To commemorate the death of William Turner who died on 19th December 1851 at his home in Chelsea, Nika Garrett from My London Tours has written the first guest post on King’s Road Rocks. I met Nika recently at a private viewing at the V&A and most recently for a coffee on the King’s Road. When talking to Nika, I realised that even though I had grown up in Chelsea and still live here as a new mummy, there is a lot I don’t know about my own neighbourhood. So let me hand this post over to Nika. And for a glimpse of the types of stories that lie within Chelsea, please read on …
At 10am on 19th December 1851, Joseph Mallord William Turner died in his home in Chelsea. It was a foggy morning and yet just before his death, the sun managed to break through the fog to shine on the face of the man who was to become known as “the painter of light.”
Turner spent his last years living anonymously at 119 Cheyne Walk in a very modest house. In fact Leopold Martin, son of the painter John Martin who also happened to be living just a few houses away was far from impressed when he visited: “the house had but three windows in front and was miserable in every respect, furnished in poor fashion.” He also recalls that an old woman served them bread with porter (dark ale). That old woman was probably Sophia Booth, Turner’s landlady and his loyal life companion during his last years.
Turner assumed the name of his landlady and insisted on being called Mr Booth. Local boys called him “Puggy Booth” and the boatmen dubbed him “The Admiral” as he had a habit of carrying his telescope with him. Turner spent most of his time watching the Thames from his first floor room overlooking the river. He also climbed up to the roof and watched the dawn and sunrise from there. A special wrought-iron balustrade was installed to prevent him falling from his favourite viewing point.
Sometimes Mr Booth and Mrs Booth would venture across the river to Battersea fields. It would often be local boatman Charles Greaves who would row them across the Thames. Later at night Greaves would wake up his neighbour and painter John Martin if the skies looked particularly stormy. Several years later Charles Greaves’s sons, Walter and Henry, would row another painter: James Abbot McNeil Whistler. Once on the other side of the Thames, Turner and his loyal Mrs Booth would walk to the Battersea church where he would watch the sunset over the water from the vestry above the west door.
It was Turner’s priority to protect his secret life in Chelsea. His official address was the house he owned in Queen Anne Street, Marylebone. There is a story that after a dinner party he once attended, he was helped by his host into a cab. The host asked what address he should he give to the driver. Turner’s clever reply was; “Tell the fellow to drive to Oxford Street and then I’ll direct him.” In fact, it was only a letter that the landlady of his official residence found in the painter’s coat that provided the clue to his Chelsea address where he was traced to just the day before his death.
Turner’s house in Chelsea survived and a plaque commemorates the famous painter. However, the reach of Thames that Turner and later Whistler so much admired has changed dramatically. The old wooden Battersea Bridge that they knew was replaced by Joseph Bazalgette’s bridge in 1890 when Whistler was still living in the area. 16 years earlier the embankment, while providing the solution to the sewage problems, swept away many riverside inns and houses. And yet, if you come to Chelsea or Battersea to watch how the Thames and its bridges are transformed when the sun sets down, you can still feel that magic of the bygone Chelsea that Turner aka Mr Booth must have felt back then.
Quotations in this post after Thea Holme’s “Chelsea” and John Richardson’s “The Chelsea Book; past and present.”
There are currently two interesting exhibitions; Turner and the Sea at National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and Whistler and the Thames at Dulwich Picture Gallery.