Artist’s Model of Paradise Walk in Chelsea
AUTHOR: KAREN ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 31 JULY 2022
In Part One of this story we left Lottie and John Christopher Stafford with Elizabeth, their baby daughter. Early in their married life, in about 1901, the young couple moved to Paradise Walk, where John’s family were long term residents and where Lottie and John would remain for the next thirty-five years. Let us look at this location in more detail. It has an important part in Lottie Stafford’s story, appearing in the titles of some of the paintings in which she features and serving to define her as the lily who came from a slum.
Before the building of the Chelsea Embankment in the 1870s, Paradise Walk, or Bull Lane as it was previously called, led directly down to the Thames. To the north was Queen’s Road, which, confusingly, was once called Paradise Row. To the west was Swan Walk and the Chelsea Physic Garden. To the east, Tite Street.
The houses in Paradise Walk were small two storey cottages, those on the east side having been built in about 1813 and those on the west in 1836. In contrast neighbouring Tite Street, which was built in the 1870s as an access road down to the Embankment, had become a middle-class artistic enclave. A number of distinguished residents were listed in Part One, and to this list might be added the artists Frank Miles, Edwin Abbey, Anna Lea Merritt and John Collier and the caricaturist Carlo Pelligrini, who was known as ‘Ape’. With disproportionately small back gardens the tall houses of Tite Street towered over shabby Paradise Walk.
Attitudes to Paradise Walk
The inhabitants of Paradise Walk have left no first-hand evidence — as far as I know. Consequently, in order to piece together a picture of life in the slum, we must look through the lens of the census returns and contemporary newspapers. But first we need to consider written descriptions of Paradise Walk, which come mainly from the pens of middle-class authors acquainted with the place.
Oscar Wilde, who had previously lodged with Frank Miles at 1 Tite Street — it is now No. 44 — later leased No. 16 — now No. 34 — with his wife Constance from the time of their marriage in 1884 until his arrest in 1895. The Wildes commissioned the influential designer E. W. Godwin to work on their new home, and one of the rooms Godwin designed — the smoking room on the first floor — happened to overlook the backyards of Paradise Walk.
Now Wilde usually worked in his ground floor library at the front of the house, but he used the smoking room as a second writing room. It was decorated in a Moorish style with red and gold Morris wallpapers and low sofas and with lattice-work shutters on the windows, which had presumably been installed to protect the writer’s delicate sensibilities from the goings-on in the Paradise Walk backyards. These would not only have boasted privies but would also have been used for hanging washing and dumping rubbish.
Although they did not wish to look at the poverty on show over the garden wall, the Wildes were not immune to their neighbours’ suffering, and, unlike most who commented on Paradise Walk, their actions and writing showed sympathy for the poor. In The Street of Wonderful Possibilities: Whistler, Wilde & Sargent in Tite Street Devon Cox notes that
Constance meanwhile had taken up a few charity projects and was making visits to the poor residents of Paradise Walk. Words of her good deeds had spread quickly, and it was not long before the residents of Paradise Walk found their way to the white door of No. 34 Tite Street. ‘I see a great deal now of Paradise Walk,’ she wrote, ‘But I feel hopeless to do anything there … they all come to me now to help.’
The reality of poverty
Wilde was aware that he lived in an unequal society, and perhaps the residents of Paradise Walk as near neighbours helped shape his beliefs. When the eponymous hero of his 1888 story The Happy Prince dies after leading a cloistered existence, and a statue of him is put on a tall column, he finally sees the reality of his subjects’ lives.
With the help of a swallow who nests at his feet the prince gives away the jewels adorning his statue to a representative sample of poor people: a seamstress, an unappreciated playwright and a match girl. Although this is a story of generosity and sacrifice — the swallow dies when she should have flown away to warmer climes — it shows that charity alone has a limited impact on poverty. It might also be a warning to those donating to charity that their memory will not last long, for once the prince’s statue is reduced to its unadorned lead it is melted down by the townsfolk.
Prolonging the disease
In his 1891 essay on the impact of a capitalist society, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Wilde argued that ultimately acts of charity provide no long-term respite. Donors to charity
find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this … Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease. They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.
He goes on to say that society needs to change to make poverty impossible:
Under Socialism all this will, of course, be altered. There will be no people living in fetid dens and fetid rags, and bringing up unhealthy, hunger-pinched children in the midst of impossible and absolutely repulsive surroundings.
A hellish Paradise
A more typical example of the middle-class gaze on Paradise Walk is in volume sixty-two of All The Year Round, which was published in 1888 under the editorship of Charles Dickens junior. In the article ‘Old Chelsea’ we find the following: ‘But what a glimpse of Paradise we gain looking down this walk; the houses small and ancient, with a ferocious kind of gloom about them! If here is Paradise, we will travel in some other directions.’ In a similar vein Geraldine Mitton, writing in 1902 as G. E. Mitton, described Paradise Walk in Chelsea The Fascination of London as ‘a very dirty, narrow little passage’ that ‘runs parallel to Tite Street.’ Although her description of the slum was factually accurate, it had little thought for those who lived there.
Vyvyan Holland, writing in 1954 in Son of Oscar Wilde, described Paradise Walk as ‘at that time one of the most forbidding of Chelsea slums. It was a row of small tenement houses with wretched, filthy back-yards, from which the sounds of brawling rose nightly.’ As children he and his brother Cyril were frightened of the road and its inhabitants: ‘As it was, the only glimpses that we caught of it at ground level were when we were hurried past the end of the street, lest we should be contaminated, and we had an impression of blowsy women with shawls over their shoulders and men’s caps on their heads, and dirty barefoot children in rags.’ He does also say that in retrospect the reality of Paradise Walk might not have been quite as frightening as its reputation.
Outside looking in
The Irish author and barrister Frank James Mathew used the street for local colour in his 1893 short story collection At The Rising of the Moon, clearly illustrating how an outsider viewed the street and its inhabitants as ‘other’ from respectable society. So we read: ‘Paradise Walk, in Chelsea, is a slum close to big houses. In the day-time it is quiet enough, but to know what life there means you should see it at night.’ ‘Because it was Saturday the slum was noisy and thronged. Queen’s Road was lined by costers’ barrows with flaring lights. Swarms of people were about; bareheaded women were chattering and chaffering. There was a shrill discord of voices and the street reeked with bad smells.’ ‘The people of Paradise Walk were busy cheering two washerwomen who were fighting.’
Herbert Percy Horne — poet, architect, typographer and art historian — lived around the corner with his mother at 14 Cheyne Walk prior to the mid-1890s, when he moved to Italy. In 1891 he privately published a book of poems at The Chiswick Press called Diversi Colores, in one of which — ‘Paradise Walk’ — he romanticises a poor girl who lives in the street:
She is living in Paradise Walk,
With the dirt and the noise of the street;
And heaven flies up, if she talk,
With Paradise down at her feet.
She laughs through a summer of curls;
She moves in a garden of grace:
Her glance is a treasure of pearls,
How saved from the deeps of her face!
And the magical reach of her thigh
Is the measure, with which God began
To build up the peace of the sky,
And fashion the pleasures of man.
With Paradise down at her feet,
While heaven flies up if she talk;
With the dirt and the noise of the street,
She is living in Paradise Walk.
Paradise Walk in the censuses
A National Census has taken place in the United Kingdom every ten years since 1801, with some exceptions, namely 1941, 1921 in Ireland, 1931 in Northern Ireland and 2021 in Scotland. The information therein provides a useful snapshot for those interested in the changing lives of the population, and looking at Paradise Walk through the censuses of 1901 and 1911 gives a more subtle insight into a street almost universally condemned as a violent and criminal slum. The people who lived there may have been poor, and rough in comparison to those who wrote about them, but this does not mean that they did not work hard, that they did not love their partners, and that they did not want much more for their children.
In both censuses there were about twenty-two houses. These each seem to have had two, three or four rooms. In 1901 there were a total of forty-two households. Half of the houses were occupied by multiple households. By 1911 there were only twenty-eight separate households or family groups. Possibly living conditions had improved — now under twenty percent of these groups lived in multiple household dwellings.
By 1911 forty-six percent of the households living in Paradise Walk appear to be occupied by the same families — if a different generation — as in 1901. These families may have remained because they had close neighbourhood ties and liked the area: we know that John and Lottie Stafford lived in the street for thirty-five years. On the other hand the nature of the housing stock may have meant that rents were cheap, and that the inhabitants could not afford to move elsewhere in the same vicinity for a comparable rent.
In both censuses all the men in the street were in work, apart from in 1901 when two sixty-eight-year-old men were not employed, possibly because they were no longer physically able. The range of occupations was varied — labourers, bricklayers, scaffolders, bus conductors, bakers, butchers, poulterers, car men — although we also find a stick dresser who made walking sticks and a beer bottle seller. By 1911 the skilled tradesmen — the butcher, the baker, the tailor, the shoemaker — had all moved out of the area. The forward march of the modern world can be seen in the fact that there were three chauffeurs living in the road.
The women were charwomen, laundresses, dressmakers and domestic servants, and in 1911 a shorthand typist and a waitress. Many did not list an occupation in the censuses, either because they were too busy looking after children to work outside the home, or because they thought it more genteel not to admit to paid employment. As for children, they accounted for twenty-five percent of the residents in 1901 and thirty-nine percent in 1911. The increase suggests that Paradise Walk was becoming more popular with people with young families, and more affordable. Of course, improvements in the rate of infant mortality may have had some bearing on these figures, but they are unlikely to be the principal cause of so big a jump.
Interestingly, none of the women living in Paradise Walk gives her occupation as artist’s model. But by at least 1904 Lottie Stafford had started modelling for some of the most significant artists of the 20th century.
Paradise Walk in the newspapers
Although the actual words of the residents of Paradise Walk are rarely reported, contemporary newspapers do offer some insights into their life experiences, and examples can be found in the British Newspaper Archive using the search term ‘Paradise Walk’ and searching from 1880 to 1935. Many of the events covered in these are exceptional — crimes, accidents, deaths — and women and girls are less conspicuous than men and boys, possibly because their lives were more home-bound or were viewed as less interesting or important to the newspaper reading public.
Something of the lives of the boys of Paradise Walk can be seen in a series of accidental drownings, and it is a startling fact that children as young as five used the Embankment and the stairs down to the Thames as a playground where they might paddle and float paper boats on the river. They also played in the street, which was safe as there was little through traffic at the time.
But at about the age of thirteen, when they went out to work, they became young adults. They then appear in court charged with drunkenness or rowdy behaviour, as when groups of them walked along the King’s Road with linked arms, pushing other pedestrians off the pavement. Young men are also criticised for throwing stones and spitting on to passenger boats below Battersea Bridge. Closer to home they are punished for gambling, that is to say playing cards on a Sunday, and on one occasion twelve are fined when caught playing football in the street, again on a Sunday. But the crimes most commonly reported relate to the consumption of alcohol, the perpetrators being drunk and disorderly in public, or guilty of domestic violence. There are frequent mentions from the 1890s to the 1920s of a labourer by the name of Ferrebee and his wife, who would appear to have been alcoholics.
Life’s other hazards
From the 1890s a temporary parish hall for nearby Christ Church operated in Paradise Walk: church activities included Band of Hope temperance meetings and concerts, and in later times girl guide and boy scout meetings. The Country Holiday (Fresh Air) Fund organised two-week holidays in the countryside for poor city children — sadly one lad from Paradise Walk died on one of these when swimming in a river near Bath. Later we hear of pupils from the Christ Church School — the school attended by the Stafford children — being taken on trips to the seaside. In 1928 two hundred went to Southend for the day.
Work injuries sustained by residents of Paradise Walk are mentioned. Alfred Stafford, for example, who was John’s father, fell off a ladder. And the poor living conditions can be seen in reports of people accidentally setting themselves alight with candles or falling into fires. In 1894 a laundress aged fifty-seven died over the New Year through the combined effects of cold and lack of food. This was not a woman who lived alone: she was in lodgings.
There was no shortage of local colour. Backyards were used for washing, and at least one resident kept hens, prompting a complaint from the nearby Victoria Hospital for Sick Children that the cockerel was keeping the patients awake. But by the 1920s conditions seemed to be improving. Notices in the newspapers advertised rooms to let, furniture for sale, and the services of a ‘practical chimney sweep’. The artistic community also made an appearance in the form of the studio of the sculptor Percy Guy Wood and the gallery where the potter Gwendolen Parnell exhibited her work.
But in 1935 part of Paradise Walk was demolished, and it may have been this that prompted the Staffords to move out. What happened to them is a question for the third and final part of the story, in which we discuss Lottie’s career as an artist’s model, the painters she sat for, and the pictures she appeared in … TO BE CONCLUDED