The Chelsea Arts Club began life as a grass roots initiative by working artists in the late nineteenth century. The Club was from the outset deliberately bohemian in character, seeing itself outside the normal definition of the ʻestablishmentʼ, in contrast to various other clubs, artistic and non artistic, in London.
Chelsea, a small village on the Thames, had developed as a riverside resort, first for courtiers and wealthy Londoners from the 15th to the 17th centuries – this was where St Thomas More lived – and then for a wider section of London’s residents in the 18th. It became known from the later 19th century as a centre of artistic life in London, with a socially mixed and rather bohemian society.
The area where the Kingʼs Road met Church Street became known from the 1870s as The Latin Quarter. It had hundreds of studios and more were being built. The largest group were in Manresa Road, with several groups of large rambling studios linked by courtyards. Artists were easy to recognise: their dress was casual, sometimes disreputable; they went without their collars; and they smoked clay pipes.
The artists working in this community looked for somewhere to meet, talk, eat and drink, but the choice was limited. Few artists at the time could afford to eat in restaurants, and many took their meals over a gas ring in their studio.
Some time in 1890 a group of friends began to meet more or less regularly in sculptor Stirling Leeʼs large studio after the dayʼs work was done, for conversation, news of artistic events, and the enjoyment of each otherʼs company. In the larger studios, at this time, ʻat homeʼ evenings were arranged at which some food and drink would be provided and the remainder brought along by guests, each member in turn acting as host. There was strong social cohesion in the Chelsea artistic community, with prosperous artists willing to support and encourage their less well-known colleagues. However, this made demands upon the working space of the studios and there was talk of how these amenities could be improved.
At meetings in Stirling Leeʼs studio from September to November 1890, the idea of a club took shape. The original idea was for an exhibiting society. Many of the friends had studied in Paris, and they were inspired, no doubt, by the independent exhibitions which the Impressionists had held there.
At one meeting, at which the American born James Abbott McNeill Whistler was present, with the talk still of an exhibiting society, an American artist, and friend of Whistler, Theodore Wores, proposed that ‘A Club be formed of Chelsea artists’. Soon everyone present was shouting ‘Club, club, club!’ and the idea of the Chelsea Arts Club was born.
A list of possible Members was prepared, and in November of 1890 a committee was formed, chaired by Lee. It was agreed that the Club should:
- be bohemian in character
- consist of professional architects, engravers, painters and sculptors
- promote social intercourse amongst its members
- advance the cause of art by means of exhibitions, life classes and other kindred means.
The Club had been born as an idea, and it now needed a home. Towards the end of 1890 a one of the Members, James Elder Christie, offered the use of the ground floor and basement of his house at 181 Kings Road – a flat fronted Georgian House with a studio at the back, next door to the newly built Town Hall. The formal launch of the Club took place here on the 18th of March 1891, with 55 Members present. Soon gas rings were installed, sketchy cooking arrangements were made and suppers were available in the dining-room on Monday evenings. Rudimentary furniture was bought, including a long second-hand dining table seating at least twenty. A little later a life class and a sketch class were formed.
The Club remained at 181 Kings Road for the next ten years until the short lease expired. By this time membership had grown to some 150 town and country Members, and the premises were getting cramped. In May 1900 it was agreed to look for a new clubhouse, and efforts were begun to raise the money required from amongst the Members. With the generous help of Mr Sloane Stanley, one of the principal Chelsea landlords, the Club was offered a charming house in Church Street.
143-5 Old Church Street had originally been two cottages, to which a large billiard room had been added. At the rear was a garden with a bowling green, pergola and flower beds. The Club secured the lease at the end of October 1901, and soon began the process of renovation, and alteration.
Over the next few years, membership of the Club grew steadily. One of the main sources of income in the early days were the Chelsea Arts Balls. ‘Quartz Arts’ Balls had been held in Paris and Rome for years, in which artists, musicians and people of the theatre celebrated ‘Mardi Gras’. The Club decided to hold a Ball in London which would rival those of Paris or Rome, and the first was held at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1908. It was a great success, and attracted many celebrities, socialites, and leading actors. Encouraged by their success, a larger venue was sought, and from 1910, the Chelsea Arts Balls were held in the Albert Hall.
For the next thirty years the Chelsea Arts Balls at the Albert Hall were the Bohemian centrepiece in London’s social season. Either held on Mardi Gras or New Year’s Eve, the Balls were extravagant affairs with over 100 performers, lavish decorations and up to 4,000 dancers all in fancy dress on the ‘Great Floor’ of the Albert Hall. With exotic themes such as ‘Egyptian’, ‘Noah’s Ark’, ‘Arabian Nights’ and ‘Sun Worship’, revellers would dance into the early hours until a breakfast was eventually served at 5am as an end to the festivities.
Today’s Club is still housed in 143-5 Old Church Street. The Members still eat dinner around the large dining table bought in 1891, and celebrate with lavish Balls each summer and New Year’s Eve (although they are now held in the Clubhouse rather than the Albert Hall). The Club remains bohemian in character; it continues to promote social intercourse amongst its Members, and to exhibit their work; and it is as dedicated as it has ever been to the principle of an artistic community of which rich and poor, old and young are all equal members.