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“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!

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