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An essay by Thomas Burke

An Art Night (Chelsea)

Title:     An Art Night (Chelsea)
Author: Thomas Burke [More Titles by Burke]


Often have I, in my desolate years,
Flogged a jaded heart in loud saloons;
Often have I fled myself with tears,
Wandering under pallid, passionate moons.

Often have I slunk through pleasured rites,
Lonely in the tumult of decay;
Often marked the hectic London nights
Flowing from the violet-lidded day.

Yet, because of you, the world has been
Kindlier. Oh, little heart-o'-rose,
I have glimpsed a beauty seldom seen
In this labyrinthine mist of woes.

Beauty smiles at me from common things,
All the way from Fleet Street to the Strand;
Even in the song the barmaid sings
I have found a fresh enchanted land.

Pass me by, you little vagrant joy.
Brush me from your delicate mimic world.
Nothing of you now can e'er annoy,
Since your beauty has my heart empearled.

Pass me by; and only let me say:
Glad I am for pain of loving you,
Glad--for, in the tumult of decay,
Life is nobler than I ever knew.

"The choicest bit of London!" That is William Dean Howells' impression of Chelsea. And, if you would perceive rightly the soul of Chelsea, you must view it through the pearl-grey haze of just such a temperament as that of the suave American novelist. If you have not that temperament, then Chelsea is not for you; try Hampstead or Streatham or Bayswater.

Of all suburbs it is the most subtle. It has more soul in one short street than you will find in the whole mass of Oxford Street and Piccadilly. There is something curiously feminine and intoxicating in the quality of its charm, something that evokes the silver-pensive mood. One visions it as a graceful spinster--watered silks, ruffles, corkscrew curls, you know, with lily fingers caressing the keys of her harpsichord. Pass down Cheyne Walk at whatever time you will, and you are never alone; little companies of delicate fancy join you at every step. The gasworks may gloom at you from the far side. The L.C.C. cars may hum and clang. But fancy sweeps them away. It is like sitting amid the barbarities of a Hyde Park drawing-room, in the emerald dusk, listening to the pathetic wheezing of a musical-box, ridiculously sweet:--

Oh, don't you remember the days when we roamed,
Sweet Phillis, by lane and by lea?

Whatever you want in Chelsea--that you will find, assuming, of course, the possession of the Chelsea temperament. Whistler discovered her silvern beauty when he first saw her reclining by the river, beautifying that which beautifies her. All about Chelsea the colours seem to chime with their backgrounds as though they loved them; and when the lamps are lighted, flinging soft shadows on sixteenth and seventeenth-century gables and doorways and passages, then she becomes a place of wonder, a Bagdad, a treasure-ground for the artist.

And the artists have discovered her. Chelsea has much to show. Hampstead, Kensington, Mayfair--these be rich in gilt-trapping names, but no part of England can produce such a shining array of names, whose greatness owes nothing to time, place, or social circumstance: the names of those whose greatness is of the soul, and who have shaken the world with the beauty they have revealed to us. But Art has now taken possession of her, and it is as the studio of the artist that Chelsea is known to-day. Step this way, if you please. We draw the curtain. Vie de Bohème! But not, mark you, the vie de Bohème of Murger. True, Rodolphe and Marcel are here, and Mimi and Musette. But the studio is not the squalid garret that we know. We have changed all that. Rodolphe writes light verse for the "largest circulations." Mimi draws fashion plates, and dresses like the Duchess of the novelettes. Marcel--well, Marcel of Chelsea may be poor, but his is only a relative poverty. He is poor in so far as he dines for two shillings instead of five. The Marcel of to-day who is accustomed to skipping a meal by stress of circumstances doesn't live in Chelsea. He simply couldn't do it; look at the rents. He lives in Walworth Road or Kentish Town. No; there is a vie de Bohème at Chelsea, but it is a Bohemia of coffee liqueurs and Turkish cigarettes.

The beginnings of the delectable suburb are obscure. It seems to have assumed importance on the day when Henry VIII "acquired" its manor, which led to the building of numerous sycophantic houses. The Duchess of Monmouth had a residence here, with the delightful John Gay as secretary. Can one imagine a modern Duchess with a modern poet as secretary? The same house was later occupied by the gouty dyspeptic Smollett, who wrote all his books at the top of his bad temper. Then came--but one could fill an entire volume with nothing but a list of the goodly fellowship of Chelsea.

The book about Chelsea has yet to be written. Such a book should disclose to us the soul of the place, with its eternal youth and eternal antiquity. It should introduce us to its charming ghosts--it is difficult to name one disagreeable person in this pageant; even the cantankerous Smollett was soothed when he came under its spell. It should enable us to touch finger-tips, perhaps make closer acquaintance, with Sir Thomas More, Erasmus, Hans Holbein, Thomas Shadwell (forgotten laureate), Carlyle, Whistler, Edwin Abbey, George Meredith, Swinburne, Holman Hunt, William Morris, Ford Madox Brown, Oscar and Willie Wilde, Count d'Orsay, George Eliot, and a host of lesser but equally adorable personalities whose names must come "among those present." It should show us its famous places. It should afford us peep-holes into the studios of famous artists--Augustus John's studio is a revelation in careful disarrangement; it should take us round a "Show Sunday"; it should reconstruct the naïve gaieties of Cremorne; and, finally, it should recreate and illumine all the large, forgotten moments in the lives of those apostles of beauty whose ruminations and dreams the soul of Chelsea has fused with more of herself than men may know; ending, perhaps, with a disquisition on the effects of environment on the labours of genius.

Such a book must be done by a stranger, an observer, one with a gracious pen, a delicate, entirely human mind. There is one man above all who is divinely appointed for the task.

Please, Mr. W. D. Howells, will you write it for us?

* * * * *

I was strolling in philosophic mood down the never-ending King's Road, one November night, debating whether I should drop in at the Chelsea Palace, or have just one more at the "Bells," when I ran into the R.B.A. He is a large man, and running into him rather upsets one's train of thought. When I had smoothed my nose and dusted my trousers, I said: "Well, what about it?" He said: "Well, what about it?"

So we turned into the "Six Bells," the evening haunt of every good artist. He said he hadn't much money, so what about it? We decided on a Guinness to begin with, and then he ordered some Welsh Rarebits, while I inspected the walls of the saloon, which are decorated with nothing but originals, many of them bearing resounding names. In the billiard-room he introduced me to Augustus John and three other famous men who might not like it known that they drink beer in public-houses. When the Welsh Rarebits were announced, we went upstairs to the cosy dining-room and feasted gorgeously, watching, from the window, the many-coloured life of Chelsea....

When every scrap of food on our plates was gone, we had another Guinness, and I went back to his studio, a beautiful room with oak panelling and electric light, which he rented from a travelling pal for the ridiculous sum of three shillings a week. It stood next to the reconstructed Crosby Hall, and looked out on a wide prospect of sloping roofs, peppered with a sharp light.

He sat down and showed me his day's work. He showed me etchings, oils, pastels. He told me stories. He showed me caricatures of the famous people with whom he had bohèmed. Then, at about ten o'clock, he said it was rather dull; and what about it? He knew a place, quite near, where some of the boys were sure to be; what about it?

So we descended the lone staircase, and came out to the windy embankment, where self-important little tugs were raking the water with the beams of their headlights. Thence we made many turnings, and stopped at a house near the Models' Club. At this club, which was formed only in 1913, the artists may go at any time to secure a model--which is a distinct boon. The old way was for the model to call on the artist, the result being that the unfortunate man was pestered with dozens of girls for whom he had no use, while the one model he really wanted never appeared. The club combines the advantages of club, employment bureau, and hotel. There is no smoking-room; every room is a smoking-room, for there are two things which are essential to the comfort of the girl-model, and they are cigarettes and sweets. These are their only indulgences, for, obviously, if you are depending for your livelihood on your personal figure, self-denial and an abstemious life are compulsory.

If you want to know what is doing in the art world, who is painting what, and why, then get yourself invited to tea--China tea only. The gathering is picturesque, for the model has, of course, the knack of the effective pose, not only professionally but socially. It is a beautiful club, and it is one more answer to the eternal question Why Girls Don't Marry. With a Models' Club, the Four Arts Club, the Mary Curzon Hotel, and the Lyceum Club, why on earth should they?

The R.B.A. pulled up short and said there we were, and what about it? We knocked at the door, and were admitted by an anarchist. At least, I think he was an anarchist, because he was just like the pictures. I have met only eighteen real anarchists, two of whom had thrown a bomb; but I could never really believe in them; they wore morning coats and bowler hats and were clean-shaven.

"Where are they?" asked the R.B.A.

"They're awa' oopstairs, laddie," said the anarchist. "Taak heed ye dinna stoomble; the carrrpet's a wee bit loose."

We crossed the tiny hall and ascended the shabby stairs. From an open door trickled the tones of a cheap piano and the mellow, philosophic chant of the 'cello. They were playing Elgar's "Salut d'Amour." The room was dark save for one candle at the piano and the dancing firelight. In the dusk it looked like Balestieri's picture of "Beethoven" which adorns every suburban drawing-room with a leaning towards the Artistic. People were sprawled here and there, but to distinguish them was impossible. I fell over some one's foot, and a light treble gurgled at me, "Sorry, old boy!" I caught a whisk of curls as the thin gleam of the candle fell that way. The R.B.A. crossed the room as one who was familiar with its topography, and settled himself in a far chair. The anarchist took my arm, and said:--

"Do ye sit down whurr ye can, laddie. And ye'll ha' a drink?"

I fell over some more feet and collapsed on a low settee. I found myself by the side of a lady in solemn crimson. Her raven hair was hanging down her back. Her arms were bare. She smoked a Virginia cigarette vindictively. Sometimes she leaned forward, addressed the piano, and said: "Shut that row, Mollie, can't you. We want to talk."

The anarchist brought me a Scotch-and-soda, and then she became aware of my presence. She looked at me; she looked at the drink. She said to the anarchist: "Where's mine?" He said: "What is it?" "Crem-dermont!" she snapped.

Out of the smoky glooms of the room came light laughter and merry voices. One saw dimly, as in a dream, graceful forms reclining gracefully, attended by carelessly dressed but distinguished young men. Some of these raised their voices, and one heard the self-proud accent of Oxford. The music stopped, and the girls sprawled themselves more and more negligently, nestling to the rough coats of the boys. The haze of smoke thickened. I prepared for a boring evening.

One of the Oxford boys said he knew an awfully good story, but it was rather risky, you know. I pricked up my ears. Did we know the story--story about a fellah--fellah who had an aunt, you know? And fellah's aunt was most frightfully keen on dogs and all that, you know.... After three minutes of it I lost interest in the story. It concerned Old George and Herbert and young Helen, and various other people who seemed familiar to everybody but myself.

I never heard the finish of it. I became rather interested in a scene near the window, where a boy of about my own age was furiously kissing a girl somewhat younger. Then the lady at my side stretched a long arm towards me, and languished, and making the best of a bad job, I languished, too. When the funny story and the fellah's aunt had been disposed of, some one else went to the piano and played Debussy, and the anarchist brought me another drink; and the whole thing was such painfully manufactured Bohemianism that it made me a little tired. The room, the appointments, the absence of light, Debussy, the drinks, and the girls' costumes were so obviously part of an elaborate make-up, an arrangement of life. The only spontaneous note was that which was being struck near the window. I decided to slip away, and fell down the ragged stairs into Chelsea, and looked upon the shadow-fretted streets, where the arc-lamps, falling through the trees, dappled the pavements with light.

The skies were dashed with stars and a sick moon. It was trying to snow. I tripped down the steps from the door, and ran lightly into a girl who stood at the gate, looking up at the room I had just left. The cheek that was turned toward me was clumsily daubed with carmine and rouge. Snowflakes fell dejectedly about her narrow shoulders. She just glanced at me, and then back at the window. I looked up, too. The piano was at it again, and some one was singing. The thread of light just showed you the crimson curtains and the heavy oak beams. The pianist broke into Delilah's song, and the voice swam after it. It was a clear, warm voice, typical of the fifth-rate concert platform. But the girl, her face uplifted, dropped her lips in a half-whispered exclamation of wonder, "Cuh!" I should have said that she was, for the first time, touching finger-tips with beauty. It moved her as something comic should have done. Her face lit to a smile, and then a chuckle of delight ran from her.

The voice was doing its best. It sank to despair, it leaped to lyric passion, it caressed a low note of ecstatic pain, and then, like a dew-delighted bird, it fled up and hovered on a timid note of appeal. The girl giggled. As the voice died on a long, soft note, she laughed aloud, and swallowed. She looked around and caught my eye. It seemed that she had something about which she must talk.

... "Not bad, eh?" she said.

"No," I answered. "Not so dusty."

"Makes you feel ... kind of rummy, you know, don't it? Wonder what it feels like to sing like that, eh? Makes me ... sort of ... 'fyou understand ... funny like. Makes me want to...."

From the window came one of the Oxford voices. "No EARTHLY, dear old girl. You'll never sing. Your values, you know, and all that are...."

[The end]
Thomas Burke's essay: Art Night (Chelsea)