Studio Days

Art runs through Chelsea’s history. From the Pre-Raphaelite painters to 1960s counterculture and the 2008 launch of the Saatchi Galley, Reyhaan Day takes a trip through the decades.

Chelsea’s reputation as London’s foremost artisticborough started with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of mid-19th century English painters who resisted the idea of Renaissance painter Raphael as the artistic ideal.

Formed as a secret society, its painters began signing their works with the initials PRB, and founded an artistic movement that was to shake up the British art world. Three of the movement’s founding members, William Holman Hunt, James McNeill Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, lived at 5 Prospect Place, 101 Cheyne Walk and 16 Cheyne Walk respectively.

“I was ushered into one of the prettiest and most curiously furnished old-fashioned parlours that I had ever seen,” was how Rosetti’s assistant Henry Treffry Dunn described the artist’s Chelsea home, which was also full of a menagerie of exotic animals.

Attracted to the area by low rents, studio space and access to the inspiration-giving river – while still remaining within easy reach of the West End and prospective buyers – the Cheyne Walk artists found themselves in a community of like-minded thinkers. Joseph Mallord William Turner had seen out his days here, living secretly with his mistress on Davis Place, which later became 118-119 Cheyne Walk. But the artist’s private nature meant that his presence went unnoticed by other artists beginning to move into the area.

Cheyne Walk has attracted the greatest concentration of artists in Chelsea since the mid-19th century. They range from lesser-known painters such as Walter Greaves – born on the Walk and whose father had been Turner’s boatman – who glimpsed Chelsea’s artistic community, living at 104 Cheyne Walk, before being shunned and dying in poverty; to landscape painters Cecil Gordon Lawson and Edward Arthur Wilson; impressionist Sir Philip Wilson Steer; and, more recently, cartoonist and impressionist Sir Gerald Scarfe.

Many others of a similar disposition took up residences in nearby Glebe Place, Tite Street and Manresa Road– the location where, later, the Chelsea College of Arts began; and where Trafalgar Studios, one of the first and most significant of Chelsea’s emerging multiple-studio spaces, opened in 1878. The building of studio space such as this attracted artists of varied income – important in lending Chelsea its bohemian air.

Similarly, The Studios on Tite Street created its own enclave of artists, including Whistler, John Singer Sargent and Augustus John. The influence of these large units spawned a series of smaller studio groups around the King’s Road and Glebe Place; and soon led to a healthy environment for artists and art lovers, with regular life classes and sessions with some of the era’s now-lauded names.

The Pre-Raphaelites were important influence in another golden artistic age in Chelsea: the 1960s. However, in the years between the movement and its principles fell out of favour with those in artistic circles – particularly the emerging British Modernist movement – with the Pre- Raphaelite preoccupation with medieval imagery being seen as akin to the passé ideal of painting fully representing reality. But the technicolour aesthetic of “swinging” London in the 1960s generated a renewed interest in the movement’s work. Chelsea artists in this age took bold new steps into unchartered territory.

The King’s Road, by this stage, was the key example of a wider countercultural movement that embraced the romantic, naturalist and symbolic principles of the Pre-Raphaelites’ paintings. A smattering of stores opened on the road, many indirectly influenced by the medieval style adopted and popularised by the Brotherhood. Boutiques including I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet, Granny Takes a Trip and The Sweet Shop proffered garments reminiscent of John Everett Millais’ Ophelia’s flowing gown, with colours as vibrant as those chosen by the earlier generation of painters.

In the 1960s, Chelsea became home to some of the decade’s most in-demand photographers – those immersed in the countercultural revolution taking place along the King’s Road. Terence Donovan based himself in the area in the mid-1960s, opening hip outfitters The Shop at 47 Radnor Walk with designer Maurice Jeffery – a boutique that a 1965 issue of Rave magazine described as “a favourite of the ‘in’ crowd”. Donovan was one of the first celebrity photographers alongside David Bailey, and his groundbreaking fashion images paved the way for a generation of photographers to come.

Fellow photographer Robert Whitaker’s studio was also located in Chelsea, on The Vale. Over two years from 1964 to 1966, Whitaker intensively documented the public and private lives of The Beatles. The band’s Yesterday and Today album cover, with its surrealist shot of John, Paul, George and Ringo accompanied by dismembered dolls and raw meat, was taken by Whitaker in his studio. When The Beatles announced that they would no longer tour and had holed up in Abbey Road Studios to record the LP Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Whitaker moved on to another project. Now based at residential studio space The Pheasantry on the King’s Road, he teamed up with friend and pop artist Martin Sharp to help create the album artwork for Disraeli Gears, the seminal album by Eric Clapton’s band, Cream. The success of this project led to Whitaker’s frequent collaborations with the underground magazine, Oz, one of the era’s most visually exciting documents.

Photography gradually became the artistic expression of choice during this era, and other respected names found themselves living and working in Chelsea. Chelsea Manor Studios – which had originally opened in 1902 – was the location of Michael Cooper’s studio. Occupying Studio 4 of the building, Cooper was set a task that would be his making – to put together the famous photographic montage for the sleeve of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Taking place in March of 1967, the shoot involved wax figures from Madame Tussaud’s, various props and collage items, and the band themselves. Cooper’s photograph was then painted by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth to achieve the final, eye-catching cover. Cooper, who was a significant figure in the music scene of the day, was also responsible for the lenticular cover of former Chelsea residents The Rolling Stones’ experimental 1967 LP, Their Satanic Majesties Request.

Later, artists such as the ones featured on page 36 gathered in the area for its inspirational history and attractive riverside views. One well-known Chelsea artist, Julian Barrow, worked for almost 50 years in the same Tite Street studio as John Singer Sargent and Augustus John, until his death in 2013.

Many commercial galleries opened at this time too. The artistic traditions established were also continued by societies such as the London Sketch Club, the Chelsea Art Society, the Chelsea Arts Club and the Chelsea School of Art – now Chelsea College of Arts. Alumni of the college include Quentin Blake, Patrick Caulfield, Peter Doig and David Hockney.

Influential and prominent artists of the time, such as master British abstract painters John Hoyland, Howard Hodgkin and former student Caulfield, taught their skills at these institutions, impressing their styles upon future artists.

Today, galleries promote the works of emerging painters, photographers and sculptors, as well more recognised names. Langton Street has been occupied by a long line of galleries – a tradition that continues, with number 9 exhibiting contemporary works by new and emerging London artists.

The photographic traditions of Chelsea are being upheld by the Little Black Gallery on Park Walk. Home to works by the late, iconic photographer Bob Carlos Clarke, the gallery permanently dedicates one room to his irreverent photographs.Michael Hoppen Gallery, on Jubilee Place, showcases the best emerging photographers alongside established masters of the form. Other top galleries to seek out include Michael’s mother Stephanie Hoppen, Proud Chelsea on King’s Road, Jonathan Cooper, The Foundry Gallery, Flying Colours and new addition Pontone Gallery on Cadogan Gardens.

Although rents might be higher than in the 1960s, Cadogan is protecting Chelsea’s bohemian traditions by ensuring studio space is available for use by people in the art world. “As stewards of Chelsea, it’s essential that we safeguard the area’s wonderful bohemian heritage,” says Hugh Seaborn, chief executive of Cadogan.

Chelsea’s reputation as an artistic hub has been revitalised further with the opening of Charles Saatchi’s world-class Saatchi Gallery. Originally opened in a disused paint factory in St John’s Wood in 1985, it moved to the South Bank for two years in 2003. Forced closure left the gallery without a venue for three years, but in 2008, it found a permanent home in Duke of York Square.

A 70,000-square-foot space, it has been a significant addition to London’s art scene, hosting five of the six most visited exhibitions in London in 2009 and 2010. Recently, the
Rolling Stones took over to chronicle the group’s life thus far with Exhibitionism – one of the highest-grossing and most visited London events in recent years.

The gallery has also become known for showcasing works from internationally acclaimed artists as well as those unknown to the art world, with exhibitions focusing on new art from regions such as China and the Middle East.

Chelsea’s heritage means it will always be associated with creativity and art, and with Saatchi Gallery and others bringing in fresh new talent, it looks like its artistic roots are
here to stay.