Tite Street Titans

Cover of Devon Cox's book The Street of Wonderful Possibilities: Whistler, Wilde and Sargent in Tite Street

When Oscar Wilde moved into 16 Tite Street, Chelsea with his wife Constance in January 1885, he was already familiar with Tite Street as the neighbourhood of his bachelor days. At number 16 (now 34) Tite Street, Oscar and Constance would raise two sons, model Aesthetic interior design and clothing and play host to artists, critics and writers. How could Wilde have known that one of his Tite Street neighbours would later sentence him to two years’ hard labour?

Chelsea was the place to be in nineteenth century London if you had creative ambitions. George Eliot, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Thomas Carlyle (‘the Sage of Chelsea’), Elizabeth Gaskell, Henry James, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Mark Twain, J.M.W. Turner and William Holman Hunt lived there. A large number of artists and writers gravitated to either Cheyne Walk or Tite Street, including Oscar Wilde, James McNeil Whistler and John Singer Sargent.

Lillie Langtry portrait by Frank Miles

Lillie Langtry by Frank Miles

In 1880, Wilde shared 1 Tite Street (Keats House, now number 44) with the artist Frank Miles. Here, Miles would draw ‘Professional Beauty’ Lillie Langtry and introduce Wilde to her. Wilde would entertain Langtry, Ellen Terry, Whistler and other guests with his witty conversation and opinions on aesthetics. This was the ‘Oscar of the first period’, who was famous for being famous, better known for his personality and self-promotion than for his writing.

Early in his career, Wilde had been the friend and admirer of the irascible artist James McNeil Whistler, and Whistler gave Mr and Mrs Wilde some of his etchings to hang in 16 Tite Street. Later, Whistler would accuse Wilde of riding on his coat tails, and the two Tite Street residents became verbal sparring partners in the press. Whistler created his own strikingly modern home and studio at Tite Street, The White House, that embodied his aesthetic values, and then had to sell it when the cost of his 1877 court battle with the critic John Ruskin became too great.

Photograph of James McNeill Whistler

“James McNeill Whistler ca. 1885” by Unspecified. Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell Collection (Library of Congress), Wikimedia Commons

Strangely, one of Wilde and Whistler’s opponents, the conservative art critic Harry Quilter, bought Whistler’s White House and altered it completely. Quilter was diametrically opposed to the artistic values upheld by Wilde and Whistler, and we know that his treatment of Whistler’s former home must have been completely unsympathetic, for Quilter felt that if he had to visit an Aesthetic house he’d “make a row, after all this gasping and guggling about Cinquecento and Greek coins, and the ‘philosophy of line’ and the spirit of beauty. [I’d give the owner] a good shake, and make him do his hair like other men. I should like to let a little fresh air into that house of his, metaphorically as well as literally …”

Tite Street also became the workplace of painter John Singer Sargent, who would create fabulous portraits of Wilde’s friends, rivals and peers, including Vernon Lee (Violet Paget), actress Ellen Terry, writer Henry James and the memoirist, historian and critic Edmund Gosse. Sargent had a studio at 33 Tite Street, and later acquired number 31 as well. The National Portrait Gallery in London is holding an exhibition of Sargent’s portraiture, Portraits of Artists and Friends, and if I lived in the UK I’d be there right now.

The more sinister aspect of this creative Chelsea street was that High Court judge Alfred Wills lived at number 46. In 1895, Mr Justice Wills would condemn Wilde to two year’s hard labour. The prison term broke Wilde’s health and ended his career as a dramatist, novelist, essayist and critic. Wilde would write only two more works during and after the sentence: the confessional letter De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

When I visited Tite Street on a trip to London, it was like going on a pilgrimage into Bohemia, so I was thrilled to read in the Oscar Wilde Society’s publication Intentions that Devon Cox has written a cultural history of this seductive street. I can’t wait to read The Street of Wonderful Possibilities.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent

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