Artist’s Model of Paradise Walk in Chelsea
AUTHOR: KAREN ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 24 JULY 2022
This story starts with a painting called Lotty and a Lady in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. It was painted in London in 1906 by the Australian artist George Washington Lambert and it depicts two women, one a servant and the other an elegantly dressed ‘lady’, sitting in a kitchen.
Initially I assumed that the same woman had modelled for both figures — they share luxuriant dark hair, strong eyebrows and luminous skin — but a little digging has revealed that this is not the case. The ‘lady’ was modelled by Thea Proctor, an Australian artist and teacher whose life and work are well-documented. However, the model for ‘Lotty’ the maid is identified as a woman by the name of Lottie Stafford, who usually merits no more description than that she was a cockney washerwoman from a Chelsea slum.
Not without trace
Most nineteenth-century working-class Londoners disappear without trace, and only those who were exceptionally talented, or the perpetrators or victims of crime, are remembered. Therefore it is significant that the occasional working-class model has achieved fame of a sort as the muse, the lover and sometimes even the wife of a famous artist. All too often, though, professional models remain unidentified. Although their physical appearance has been recorded for posterity in a work of art, they themselves do not feature in its title. They are rarely mentioned in letters and diaries, and then often just by their first names.
But Lottie Stafford is different. She is named in the titles of paintings, and snippets of information about her are available in books and catalogues and on the internet. What follows is an attempt to piece together the life, family and milieu of this working-class London woman.
The so-called facts
To start, let us consider the oft-repeated known ‘facts’ about Lottie. Firstly, it is said that she lived in a slum. This is true. Her home from 1901 until about 1935 was Paradise Walk, one of the few streets in Chelsea marked in black in Charles Booth’s The Map Descriptive of London Poverty 1898-1899 to designate the ‘lowest class, vicious and semi-criminal’. But the descriptions we have of the street come from the pens of middle-class reformers and authors, while the voices of the inhabitants are silent. Part Two of the story will look at these attitudes along with the realities gleaned from the 1901 and 1911 censuses.
Next, Lottie is always described as a washerwoman. This may indeed have been her occupation: it was common among the female population of Paradise Walk. Admittedly, none of the public records list what she did for a living, but this is not unusual for women’s work. However, the work Lottie should be properly remembered for is as an artist’s model, and Part Three of the story, in which her later life is described, will underline this important point.
Finally, Lottie is usually called a cockney. The label is not entirely accurate because Lottie was not born within the sound of the church bells of St Mary-le-Bow on Cheapside in the City of London. She was in fact born and bred in Chelsea, and it was in Chelsea that she lived and died. But the term ‘cockney’ is also used to describe the dialect of London’s labouring class, and it is likely that Lottie spoke with the corresponding accent.
Lottie’s parents were also born in Chelsea, but her grandparents had migrated to the capital, the Macrows from Huntingdonshire and Somerset and the Scotts from Essex and Surrey. Her father, Walter Charles Macrow, was born in 1856 at 3 Sidney Place on the south side of the King’s Road and baptised at the Marlborough Road Wesleyan Methodist Free Church. Walter’s father, the splendidly named Thomas Christmas Macrow, was a grocer, tea dealer and cheesemonger.
The Macrows moved frequently, and at the time of the 1861 census they were installed at 10 and 11 Marlborough Road, which is now Draycott Avenue. The parents, four children and a fourteen-year-old maid of all work lived not far from the works of the celebrated sanitary engineer Thomas Crapper. But Macrow was not lucky in his business career: he was declared bankrupt on at least three occasions, and he suffered a fire in his premises, which fortunately he had had the foresight to insure. Interestingly, there were at least two other reported accidental fires in the insured premises of tea dealers called Macrow during this period. If the Macrows in question were Thomas, he was either very unlucky or he was trying to exploit the insurance system.
Walter did not follow his father into the retail trade or into his later career as an auctioneer. Instead he became a painter and decorator of the type known as a grainer — he specialised in painting imitation wood.
The chances are that he had been working for at least a decade when on 4 June 1882 he married Annie Susannah Scott. He was twenty-six, she was twenty, and the wedding took place at St John’s Church in Tadema Street at the World’s End. Annie was the daughter of a labourer father and an ironer mother, and she made ironing her own job as well.
After the wedding the young couple set up home with four-year-old daughter Florence, Annie’s daughter from a previous relationship. Then on Saturday 7 of April 1883 their first child was born. In the records this child is known as Charlotte Annie Macrow — named after her grandmothers — but she seems to have been baptised Charlotte Harriet at St Paul’s Church in Onslow Square in 1887.
Little is known about Lottie’s childhood. However, we can be sure that Walter and Annie Macrow lived at various addresses in Chelsea, including Milman’s Street near Battersea Bridge, which Booth classified as very poor, and Regents Place on Leader Street. We can also be confident that she would have attended elementary school: in 1880 education was made compulsory for children up to the age of ten, this upper limit being extended to eleven in 1893. The main areas of study were the three Rs — reading, writing and ’rithmetic — plus needlework for girls. On leaving school, Lottie would have been expected to earn a living in order to contribute to the family income.
Lottie’s Chelsea was not the expensive and exclusive area it is today, nor was it the semi-rural riverside village it had been within the living memory of her parents. There was a significant population of labouring people, with an influx of the middle-classes that brought with it the artists and writers who lived in the recently built large brick houses. Those attracted to this affordable area with its bohemian edge included the painters James McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent, Robert Brough and George Percy Jacomb-Hood. Writers — Oscar Wilde, Arthur Ransome and others — also lived there.
At some point before 1901 Lottie met a young man called John Christopher Stafford. At five feet ten inches — almost five inches above the average height for men — John was certainly noticeable. He worked as a carman or delivery driver, which probably meant that he drove a horse-drawn van, even though there were motor vehicles on the roads by this time. His family — his parents and their five children — had lived in Paradise Walk since at least 1881.
The young people married in Christ Church in Chelsea on Sunday 7 April 1901, which was Lottie’s nineteenth birthday. It was also Easter Sunday, and followed by a Bank Holiday, as it is today. Whether Lottie’s parents had reservations about the daughter of a semi-skilled tradesman taking up with a boy from Chelsea’s most notorious slum is not known. But Annie Macrow, who was the mother of an illegitimate child, may have been relieved to see her daughter safely married as only five weeks later she gave birth to her first child, Elizabeth Charlotte.
It is likely that the young couple initially lived in Paradise Walk with John’s family, namely his widowed father, who was a scaffolder’s labourer, his brothers Charles and Thomas, who were factory labourers, and his sister Elizabeth, who was listed as having no occupation, suggesting that she may have kept house. But we will leave the newly enlarged Stafford family for the time being in order to look at attitudes to Paradise Walk in literature and at what the censuses can tell us about the people who lived there … TO BE CONTINUED