At the turn of the last century, Chelsea attracted bearded Bohemians, fragrant fops in fedoras, riff-raff, writers, architects, painters, musicians, madmen, gays, cartoonists, ne’er-do-wells, socialites from the beau monde, popinjays, coxcombs, cocksmiths, dandiprats, or just plain prats, poets, toffs, tarts, lounge lizards, charlatans, the jeunesse dorée from the West End, actors, rebels, ruffians and free spirits. They drank, took drugs, got into debt, fell in love, made music, painted pictures, cast sculpture, produced plays, wrote soaring prose, laughed, fought and died. One hundred and thirty years later, the dramatis personae have hardly changed. One possible difference is that very few artists can afford to live in Chelsea, let alone find a studio that is not occupied by a hedge-fund manager, Panamanian plutocrat or Russian oligarch. The Chelsea Arts Club has been the epicentre of Chelsea for 130 years, but not always in the same building. In the late nineteenth century, a group of artists used to meet in various pubs in Chelsea, often favouring the Six Bells on the King’s Road, for a drink or two and to talk about art and artists. They discussed hiring a room where they could meet and eat. Thomas Stirling Lee, a talented sculptor, offered his spacious studio and soon other artists’ studios became available, with the food and wine being provided by the more prosperous members. Following on from this, twenty-two artists, including James ‘Jimmie’ Elder Christie, Thomas Stirling-Lee, James Jebusa Shannon and George Percy Jacomb-Hood, discussed the formation of, first, an exhibiting society, and then a club. At the second meeting in Lee’s studio on 25 October 1890, James McNeill Whistler was present. A set of rules were drawn up, the second being that the Club should consist of professional architects, engravers, painters and sculptors. Jimmie Christie, a Scottish painter, offered this fledgling club the ground floor and basement of his house at 181 King’s Road, next to the newly built Chelsea Town Hall.
The formal launch of the Club took place on 18 March 1891, with fifty-five members present. Of these founders, Christie, a man who ‘suffered a good deal from thirst’, went back to Scotland where he became part of a group of realist painters called The Glasgow Boys. Others were Walter Sickert, a part-time actor, Whistler’s assistant for a while and part of the Camden Town School; Henry Tonks, a surgeon turned painter who was Head of Art at the Slade; Philip Wilson Steer, a leading British impressionist and co-founder of the New English Arts Club; Sir George Clausen, painter of landscapes and rural life; Sir John Lavery, Irish portraitist, Glasgow Boy and war artist; Phil May, one of the finest pen and ink cartoonists of his day (Whistler said one could sum up black and white drawing in the two words: ‘Phil’ and ‘May’); Sir Frank Brangwyn, an incredibly prolific artistic jack-of-all-trades; H.M. Bateman, famous for ‘the Man Who . . .’ series, including ‘the man who threw a snowball at St Moritz’ or ‘the man who lit a cigar before the loyal toast’; John Singer Sargent, the hugely successful American portrait painter living in Tite Street; Sir William Orpen, another war artist; and Thomas Stirling Lee, the first Chairman of the Club.
George Percy Jacomb-Hood was an accomplished painter, etcher and illustrator. He was also an avid horseman, hunter, golfer, yachtsman and an early cyclist. In his book, With Brush and Pencil, he wrote, ’This absence of any eating and meeting-place, especially for the evenings, gave Stirling-Lee the idea of starting the Chelsea Arts Club. The ground-ﬂoor and basement of a house in the King’s Road, and the studio at the back of it, in the tenancy of a jovial and talented Scots painter, James ‘Jimmie’ Christie, were rented and for the ﬁrst three years I was the Honorary Treasurer. Every week we did our own housekeeping and paying of tradesmen’s books, and (Mr and Mrs Harvey) a Dickens-like couple, were found to act as steward and cook. This steward had a watery eye and a shaky hand, and we were not altogether taken by surprise when his failing got the upper hand and he said he saw strange hobgoblins dancing and playing on the bell-wires in the kitchen; he was removed, raving, to an inﬁrmary, and a more exemplary couple were soon found. We had an excellent Creole cook, Myers, whose signature dish of angels-on-horseback became popular with the members. His Scottish wife acted as housekeeper, but they were prone to bouts of violence and heated arguments.’
Since those days, virtually every person associated with the arts, and others who were not, has entered the through the little, four-centred Tudor panel half-light door set in a low, white stucco building in Old Church Street, including politicians, royalty, Hollywood stars, like Robert de Niro and Harrison Ford, famous actors, like Sir Lawrence Olivier, Sir Ralph Richardson, Hugh Burden, Charles Dance, Dames Maggie Smith and Judy Dench, musicians like Leon Goosens, Sir Thomas Beecham, John Ireland, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Woods, Marianne Faithful, Tim Rice and George Melly, writers like A.P. Herbert, Vyvyan Holland, Laurie Lee, Roger McGough, Brian Patten, Adrian Henry, Michael Mulpurgo and William Boyd. Nobody knows whether Banksy has graced the Club, but other artists like Camille Pissaro, Claude Monet, Augustus John, known as ‘Disgustus’, David Hockney, Francis Bacon, Maggie Hambling, Sir Peter Blake, Lucian Freud, Tracey Emin and Damian Hirst have, while famous people from other fields have flocked to the bar and dining room, including Sir Alexander Fleming, who used to drop in on his way home at the bottom of Old Church Street from St Mary’s Paddington for a game of snooker, Group Captain Douglas Bader, Sir Basil Spence, Sir Charles Wheeler, Dennis Compton, Hurricane Higgins, Joe Davis, Stirling Moss, Lord Beaverbrook, Reggie Bosanquet, Melvyn Bragg, Alan Yentob and Stephen Fry, who defies categorisation.
The Club has a magnificent archive, presently housed in Fulham behind the Charing Cross Hospital, and ably run by Stephen Bartley, but they are having to move out at the end of September, and are looking to relocate, hopefully in the same area, and they need 40-50m2 of space, ideally in two rooms. Any offers of help, or suggestions, should be addressed to the Club Secretary, Geoffrey Matthews at email@example.com or 020 7376 3311.
Photograph by George Rex