Artist’s Model of Paradise Walk in Chelsea
AUTHOR: KAREN ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 8 AUGUST 2022
At the beginning of 1904 Mrs Charlotte Stafford — usually known as Lottie, as we have seen in Part One and Part Two of this account of her life — was a young mother of two daughters, Elizabeth, who was two years old, and Florence, who was three months old. She was said to be a laundress, but she had also come to the attention of the artist William Orpen. The story of their meeting has an apocryphal ring to it: the artist had doodled on a tablecloth and the laundress had managed to get the stain out. This domestic feat brought Lottie to Orpen’s notice, and he subsequently asked her to model for him.
I cannot imagine Orpen taking quite so much interest in the family laundry. Given the nature of his work at the time — painting working-class people in their own surroundings — it may be that he wanted an authentic laundress and went to the local laundry to seek one out. Equally, he may have spotted Lottie, who was a strikingly beautiful young woman, quite by chance in the street. Again, she may have modelled in the studios of local artists.
Being an artist’s model
In mid-Victorian times professional female artists’ models were regarded as little more than prostitutes by those who did not know them. Possibly by the beginning of the twentieth century attitudes were less censorious, but even in 1907, in his book Bohemia in London, Arthur Ransome felt obliged to defend them:
They are a class very much misunderstood. A girl who poses for an artist is not the immoral, abandoned woman that the suburbs suppose her. She picks up something of an education, she learns something of art, she lives as interestingly, as usefully and as honestly as many of the people who condemn her.
What those who judged models so harshly did not realise was that a sitting fee would be invaluable for a family existing on the breadline — certainly important enough to put aside finer feelings of respectability. Lottie’s husband, John Stafford, was a carman or delivery driver earning about a pound a week, which was slightly more than the average wage of forty-two pounds a year. His wage of twenty shillings — two hundred and forty old pennies — had to keep a family at a time when a single loaf of bread cost fivepence. A loaf a day would be almost fifteen percent of the Stafford’s weekly budget.
Not much left
In his 1889 book Horrible London George R. Sims interviewed various slum inhabitants: those living in two rooms paid rent of between four shillings sixpence and six shillings a week. Some fifteen years later, if the Staffords paid six shillings rent, they would be handing over thirty percent of their household income. This would not have left much to pay for food, coal, insurance, clothes, shoes and unexpected medical expenses. Further insights can be found in Round About a Pound a Week, an investigation into the lives of the poor of Lambeth published in 1913 by Maud Pember Reeves.
I have not been able to find out how much artists’ models earned at the beginning of the century. However, in 1894 they were paid a shilling an hour, which was more than John Stafford earned in an equivalent time. Ransome described an artist’s studio as follows:
A large bare room, with no furniture but a divan or camp-bed, a couple of chairs, an easel, and a model-stand made of a big box that holds a few coats and hats and coloured silks that do duty in a dozen pictures; a big window slanting up across the roof, with blinds to temper its light; canvases and old paintings without frames leaning against the walls; the artist, his coat off ready for work, strolling up and down with a cigarette between his lips, looking critically and lovingly at the canvas on the easel, and now and again pulling out his watch; that is a fair picture of a studio at about half-past ten on a workday morning.
Modelling for William Orpen
Born in 1878, the Irish painter William Orpen was a child prodigy who entered the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art aged thirteen and the Slade School of Art at nineteen. From 1903 to 1907 he and his friend Augustus John ran the Chelsea Art School at 4 and 5 Rossetti Studios in Flood Street, and it is possible that Lottie worked there. He lived with his first wife, and kept a studio, just round the corner from Paradise Walk at 11 and 13 Royal Hospital Road.
In A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 12 Chelsea, published in 2004 by Victoria County History, we find the following details:
The presence in Chelsea of many leading artists during much of the 19th and 20th centuries made up a large part of Chelsea’s renown beyond its borders and its reputation as an artistic and bohemian colony. While artists in previous centuries were attracted to Chelsea to paint its riverside and houses, its artistic reputation was created through its position as one of a handful of places which saw a concentration of artists’ studios when, in the 60 years prior to the First World War, over 1,300 domestic artists’ studios were erected in London as a whole. Chelsea was favoured because at the time when the fashion for large and luxuriously fitted studios flourished, prompted by the rise of professionalism among artists, it had sites available for building at reasonable cost, while still being close to the West End and the picture-buying public.
During the period 1905-07 Lottie frequently modelled for Orpen, and one imagines that, as well as earning useful extra funds, she enjoyed the experience. According to Robert Upstone in William Orpen: Politics, Sex and Death, the artist was
capable of forming warm platonic friendships with women. Reputedly he treated his models with kindness and respect.
The 1905 painting Resting, which is now in the Ulster Museum, depicts a young woman taking a break from laundry work. With red-gold hair hanging loose over her shoulders, she stares into the distance, tired from the manual work in the hot steamy laundry and dreaming about better things. The soft femininity of her face and neck contrasts with her almost masculine arms and hands, their rope-like tendons developed through hard work.
In the National Gallery of Australia’s 2004 exhibition catalogue it is observed that
she was popular as a model on account of her naturalness, total self-assurance and subtle sensuality, despite the fact she declined to pose in the nude. She had a ‘swan-like’ neck which greatly appealed to Orpen, and which he emphasised in Resting and other pictures.
And a 1998 exhibition catalogue published by the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool notes that
Orpen has painted a woman whose life is toilsome and harsh, yet he softens this hard edge with the luminosity and delicate femininity of the neck, painted with a flourish of light.
The images of 1905
Lottie is again depicted as a laundress in Orpen’s 1905 In the Wash House, which is also in Northern Ireland. The background shows another woman struggling down the stairs with a heavy bag of laundry on her shoulder, while in the foreground Lottie leans over a wash tub, her delicate profile contrasting again with the strong lines of her neck and hands. Her face is hidden in the shadows, for this genre image is not a portrait but a representation of a working-class woman and the physical toll her work has taken on her.
There are two other paintings of 1905 that are both confusingly called Lottie of Paradise Walk. The one hanging in the Leeds Art Gallery depicts Lottie as a coster woman, or flower seller, standing in profile with a large basket of brightly coloured flowers. She wears the striped collarless and full sleeved blouse seen in all Orpen’s pictures of her, with a white apron and red shawl. On her head is a hat adorned with curling, gleaming feathers. Her face is in profile, and the light hits her cheek, her neck and her strong right hand. But her eyes are in shadow, and the effect is curious, for on the one hand one knows that the figure is a handsome flower seller, but on the other the real woman is disguised.
The other Lottie of Paradise Walk, which is now in the National Gallery of Canada, is more like a portrait of an actual woman than a genre painting. Lottie is standing — again at a washing tub — but in this picture her work is secondary to her character. She has softly curling red-blonde hair, and she looks directly at us with heavy lidded eyes that are both smiling and challenging. Hanging from hooks on the wall behind the figure are the red shawl and hat that feature in other pictures.
The real Lottie
Three other images by Orpen also show Lottie as an individual rather than as a model for a genre painting. The charming chalk and watercolour sketch with the title Lottie and her Child celebrates her motherhood. Given the date of the painting, the child would have been Florence, who was born in 1903 and is shown here receiving a tender kiss from her mother after her bath. The second is an oil painting of Lottie’s head in profile. She wears her hair in a loose bun and has only a small locket as adornment, but she is possessed of such beauty that she could be one of the society women Orpen became so famous for portraying. The third is a chalk drawing in the Art Gallery of New South Wales with the title Bust of a Young Woman, which, although tentatively dated 1903, clearly belongs with the pictures made in 1905.
And it was in 1905, on 18 December, that Lottie gave birth to her third daughter, Lilian Gladys. The following year Orpen moved his studio to South Bolton Gardens, at which point Lottie started to model for George Washington Lambert, another painter associated with the Rossetti Studios in Flood Street.
Modelling for George Lambert
Lambert was born in 1873 to an American father and an English mother in St Petersburg in Russia. At the age of thirteen he emigrated to Australia with his widowed mother and sisters, where he studied painting with Julian Ashton at the Academy Julian in Sydney. He won a travel scholarship which brought him to Europe in 1902. He settled in London, where he was initially based at a studio in Lansdowne Road in Holland Park. As a member of the Chelsea Arts Club he got to know Orpen and Augustus John, and it may have been they who persuaded him to move to the Rossetti Studios in 1904, which is how he came to employ Lottie Stafford.
The painting Lottie modelled for, Lotty and a Lady, shows the influence of Velázquez, a painter Lambert greatly admired. The ‘lady’ sits in profile, dressed to go out with a boater-type hat, high-necked blouse and white kid gloves and with her hand resting on an umbrella handle. She gives us a sideways glance, almost as if we are beneath her notice.
Lotty, or the maid, stares straight at us with her head bare and her neck uncovered and with her sleeves rolled to the elbow, revealing brawny arms. She sports a pair of coral-pink drop earrings, which is not something one expects to see on a domestic servant. Possibly Lambert intends it as a homage to Velázquez’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, in which Martha, the maid figure, wears earrings too. And like the Velázquez Lambert’s painting demonstrates the artist’s ability by including a still life of gleaming fish, silver and glassware.
Framed with gold
The National Gallery of Australia’s 2004 exhibition catalogue comments that ‘Lambert challenged the traditional Edwardian social roles and behaviours by portraying Lotty and the lady together.’ That may be true, but in my opinion the difference in their clothes, poses and engagement with the viewer only highlights the difference in rank between the two women. The ‘lady’ is certainly a portrait of the Australian artist Thea Proctor: she can be clearly recognised in other Lambert paintings. But the maid is not a portrait of Lottie Stafford and actually looks more like Kitty Powell, the model for Lambert’s The Sonnet. Lambert’s intention may have been to show that they were ‘sisters under the skin’ by painting two similar women. Or — and this is the more likely explanation — he was unable to reproduce Lottie’s strawberry blonde colouring with his limited palette of greys and darks.
The painting, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1906, is briefly mentioned in Amy Lambert’s 1938 book about her husband as ‘a silvery study in cool greys, showing a kitchen interior with mistress and maid, and some gleaming fish among the still-life on the table.’ The book also includes a poem written by Lambert called ‘Artist’s Model’, and, although I am not claiming that it is in fact about Lottie, I can easily suppose that it might be. The first verse is as follows:
So coldly perfect yet divinely fair
Her face, a carven mask framed with the gold
That glints the ordered pattern of her hair,
So young, so fair, and yet her eyes seem old.
Lambert went on to work as a war artist in Egypt and Gallipoli during the First World War. He later returned to Australia, where he died in 1930 at the age of fifty-seven.
Modelling for William Nicholson
Much of what we know about her comes from the pen of Marguerite Steen, the writer who became Nicholson’s lover some thirty years after he last painted Lottie. What Steen says comes to us second-hand, and in my opinion it should be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt. She adopts a superior and mocking tone, not so much portraying a real woman as sketching a caricature of a Cockney who would leave the artist’s studio with a cheery ‘Well, I must be puttin’ on me ’at an’ get back to Paradise’, who ‘had children every twenty-five minutes’ and who ‘came, as is the wont of her kind, on hard times’. Lottie was ‘a sunflower grown in a slum’ and ‘sat for all the contemporary painters’. And Steen lists the painters: William Nicholson, William Orpen, Walter Sickert, Augustus John.
Painting Mrs Stafford
In 1906 Nicholson exhibited a painting with the title Mrs — of Paradise Row. He may have used ‘Row’ rather than ‘Walk’ to differentiate his picture from the numerous Orpens, or to give it greater dignity, as Paradise Row was the former name of the much more genteel Queen’s Road West. The title was later changed to Mrs Stafford of Paradise Row.
The model in this picture is a young blonde woman standing in profile at a window or door frame that looks on to a park or rural landscape. She wears a red-collared blouse and drab-coloured skirt and sports a large straw boater with a black velvet band and extravagantly curled ostrich feather. Presented in this way, Lottie looks more girlish and less careworn than in other paintings: she could be any charming young woman dressed in her best. However, an allusion H. G. Wells makes in his novel Marriage suggests that her contemporaries would immediately have identified her class:
He came to a stop opposite one of the Rogersons, a stiffly self-conscious shop girl in her Sunday clothes, a not unsuccessful emulation of Nicholson’s wonderful Mrs. Stafford of Paradise Row.
I like to imagine the Stafford clan making a trip up west to Old Bond Street to view Lottie’s triumph when the painting was exhibited at Paterson Gallery. But I suspect that no such trip took place.
We now return briefly to Orpen, whose final pictures of Lottie were painted in 1907. The Idle Girl, which is now at Farmleigh House in Dublin and is surely an homage to Vermeer, depicts a domestic servant with her hair wrapped up to protect it from dirt. The servant, sitting in profile, has been cleaning the silver: now she takes a break to read a letter. Light illuminates her vulnerable neck and the hand holding the letter. There is something both intimate and melancholy about this captured moment.
In the same year Orpen painted Lottie and the Baby, which is now in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Lottie is again in profile, stretching her neck upwards to drink from a tin can, while a pudgy-faced sleeping child of about one or two rests on her lap. The child is probably Lilian, who was born in 1905, and the exhibition catalogue notes that
her baby’s face is sickly looking, full of pathos, suggesting the impoverished life in the slums … The scene shows unsentimentally the reality of a working mother needing sustenance to continue her job while trying to provide love and comfort to her baby child.
Nicholson and Sickert
Other pictures that are said to be Lottie are a drawing of a voluptuous nude by Augustus John — if the statement that Lottie refused to pose in the nude is true, then this is not her — and paintings by William Nicholson and Walter Sickert.
Nicholson’s The Girl with the Tattered Glove, which was painted in 1909 and is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, was believed by Marguerite Steen to have been modelled by Lottie. However, the subject of the painting does not actually look like her and is now thought to have been modelled by Marie Laquelle, the artist’s sometime lover-cum-housekeeper.
Sickert’s Suspense, which was painted in 1916 and is now in the Ulster Museum, shows a watchful, waiting girl. It has been described as a portrait of Lottie, but I am inclined to think that the model looks more like a young girl than the thirty-three-year-old mother of six Lottie then was.
And then the war
By 1912 Lottie had been married to John Stafford for eleven years and had borne seven children. The six who survived were all under eleven: Elizabeth was ten, Florence eight, Lilian six, Violet Annie four and Ivy two. Alice Beatrice was born in October. The child who died had been born in 1906 or 1907, and, as there is no record of a baptism, it is likely that he or she did not live long. Lottie had spent half of her married life pregnant, and this, together with the pressure of looking after a large family, may have limited opportunities to model.
A big event for the Stafford family took place on Wednesday 25 March 1914 when all the children were baptised in Christ Church in Chelsea, possibly because the younger ones were starting school. But the First World War broke out soon after, and in December 1915 John signed up. We get a glimpse of his appearance: he was five feet ten inches in height with a thirty-seven inch chest, and he weighed a hand sixty-four pounds. He was thirty-nine, and his pre-war employment was as a cellarman.
Nine months later he was called up as a gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery — part of a siege battery that commanded heavy guns and howitzers. Some of his service was in France. There is nothing in his military record to suggest that he suffered any injuries, but that is not to say that he was not affected by his experiences.
While John was in the army, Lottie either undertook war work or stayed at home to care for the children. Living in Paradise Walk, they were in direct line of fire from Zeppelins, the airships that terrified London from September 1915. In November 1916 bombs were dropped near the Brompton Road, which was close to home. Then in February 1918 a one-thousand-kilogram bomb was dropped on the north-east wing of the Royal Hospital, which was even closer to home. Ernest Ludlow, the Captain of Invalids, was killed along with his wife, two of their five children and a niece.
However, there was some wartime happiness for the family when John Thomas Stafford, their only son, was born on 5 March 1918. After the war John himself returned safely to Paradise Walk, and at the time of the 1921 census he was working as a brewer’s drayman for Whitbread and Co. at their headquarters near the Barbican in Chiswell Street. He was forty-one.
Charlotte was thirty-eight and a housewife, and their oldest child, Elizabeth, was twenty and a domestic servant. Lilian was not employed. Violet, Ivy and Alice were at school, and three-year-old John was at home with his mother. The eight of them were living in four-rooms — an upgrade from the two rooms they shared in 1911.
Farewell Paradise Walk
The twenties saw a series of marriages from Paradise Walk. In 1923 Elizabeth married Sydney Carey, a carman, at the Church of St Barnabas in Pimlico. On Christmas Day 1925 Florence married Robert Layton at Christ Church — where John and Lottie had married — and on the following Christmas Day Lilian married Thomas Tilling. Then in 1934 Violet married William Ronald Sythes, who worked for Wandsworth Council. William and Violet moved south of the river to Pylon House — now Walton House — in Merton Road in Southfields.
The next time we see the Stafford family is just after the start of the Second World War, when on 29 September 1939 a Register of Civilians was taken, the purpose of which was to produce identity cards and ration books. Lottie and John were living at 59 Christchurch Street, which was part of the Cadogan Estates, having moved there from Paradise Walk in about 1935. John, who at fifty-nine was too old to be called up, was still working as a brewer’s drayman. Lottie was not working outside the home. Three of their children were with them on this date: Alice Beatrice — twenty-seven and a domestic servant — John Thomas — nineteen and a garage hand — and their married daughter, Violet Sythes. Ivy — twenty-nine — worked close by as a live-in housekeeper to Mrs Mildred Alston at 77 Cheyne Court.
The three older Stafford daughters all lived a short walk from their parents in Ixworth Place in social housing built by the Lewis Trust. The philanthropist and money lender Samuel Lewis left £2,600,000 in his will and set aside £670,000 to create a charitable trust to build good quality low rent housing for the poor. Ixworth Place must have felt like the height of modernity after Paradise Walk. Every flat had running water with a boiler, a toilet, a bath — admittedly below a tabletop in the kitchen — a solid fuel range, and gas lighting. Communal facilities included a laundry drying room, a pram parking area, and an area for dustbins. Elizabeth, a charwoman, and her husband Sydney Carey, a furniture porter, lived with their children in Flat 20E. Florence and her husband, a flushing dustman, lived with their child in 32D. Lilian and her husband, a coach painter, lived in 16F.
And farewell Lottie
But the war brought private as well as public tragedy, for in 1942 Violet’s husband, William Ronald Sythes, who was serving as an army tank instructor in Warminster, was thrown from the outside of a tank and suffered a catastrophic and fatal injury. He was only thirty-two. He was buried in Streatham Cemetery in Tooting, not far from the Southfields home he had shared with Violet. The closeness of their relationship is clear from the grave inscription — ‘To me he was the whole world’ — and Violet, though only thirty-four, never remarried. She survived William by forty-five years, and, when she died on 15 September 1987, she was buried at his side. The epitaph on their grave — ‘Never again to part’ — is touching.
In 1944, at the age of sixty-three, John Stafford died at 59 Christchurch Street and was buried in Brompton Cemetery. Lottie outlived him by nine years, dying on 3 September 1953 in St Stephen’s Hospital in the Fulham Road. She was buried in an unmarked common grave in Brompton Cemetery. Although there is no headstone to memorialise her, Lottie’s beauty, physical presence and vivacity, which shine forth in so many paintings, remain as her true legacy.
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