Mayfair to Chelsea
The last part of our London stroll opens with a privileged quartet who at various times lived within a few streets of each other but escaped England’s green unpleasant land for adventure in warmer climes. We’re now in Mayfair, where the streets grow quieter and the houses statelier, prestigious addresses for largely absentee Arabs and Russians.
Sylvia Brooke was born here in 1885, into a conventional upper class life of nannies, discipline and emotional neglect. And despite literary aspirations, she appeared destined to stay in that world. But in 1911 she married Vyner Brooke, who in time became the last “White Rajah” of Sarawak. As his ranee, Sylvia was scheming, duplicitous and tactless, scandalising society in both her native and adoptive countries. Returning to her parents’ Mayfair home as an adult, she outraged the housekeeper who resigned in the face of what she darkly referred to as ‘goings on’ in the house. Years later, a Conservative MP visited Sarawak and reported to the British Secretary of State on more of Sylvia’s ‘goings on’, claiming that “some of the stories about the Ranee’s conduct cannot even be put on the paper in a private memorandum of this sort” and concluding, “A more undignified woman it would be hard to find.” Unabashed, Sylvia eagerly played up to her image, styling herself ”Queen of the Headhunters”.
No less scandalous was the “Queen of Whale Cay”. The woman born here in 1900 and christened Marion was always an unlikely candidate for deb balls, hunt parties and moneyed indolence. “I was never a little girl,” she explained. “I came out of the womb queer.” And so she was known most of her life as Joe Carstairs. She used the great wealth inherited from her Anglo-American parents to fund her successful career as a speedboat racer. Later, she bought the Bahamian island of Whale Cay and ruled it with an iron fist, her beloved doll Lord Tod Wadley constantly at her side. Her childhood home still stands at the point at which Mayfair surrenders to the abject commercial morass of Oxford Street. Until recently the building housed a firm of solicitors but on my visit it was being gutted for its next incarnation.
North of Oxford Street we find another child of Anglo-American privilege who ran away to a tropical “kingdom”: Edward James. As a generous patron of the arts, James was a significant catalyst for Surrealism, which in turn informed his interiors. While his West Sussex house, Monkton, was the fullest expression of his unique taste, his London digs were also bristling with eccentric decorative elements. Canvases by Dalí and Picasso nestled in a profusion of drapery, and the wet footsteps of James’s dancer wife Tilly Losch were incorporated into a carpet design (an effect later repeated at Monkton, but with paw prints). More ambitious projects, like adorning the drawing room with rocks in homage to Dalí’s beloved Spanish seaside town of Cadaqués, remained unrealised. In any case, James had a much bigger project ahead: the vast jungle sculpture garden of Las Pozas in Mexico, which he bought in 1947 and where he remained until his death in 1984. Chilean director Rodrigo Ortuzar has filmed his intriguing life story, which is scheduled for release as The Surrealist Life of Edward James later this year.
Next year, meanwhile, should see the release of The Lady Who Went Too Far, by the makers of this year’s shameless Oscar bait The King’s Speech. Rather than a stuttering, colourless monarch, the subject this time is the truly arresting Lady Hester Stanhope, already portrayed in a 1995 telemovie by Jennifer Saunders. Stanhope was born here in 1776. When she was a young woman, preacher Richard Brothers predicted that she would one day be “Queen of the Jews”. Now, a normal person might have noted that the source of said prophecy was, at the time, immured in a mental institution and taken it with the appropriate grain of salt. But Stanhope never trifled with normality, having both a highly developed sense of cosmic destiny and a magnetic attraction to the East. Many years later, after years of travel throughout the Middle East, she settled in Lebanon. Whacked on herbal hallucinogens, she fancied herself the companion of the coming Twelfth Imam. She died in 1839.
Our next subject lies at the other end of London’s sprawling green lung. En route, you might care to pause and imagine Beau Brummell, Count d’Orsay and other dandies joining the capital’s upper crust in parading ostentatiously under the oaks. It was a difficult spectacle to summon on a blustery winter afternoon, the route only enlivened once Hyde Park dissolved into Kensington Gardens, which was dotted with large-scale Anish Kapoor sculptures. Keep going, past Kensington Palace and its needy royal ghosts, past Kensington Palace Gardens, “London’s most exclusive address”…
…and finally we come to the London home of Count Eric Stenbock. The Baltic German poet – bizarre, ghoulish, flamboyant – was the living embodiment of themes which preoccupied many 1890s writers. He shared his house with snakes, birds, a Persian cat, a monkey trained to crack nuts and Stenbock’s familiar, a toad called Fatima. Not everyone was convinced by the count’s Decadent posturing. “Satan and the Senses, the Seven Deadly Sins, were at his beck and call; so he imagined,” sniffed Arthur Symons. “Only, he had none of the magic of an Exorciser, he was no actual evoker of dead ghosts; he was in one word, one of those conspicuous failures in life and in art which leave no traces behind them, save some faint drift in one’s memory” (which is more than one word, I think you’ll find). Oscar Wilde was sufficiently intrigued to seek out the poet at home, however he made the mistake of lighting his cigarette from a devotional lamp Stenbock host had set between statues of Buddha and Shelley and, noting his host’s horror, exited sharply.
Oscar never met his niece Dolly Wilde, but she was the only member of the family to carry his name into the 20th century. She had an affair with Joe Carstairs, who we met back in Mayfair, and was a fixture of the circle around saloniste Natalie Barney, with whom Wilde had a long affair. The qualities for which contemporaries praised her – keen wit, magnetic presence and social ease – were never complemented by the industry and self confidence which might have transformed them into something more durable. “Dolly Wilde was one of the Beautiful Losers,” claims biographer Joan Schenkar, “a legendarily gifted speaker whose talent was large, whose expression was private, and whose friends, lovers, and enemies all ended by wringing their respective hands over her squandered gifts and lost opportunities.” In 1941 the “Beautiful Loser” died here of a drug overdose. Her presence is the most elusive of those we have sought on this journey and even the building where she administered her fatal dose is gone.
The Chelsea Arts Club, on the other hand, is an unlikely survivor. It was founded in 1891 with an explicit mandate to be “Bohemian in character”, a marked contrast to the stuffy private clubs of the era. Among its early members were Whistler, Sargent and, yes, Augustus John. In the early 20th century the club threw legendary fancy-dress balls at the Royal Albert Hall. Both the building and the institution still exist, a lone remnant of Chelsea’s bohemian heyday offering a West London redoubt for the kind of contemporary artist more often to be found in the East End.
In the 1880s Whistler lived nearby in The Vale, then a new development featuring purpose-built artists’ houses. His home was later occupied by artists Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, who lived in as public a relationship as the time allowed. They were key tastemakers of the Aesthetic movement and formed the Vale Press to further their ideas. Oscar Wilde referred to these strange flowers as ‘Orchid’ and ‘Marigold’ and was a frequent visitor to their home, calling it “the one house in London where you will never be bored”. It is most likely here that he met John Gray, putative model for Dorian Gray.
Just round the corner is the house designed for our old friend Augustus John by Dutch architect Robert van ‘t Hoff in 1913. Its relative lack of ornamentation marked it out from its neighbours, an innovation the architect would develop further as a member of De Stijl. And here – at last – one of our Strange Flowers is honoured with a blue plaque, the token of former famous residents. Britain’s vast heritage industry has, it seems to me, missed a trick by not acknowledging the great British phenomenon of eccentricity (which continues to engage the public imagination if new book Bright Particular Stars is any indication). The choice of blue plaque honourees is leadenly conservative and sometimes bafflingly perverse, with an apparent preference for lesser colonial administrators known only to their mothers. Or it may be that current residents (who aren’t obliged to host a plaque) would rather not have their homes associated with drunks, deviants and diabolists. If John is an exception it is only because he was so ubiquitous (as we’ve seen) and endured in the public eye for so long that recognition could no longer be withheld. “He did not bother to be witty; he merely lived in such a way as to push the current image of a painter to its limits. He was the prototype of the Chelsea Bohemian of his day – bold, bawdy, bearded.”
That assessment came from Quentin Crisp, John’s neighbour and arguably the 20th century’s most neglected philosopher; he was certainly its greatest theorist of lifestyle. His observations on any given topic are ordinarily the most perceptive, lucid and elegant comments on said topic you will encounter – and frequently also the funniest. Try telling me these impromptu comments from the forthcoming collection Dusty Answers, for instance, don’t say everything that need be said about theology. The bedsit where Crisp spent 41 years of his life in wilful squalor was not just an expression of his unorthodox views on domestic maintenance, it was also his office, his theatre and a frequent subject in his writings. It’s hard to imagine a space more intimately associated with a great writer than this “private ward in a home for incorrigibles”, as he termed it. Here, he stands in his chamber regally introducing the filmed version of The Naked Civil Servant, and here, in a 1971 documentary, he peers wistfully from the window from which “on a clear day you can see normality”.
Quentin Crisp encountered our last subject, Marchesa Luisa Casati, near the end of her sorry decline, describing her as “a picturesque ruin of a woman”. Shortly before the end of his own life he penned the foreword to the 1999 biography Infinite Variety (whose title comes from Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra, as quoted on the grave: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety”). In it he described a “woman whose presence one would never forget”, who “had a knowing scorn of the world and presented those who adored her with an image of something they could never hope to be—a being somehow beyond criticism and convention.” Having moved to London in the 1930s, Casati died there in 1957 and was buried in Brompton Cemetery with one of her stuffed Pekinese dogs. Her gravestone is no higher than an occasional table and can’t even get her name right, but of course this isn’t where we should seek Casati. Her real memorial is composed of the anecdotes, the scandal, the images and the aura which outlive skin and bone. Passed down to us, they sketch an existence as brave and unique as those eked out by Baron Corvo or Augustus John, by Nina Hamnett or Dolly Wilde. All of them suffered for their singularity; they were often ridiculed, sometimes scorned and occasionally – cruellest fate of all – ignored. But in the end, these magnificent oddballs offer us nothing less than crooked curricula in the subject of life.