Turner’s and Whistler’s London — Footsteps of the Artists in Chelsea and Covent Garden“I wander thro’ each charter’d street Near where the charter’d Thames does flow, And mark in every face I meet Marks of weakness, marks of woe. “ …from London by William Blake. Painted anecdotes about London and her citizens crowd the walls of the National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, the Tate, and the Courtould Gallery — all in London. J. M.W. Turner’s seascapes and landscapes are displayed in many other museums. James McNeill Whistler’s paintings created in London and Paris are the bedrock of the Freer Gallery collection in Washington.
After studying the originals, a pilgrimage in the steps of the artists fleshes out the history. See London as the artists did; feel through the brick and pavement to the bare bones of the lives displayed in the landscapes, street scenes and portraits.
It was the charter’d Thames, water swirling and mirroring brilliant colors of sun and fire, that lured J.M.W. Turner.
Thick-waisted and myopic, J. M. William Turner was that rarest of artists, a great success in his own lifetime. He was born in 23 April 1775 at 26 Maiden Lane above his father’s barber shop in the Covent Garden area. Home life was stressful with a mother who erupted in murderous tantrums which eventually landed her in an insane asylum. Maybe she was overworked and had no help.
By 1804, Turner organized a gallery to exhibit his work at 64 Harley St. where he’d been living since 1804. In 1806 he acquired a house at 6 West End, Upper Mall Hammersmith, keeping the Harley St. location as well. Sometime around 1810 Turner changed addresses in London to 47 Queen Ann St. West, a skip and a jump from Harley St. By 1813, he’d designed and built a villa in Twickenham, named Solus Lodge and subsequently called Sandycombe Lodge.
Turner also is linked with Chelsea. He was attracted to the changing colors of the river.
Usually considered a painter of seascapes, Turner sketched and painted wherever he traveled, recording the passing scene. During his travels through Europe, watercolors and tablet at hand, he sketched public and private life – as played out in the streets and in the intimacy of various stately homes where he was invited by the nobility.
Chelsea, the Thames and Cremorne Gardens
Turner decided to buy a cottage in Chelsea to serve as hideout where he could work. Downriver from the City, Chelsea was then a waterfront neighborhood, not yet expensively chic as during the 19th century and today. He’d kept a painter’s hide out on the Thames before, at Sion Ferry House in Isleworth in the early 1800’s. Social London thought Turner lived with his family, but he spent most of his time at the cottage near Cremorne Gardens , at 118/119 Cheyne Walk, at the corner of Cremorne Road from 1846 until his death 19 Dec. 1851. His memorial is in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The mystic artist and poet William Blake was married in the same church where Turner studied the colors of sunsets, St. Mary’s, Battersea Parish Church on the south side of the Thames. He and Sophia are buried in Bunhill Fields, London.
Turner’s London is thriving along the Thames. The day’s moods live on and through a squinted eye, the boats and wharves look almost the same as what Turner painted. We can thank his eye astigmatism for paintings awash in brilliant sun, mist and waves splashed on the canvas.
One later Chelsea resident, Henry James, wrote: “The Embankment, which is admirable if not particularly interesting, does what it can, and the mannered houses of Chelsea stare across at Battersea Park like eighteenth-century ladies surveying a horrid wilderness.” (from English Hours) The American painter John Singer Sargent rendered Henry James’ portrait in oil which hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery.
James McNeill Whistler, flamboyant ex-pat icon for many caped, incorrigible artists who came after him, also lived in Chelsea. Like Turner, Whistler gravitated to the steamy, foggy Thames embankment. There were sojourns in Paris, but Chelsea was home. The
Nocturnes with fog low on the river, were painted a few steps from his houses, at 101 Cheyne Walk (7 Lindsey Row at the time) and 21 Cheyne Row in 1890. Whistler shuttled between Paris and 72 Cheyne Walk, his final home in Chelsea, until his death, July 17, 1903. He is entombed with his wife Beatrix in London’t Chiswick Cemetery.
Whistler wandered along the river in the evening, mulling his dreams, then later would go out in a boat with a hired assistant and draw in the dead of night. Sometimes capturing the lights of the Cremorne pleasure gardens. Whistler probably never saw the earlier Vauxhall amusement parks twinkling ion the south side of the Thames, but Hogarth was a regular.
Some of Whistler’s nocturnes, the murky paintings of the Thames lit by coal fires and moonlight cutting through, were painted from a narrow Chelsea house with a garden facing the Battersea Bridge. Whistler and other Chelsea artists painted the old wooden Battersea which was replaced in 1890 with a steel span.
Turner and Whistler’s London is thriving along the Thames. The day’s moods live on and through a squinted eye, the boats and wharves look almost the same as what Whistler or Turner painted. We can thank Turner’s eye astigmatism for paintings awash in brilliant sun, mist and waves splashed on the canvas. Turner is buried at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Breathe in London and you breathe history. The streets and walls, the pavement, the people and most of all the river, transmit stories of London lives. Look at London through the lives and works of artists who recorded the city’s nuances and you’ll see a richer, deeper place.
Going there: The A-Z London Street Atlas (called the “A to Z”) is the best tool for navigating London in digital or paper versions. The index of all streets and multiple pages of enlarged map segments make this the standard guide for London.
Chelsea and Covent Garden are close to the center of London and easily reached by tube, bus or taxi. GPS, maps or A-Z Atlas in hand, walk through the neighborhoods. Usually, you’ll see a blue metal plaque on the outside of a historically significant building
Where to Eat: Pétrus, the famous Gordon Ramsey flagship, caught flak (aka great publicity) during the dot-com flash era when a handful of financial managers spent some $65,000 on wine during dinner.
Rule’s Restaurant, 35 Maiden Lane, claims to be London’s oldest restaurant and probably is! Close to Turner’s birthplace at 26 Maiden Lane, long ago, the restaurant was an artist’s and writer’s hangout. Today, the prices are a bit steep for the scribbling class, but the atmosphere compensates and then some.
Where to see the art: The Tate Gallery offers one-stop viewing of a rich collection of Turner’s works, as well as paintings, drawings and prints by Whistler, Blake and Hogarth.
For John Singer Sargent’s portraits, visit the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery. Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress can be seen in the Soane Museum, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. The National Gallery displays Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode and other works.