891. Cox gives the date of his death as 1890, but most other sources say 1891.
Wilde and Miles had parted company years before the latter’s death, and the poet and playwright had, of course, gone on to great success with plays such as Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest, his public appearances, and the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. He had also come to represent the popular idea of an aesthete and was frequently lampooned in Punch, as well as in stage productions like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience. But Wilde, married and with children, was leading a double-life, the dark side of which involved male prostitutes and a liaison with Lord Alfred Douglas. The story of his encounters with Douglas’s father, Wilde suing for libel and losing, and then being prosecuted for indecency and sentenced to two years in prison, which effectively destroyed him and led to his early death, is too well-known for me to repeat here. He had bought a house in Tite Street when he became famous and affluent, and his public disgrace led to it being ransacked by hostile crowds. The sight of someone like Wilde crashing to earth brought on a backlash against the idea of aestheticism, French influences, and painting and writing that didn’t adhere to a notion of healthy living and clean morals. There was probably a great deal of hypocrisy at work when such attitudes became paramount, but for the press and the powerful it was an opportunity to stoke up resentment against someone who had for years provoked comment because of his wit and success. While he could be satirised he was probably safe enough, but once he broke the rules about public displays of deviant practices he became the victim of what the anarchist Kropotkin liked to refer to as “organised vengeance called justice.”
While the purpose of this book is to focus largely on Whistler, Wilde and Sargent, it does also bring in a cast of minor characters who add colour to the narrative. Examples would be Lord and Lady Meux. He was the son of a wealthy baronet who owned the Meux brewery. Harry Meux grew up mostly in boarding schools in Britain after his father became mentally ill and his mother deserted the family and moved to France. When Harry was twenty-one he inherited an allowance of £28,000 a year, an enormous sum at the time. He met Susan Valerie Langdon who was from a small fishing village in Devon and was working as a singer, dancer, and barmaid in casinos, dance halls, and similar places. Cox suggests that she may also have been a prostitute. She was said to be a “dazzling beauty,” and she and Harry eloped and got married. She was several years older than Harry and had “knocked around London for ten years” before she met him. Obviously, his relatives weren’t happy with the marriage and Lady Meux, as she became, was never going to be accepted in society. Whistler painted her twice and there would have been a third painting but he destroyed it after she’d argued with him about the time taken for the sittings. Whistler didn’t like to be criticised, but she gave as good as she got when they fell out and told him to keep a civil tongue in his head. The paintings certainly do show her as a very striking woman, and Whistler probably had no need to flatter by making her seem more attractive than she was.
The more I read about Lady Meux the more I liked her. She was known to drive around London in a phaeton pulled by two zebras, collected artefacts from Egypt, owned racehorses, donated some guns to British forces during the Boer War, and finally left everything in her will, including her interests in the Meux brewery, to a naval officer she had met and admired for his services against the Boers. I rather think that she may have been getting a little of her own back for the way the Meux family had treated her. It’s of interest to note that Devon Cox makes some plausible links, in terms of rich young men and ladies from another class, between the Meux relationship and that of Dorian Gray and Sibyl Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray, though there are also significant differences. And Wilde could additionally have had in mind the case of the aristocrat artist Archibald Stuart-Wortley who married the actress Nelly Bromley after getting her pregnant. Cox also shows how Wilde drew on his Tite Street environment for descriptive material in his book. The artist’s studio had links to Frank Miles’s place of work, and the Theatre Royal had some similarities to the actual Casino de Venise, where Harry Meux most likely first met Valerie Langdon or Val Reece, as she was known. Incidentally, I’ve referred to Sibyl Vane, which is how the name is shown in my old Penguin copy of the novel, but Cox has it as Sybil, as does another source I consulted. A minor point, but it aroused my curiosity. Was the Penguin version a misprint?
John Singer Sargent, like Whistler, was an American who arrived in London via Paris. He had trained “in the atelier of renowned French society portraitist Carolus Duran,” and had exhibited successfully at several annual Paris Salons. But in 1884 he experienced something of a setback when his portrait, Madame X, caused a scandal. As it was shown at the Salon the painting was of a lady in a low-cut evening dress with straps, one of which had slipped off her shoulder. This was taken by many viewers and commentators to suggest a pre or post-sexual situation. Sargent later re-painted the strap in its correct position on the shoulder, as can be seen in the reproduction in the book. More information about this episode in Sargent’s life can be found in Deborah Davis’s entertaining Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X (Sutton Publishing, 2004).
Feeling that his reputation in Paris as a portrait painter had suffered a setback because of the scandal, Sargent moved to London in 1886 and a studio-flat in Tite Street. He was a far less outgoing character than Whistler. His life was said to be “as orderly as that of a bishop,” and he dressed formally, even when working in his studio. But though reticent to talk too much about his work he didn’t lack in confidence when it came to his skills. He was initially less successful in London than he was in Paris, but when his work was shown in America it was highly praised. Cox sums up his situation: “Since his arrival in London, Sargent had perplexed the Royal Academy. He was an outsider – an American trained in Paris, and painting in the French style, and a card-carrying member of the New English Art Club – yet he could no longer be ignored.” He was elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1894. After that, his career never looked back, though in time he tired of the endless commissions to paint portraits of the titled and wealthy. When Lady Radnor asked him for a portrait of one of her daughters his response was: “Ask me to paint your gates, your fences, your barns, which I should gladly do, but NOT THE HUMAN FACE.”
There were tragedies among the Tite Street painters. Charles Wellington Furse had a fiancé, Eleanor Butcher, who died of tuberculosis, the scourge that had afflicted the bohemians in Henry Murger’s novel of life in Paris in the 1840s. And Furse himself later succumbed to the same disease. Marian Collier, an artist herself and married to the successful John Collier, died young after suffering from acute post-natal depression. Roger Brough, who travelled to Paris with Samuel Peploe, had mixed with the Glasgow Boys in the 1890s. He had some success in Paris with his attractive painting, Fantaisie en Folie, which is in Cox’s book, and on his return to Britain he moved into a property in Tite Street. His future looked promising, but he was involved in a railway accident in 1905, was badly burned, and died in hospital. Much later, Peter Warlock, a musician not a painter, was found dead in his flat in Tite Street. There were doubts about whether his death, caused by coal-gas poisoning, was an accident or suicide, and even a suggestion of murder by a rival composer who was the sole beneficiary of Warlock’s will which was due to be changed.
As I mentioned earlier, the heyday of Tite Street was probably during the years covered by the activities of Whistler, Wilde, and Sargent. There were other talented arrivals, including the American Anna Lee Merritt, who established a reputation as a portrait artist despite a prejudice against women working in that field, and Romaine Brooks, another American, though she made a greater impact in Paris in the 1920s. Edith Elizabeth Downing, a noted suffragette activist as well as an artist, lived in Tite Street, as did Hannah Gluckstein and Glyn Philpot who, among other things, painted a portrait of Siegfried Sassoon. And Augustus John, the roaring boy of the British art scene, was there, too, and stuck it out during the Second World War. He painted a portrait of Field Marshall Lord Montgomery in 1944, though the famous soldier wasn’t too impressed with the result. He wasn’t over-keen on the artist, either, and said: “Who is this chap? He drinks, he’s dirty, and I know there are women in the background.” Bohemianism obviously wasn’t to the priggish Montgomery’s liking.
There is, I think, an interesting question that arises in relation to most of the artists clustered around Tite Street and Chelsea in general. Were they an avant-garde? Perhaps they sometimes were in relation to much of what was hung on the walls of the Royal Academy. But with the exception of Whistler, whose paintings of the Thames and similar subjects can still surprise as they approach the abstract, there was little that seemed truly innovative or experimental in any way. I’m not suggesting a qualitative judgement when I say that. Personally, I’m a great admirer of Sargent’s portraits and of other works, such as Charles Wellington Furse’s Diana of the Uplands, and Archibald Stuart-Wortley’s The Sleep of an Acorn, both of which are attractive to look at. The Tite Street painters didn’t lack in skills. But compared to what was happening among the more-adventurous artists in Paris around 1900 they usually appeared conventional. It’s true that things were changing in London. The New English Art Club had been established as a kind of alternative to the restrictive opinions expressed at the Royal Academy, though in time some of the “old guard” in that organisation would be left behind by younger members. Walter Sickert, one of Whistler’s former pupils, was reacting against what he termed “Sargentolatry,” and would eventually be the leading light in what became known as the “Camden Town Group.” And Roger Fry would soon bring Post-Impressionist paintings to London. Outside London, in Newlyn and St Ives, and in Scotland, artists, many with experience of working in Paris and other Continental cities, were incorporating new ideas into their paintings. But this is not to denigrate what had happened in Tite Street. Within its framework it had been a centre of artistic activity, with numerous talented painters living there or nearby, and there is nothing to be gained by comparing it unfavourably to other places.
The Street of Wonderful Possibilities is a splendid book, well written in a way that is entertaining and informative without lapsing into art jargon or academic theorising. And it is beautifully illustrated with many of the paintings referred to and also photographs and drawings of Tite Street and its houses. There are ample notes and a useful bibliography. I can’t recommend it highly enough.