CHAPTER IV

St John's Wood in the mid 'eighties — Curious state of things — Art and gallantry — The fastest district of London — Distinguished men living there — The artist colony of St John's Wood as compared with Montmartre — The "Blenheim" — The "Eyre Arms" — Visits to friends' studios — An amusing incident — Unexpected visitors — The trick bell-cord — A determined guest — A plethora of jelly — Models persistency in calling — Families of models — Costume models — Models for the nude — "Showing" their figure — Different ways of undressing of the French and the Italian models — Amusing episode in the studio — The two girls, a shock for the gas inspector — A novel evening bodice

ST JOHN'S WOOD in the mid 'eighties presented a very curious study; it was without a doubt far and away the most artistic quarter of London. There were artists' colonies in Haverstock Hill, Kensington and Chelsea, but St John's Wood was the artists' district par excellence and many of the most distinguished painters of those days had their studios there. At the same time it was the most favored place of residence of ladies of easy virtue.

This juxtaposition of art and gallantry is not altogether an unusual coincidence, for it exists in most big cities, where there is an art center. In Paris it was, and is still, quite remarkable, and in Montmartre, for instance, Phidias is the neighbor of Delilah in almost every street, and lives on very good terms with her in the bargain. But whilst this state of affairs is not altogether surprising across the Channel, where a broader or rather more lax view of such things prevails — it is extremely difficult to explain how it ever came to be tolerated in sanctimonious old London.

I have often tried to fathom the reasons that prompted a number of thoroughly respectable gentlemen of the palette — with wives and families — to go deliberately and reside in what was undoubtedly then the fastest district of London. The fact of its almost rural seclusion may partially explain it, for the open country was close at hand to St John's Wood in the 'eighties.

In Montmartre the unmarried painters usually lived openly en ménage, with their maîtresses or their amies, and made no compliment about it; but such goings-on would have been considered most reprehensible in London, and therefore few of the artists risked it, if they wished to have any pretension to be looked upon as decent members of society — though it was an open secret that all was not exactly monastic in many of the bachelor's studios. But of this more anon.

Meanwhile it may be of interest in order to convey some idea of the artistic character of the district to name a few of the men who lived there in my time. It will be seen that it was a thoroughly representative gathering of some of the best known men of that period.

Frederick Goodall, R.A., was in Avenue Road; close by was Alma Tadema, whose house and studio were badly damaged by the explosion of a barge on the Canal opposite.

In Cavendish Place was one of the most popular painters of the day, Thomas Faed, R.A.

In St John's Wood Road were H. W. B. Davis, R.A., who had Landseer's old house; John Pettie, R.A., Seymour Lucas, R.A., and Phil Morris, A.R.A.

Stacey Marks, the R.A., who achieved fame and fortune by his quaint pictures of storks and pelicans and other grotesque birds at the zoo, was in Hamilton Terrace, and close by him was Yeend King just beginning to make his reputation as a landscape painter.

Just round the corner, in Grove End Road, was Phillip Calderon, R.A., and further on in the same road was James Tissot, the French artist, perhaps one of the most talented and original painters at the time; he had a house which was afterwards purchased by Alma Tadema. His garden was said to be the most picturesque and most extensive in the neighborhood, and there was a small lake in it with water lilies and rushes on it, which he depicted in many of his pictures. Tissot, so rumor went, lived there very much à la Française, and as he always painted his mistress, she was usually referred to as "his favorite model," for decorum's sake. The goody folk round about were very scandalized at his household arrangements I remember — they probably looked on the high wall surrounding his place as enclosing a veritable abode of iniquity.

M'Whirter was at the corner of Abbey Road, and in Carlton Hill close by was J. D. Watson, one of the greatest personalities of the Bohemian world at that time. He was a splendid looking man, with a fine figure and handsome aquiline features, reminding one somewhat of a youngish Don Quixote. He was quite a genius in his way; it was one of the things no one could understand, why he was never elected to the Royal Academy. His work was of the School of Pinwell and Fred Walker, and as a painter he was far ahead of the majority of his contemporaries. He gave me the impression of being a disappointed man, yet in spite of his always being a bitter cynic he was very popular amongst the artists in the Wood.

Laslett J. Pott, whose studio was close by, was also quite a character in his way, though not a great painter. He was a major in the volunteers, and looked a good deal more like a soldier than an artist — in fact it was a little weakness of his to be taken for an officer of the Regulars, and certainly his splendid moustache and his martial bearing gave him quite the appearance of the guardsman of the period.


His Splendid Moustache...

All along Grove End Road, and in the turnings off it, artists were to be found, and all more or less well known.

In Melina Place was Johnny Parker, the water color painter, and across the way in Elm Tree Road was Ernest Parton, who had just made a big hit at the Royal Academy and had his picture purchased by the Chantry Fund; and Ethel Wright, one of the prettiest and most talented of the lady artists, not only of the neighborhood but of London, who lived in a gem of an old-world house with a studio and a garden. She had a chaperon always staying with her as she was far too young to be living alone in St John's Wood — even under the aegis of Art. She used to give delightful little dinner-parties to her artistic friends, amongst whom I had the pleasure of being counted.

In Waverley Place were amongst others Delapoer Downing and Herbert Lyndon, who shared a studio; and Tom Hemy, a clever painter of marine subjects, but who was over-shadowed by the greater reputation of his brother, Napier; Onslow Ford, the sculptor, was at the corner of Acacia Road; whilst a few hundred yards away in Finchley Road were Dendy Sadler and two Royal Academicians, Briton Riviere and Burgess.

There were groups of studios off Queen's Road, Finchley Road, Marlboro' Road, Carlton Hill, and other streets where were younger men, many of whom made names for themselves since. I have, however, enumerated sufficient to give some slight idea of the district in those days. It was a unique little colony of artists, the like of which could not, I think, exist today.

Although there was no fortune to be made out of painting, many of the big artists were doing extremely well, and that encouraged the less known men to persevere in their efforts. Modern art had not yet been ousted by Old Masters, nor illustration by photography.


Looking back on those years it seems to me that every one took life easier, even one's pleasures less boisterously, and one had more time to oneself than nowadays — though perhaps that was because you were young then and with all your life before you. But anyhow there is no doubt the temptation to gad about was not so great, and I soon found that if St John's Wood did not offer the same wild attractions I had got accustomed to in Paris, it had its compensations in the shape of plenty of pretty girls to come and sit for one, and lots of good fellows who were glad if you dropped in to have a smoke and a yarn after work, for I was not long in getting to know several of my confrères.

There were one or two places where one was sure to run across brother brushes; the "Blenheim," which was quite close to my studio in Marlboro' Hill, or the "Eyre Arms," a little way off, of which I shall have plenty to relate further on.

These chance rencontres with men who had studios near you gave an additional charm to the artistic life of the neighborhood, and reminded one not a little of living in a big village where every one soon gets to know every one else. Men would "put on a pipe" of a morning, and stroll round to friends' studios very often for no better reason than that they didn't feel up to work yet, and wanted to while away an hour or so, and unless one was busy oneself, or wanted to be alone, it was very pleasant having some one calling to see you at any odd time. Moreover, it gave opportunities for exchange of ideas which were often very acceptable. One was not old enough in those days to have "axes to grind," and one got franker criticism than one gets as one grows older, when the stress of competition and jealousy begins to develop itself.

"Come round, old chap, for a few minutes and have a smoke, and tell me how my picture is getting on," was what you heard almost every day, and very often one was glad for the excuse of a stroll out, especially if it was a fine, sunny morning, and the studio appeared a bit stuffy in consequence.

Whilst these informal and unexpected visits from one's neighbors were very pleasant, they were apt at times to lead to somewhat awkward predicaments, and this reminds me of a funny incident which is worth telling.

An artist who had a studio not far from me was very fond of the ladies — not an unusual state of affairs, perhaps, especially amongst the knights of the palette, but he was particularly strong on this point, and was seldom without a petticoat near him. One fine, hot summer afternoon a great pal of his went round to see him, and finding the door of the studio ajar, walked in unceremoniously and without knocking first. To his great amusement he discovered his friend on the divan with a lovely girl in diaphanous drapery in his arms. This situation was certainly compromising, and the unbidden visitor was about discreetly to retire so as not to disturb the two inamorata who were in the ecstasies of spooning. He was hoping that his entrance would not be noticed, but in backing out he knocked against something which caused the couple to turn round with guilty haste, and the lady gave a little scream.

The visitor apologized profusely for his intrusion, whereat his friend, seeing who it was, got into a violent rage, and called out to him, "How dare you come in when you see I am engaged!"

So irritating were these unexpected visits at times when one wanted particularly to be alone, that a man I knew had fixed up an ingenious arrangement by which he could ring the street door bell without going outside. There was a sort of wooden pedal at the side of a paint cabinet, attached to this was a cord connecting with the bell wire; when he wanted to get rid of a bore he would stroll nonchalantly as though to get something from the cabinet, and the rest was easy. There would be a loud ring at the bell, he would go to see who it was, remain away for a few minutes, and on returning would say, "Awfully sorry, old chap, but I have got to go out at once, some one has sent for me," or anything else that came into his mind at the moment. Then putting on his hat he would add, if he saw his visitor had not taken the hint, "I am afraid I shall have to turn you out, as I do not know what time I shall be back."

Unwelcome visitors were, however, not always got rid of in spite of the bell, and he used to tell of an incident that occurred to him on one occasion in particular.

He was expecting his best girl when there was a ring at the bell, and on going to the door he found it was the mother of a damsel who had sat to him in a friendly way for a picture. The family had been very kind to him once when he was ill, and shown him a good deal of hospitality at different times; so, although it was very annoying and awkward the old lady turning up at this particular moment, he had to pretend to be delighted to see her, and asked her in. Meanwhile he glanced surreptitiously at his watch, and discovered he only had about twenty minutes to spare. As the old lady had always accompanied her daughter when she was sitting for him, she knew the studio well. She had a lot of parcels under her arm, and in she walked and flopped down contentedly into the most comfortable armchair, saying cheerfully, to the artist's horror, "Well, it's lucky finding you in, as I am positively dying for a cup of tea. I have been shopping all day and feel knocked up, so I said to myself, if George is in I know he will be a good Samaritan and let me sit quietly in his studio until it is time to go to the station to catch my train."

"Catch your train," repeated George mechanically. "What time does your train go?"

"Oh, there's one at 5.5 (it was then past 4) and there is not another after that till 7.15."

The artist made up his mind instantly that, bar unforeseen circumstances, she would catch the 5.5 — but, of course, he didn't tell her this. So with much alacrity he put the kettle on the stove with as little water in it as possible, so that it would boil quickly, laid the tea things, and altogether was so smart about it that the dear old lady chaffingly suggested he had missed his vocation — he ought to have been a parlor-maid. Well, he hurried her through tea as rapidly as he decently could, and bethought him of the bell trick, and he went out in response to the ring. In a few minutes he returned with an assumed air of much annoyance, preached the usual yarn, and told her how awfully sorry he was that he had to go out at once, and as he was not certain what time he was coming back he thought he had better put her in a cab and she would just catch the 5.5. His feelings may be imagined when she replied that she felt so tired that she had unbuttoned her boots, and she didn't mind a bit him leaving her alone in the studio, and that she would have a sleep and tidy herself up and catch the 7. 15 — she knew he was a very busy man, so she would forgive him running away and leaving her, etc. Here was a pretty predicament, for what could he do, he could not very well tell her she must go, so he murmured something about not liking to leave her alone there.

"Never you mind about me," she replied, with a merry old lady's laugh. "I can look after myself, and I shall probably make myself another cup of tea before I go — so you run away and don't worry about me." There was no help for it, so out he had to go, and he strolled up and down outside till his girl, who was never punctual, turned up, and he told her all about what had happened, and they had to walk about the streets till the old lady had gone.

The dénouement was too funny for words; when he got back into the studio he found a sweet little note, that the dear old soul had noticed that George wasn't looking quite himself (probably a little worried!), and having luckily the ingredients with her that she was taking back with her into the country, she had spent the time, when alone in the studio, in making him a little invalid jelly — and adding that he must leave it to set till the following day, when she would look in to see if he was better. George was naturally pleased at her kind thought. Imagine his horror when the following morning his charwoman came to him and asked what she should use for his breakfast as all the cups and basins were full of some "yellow muck," which perhaps, she added, he didn't want disturbed. The dear old lady had made enough jelly to supply a military hospital; but the worst of it was, it hadn't set, and showed no signs of doing so. Here was a pretty predicament, as he didn't like to throw it away, as she was coming to see him again that day. As far as I remember, he drank his tea that morning out of the soap-dish.

The most persistent of visitors at all times were the models; all day and at any hour they would be calling. As the studio I had taken was a very well-known one, and had been occupied for several years by figure artists, a day never passed without several rings at the bell from would-be sitters — and generally females. Most of them seemed to live in Camden Town, and they hunted in packs apparently. A very large percentage had little pretension to good looks, and had evidently tried to take to sitting as an easier way of earning money than going into service. After the novelty had worn off, one got very tired of answering rings at the bell, when one happened to be busy, to find some dowdy, ill-favored individual outside, and to hear the invariable, "Do you want a model, sir?" It was a mystery to me how the majority managed to make a living at it at all; in Paris they would not have earned a crust. The patience they displayed was often exemplary, for it must have been very disheartening going from studio to studio, and so seldom getting anything out of it all — except a rough answer when the artist was in a temper at being disturbed.

Shabby Individuals...

Male models were also calling persistently, though there didn't seem to be so many of them. They were not nearly so picturesque as the ones you saw in Paris, as they were generally down at the heel, shabby individuals of uncertain age, who looked like broken-down actors, and who probably divided their time between "supering" at theaters and sitting for artists. There was an oldish fellow I remember, who used to come round, he wasn't anything to look at, and hadn't got a hair on his head — in fact, he was as bald as a billiard ball, yet he called himself a model; what he used to sit for I could never imagine. There were, however, two or three who were quite characters in their way — one in particular with a very fine head. He was an old seafaring man, and eventually sat for the doctor in Sir Luke Filde's famous picture.

Many artists would fix notices outside their doors, "No models required," and one I knew, who was a bit of a wag, went so far as to put — "No models, hawkers, or dogs admitted — dustmen may call." Still this didn't deter them, for they were a determined lot, and would ring the bell at all hazards.

It was so seldom that any really beautiful women called that one often wondered where the artists found the lovely faces they painted in their pictures; but it was probably the same as I noticed in Paris — an exceptionally good - looking model never had occasion to go round asking for work, so unless she had an introduction she never called to see you, she got all the sittings she could manage among her own clientèle. Apart from those girls, who, as I have suggested, probably took up sitting instead of going into service, there were many who had been brought up as models, and who came from families who had been all models. There were several girls of this description who were quite well known among the artists — they had been posing practically since they were old enough to sit up, and if they were not beautiful, at least they made excellent and reliable models, and could therefore always make a living at it. They were in great request for drapery, or any pose requiring exceptional steady sitting. Most of them sat for the figure, and it was often quite amusing to me at first to note the businesslike method in which they acted. As I was a newcomer, and a possible employer, they would always suggest "showing their figure" when they called, if I happened to ask them in to take their address. It didn't seem to make the slightest difference to them how chilly the studio was.

"That doesn't matter," they would often say; "I'll show it you now while I am here, and then you will know what it is like, and you can make a note of it in your model book," and often before one could stop them they would start undressing. Many would look round for a screen or curtain to disrobe behind, but others treated the process in so businesslike a manner that it made no difference to them taking off their clothes in the middle of the studio. They often seemed to wear specially made dresses and underclothes which seemed to come undone as if by magic — a button here, a hook there, and the whole lot was off in an instant.

"With A Sort Of
                Self-Consciousness"

It used to be said in the Paris studios that you can always distinguish between the French and the Italian models by the way they take off their chemise. The French girl invariably lets hers fall daintily to the ground round her feet, and steps out of it, whereas the Italian, on the contrary, takes it off carelessly over her head. I was reminded of this by the way the English models disrobed — they did it usually with a sort of self-consciousness which seldom had either the grace of the Frenchwoman or the abandon of the Italian.

A peculiar episode comes back to me in this connection; it makes me smile even now when I think of it. One morning two models called, and, as I was alone, and they were not bad looking girls, I asked them in to take their addresses. Somewhat to my surprise they both offered to show me their figures there and then to "save time," as they put it, so, as I was not expecting anybody, I told them they could undress behind the curtains which masked the alcove which I used as a bedroom. They had just left me when there came a ring at the bell, and I found it was the gas inspector, who had called to see me with reference to a fault in the gas-cooking stove. We stood talking outside for a moment on the matter, and then, without thinking of what I was doing, I asked him to come into the studio. He had just finished looking at the stove, and we were coming out of the inner room, when suddenly a voice called out, "Shall we come in?" For the moment I clean forgot about the two models, and thinking I had left the studio door open I said, "Who's there? Come in!" The curtains of the alcove were parted and in walked two nude girls, and stood like statues in the middle of the studio. The inspector stared in blank amazement at the vision before him, as well he might, for it was as unexpected as it was pleasing, as both the models had lovely figures. He had the presence of mind, however, to hide his embarrassment, and didn't utter a word; for all the curiosity he displayed he might have been an artist himself, but the look on his face spoke volumes.

After giving one or two different poses the girls asked if that would do, and could they dress again. Of course I told them to do so, and they went back behind the curtains. Whilst they were getting into their clothes the inspector, with a snigger, whispered to me that he "must really take up art as a 'obby!"

One of the best looking of the women who used to come round and ask for sittings had hit on quite a novel idea. I had been told of it, but the first time she called I forgot it, so her dress gave me a curious surprise. She told me she didn't sit for the whole figure, but merely for the bust, which she added was said by artists to be very fine. She would show it me. I told her not to trouble, as I was not in want of a model just at the moment; but she was not to be deterred. She was wearing a long rough ulster and a grey skirt. To slip off the ulster was the work of a moment, when to my surprise she was wearing a black evening bodice cut so low as to completely display her bosoms. She certainly had a magnificent neck and shoulders and figure, so she was perhaps justified in wishing to display it, though the manner was singular to say the least of it, and far more suggestive than the entirely nude form would have been.

But then, what elsewhere might appear unconventional and even indecent, is in studio life, as I shall try to show as I go along, looked upon as of ordinary occurrence.




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