Chelsea was the artistic centre of London in the later 19th century: so much so that the area where the Kingʼs Road met Church Street became known as The Latin Quarter. There were hundreds of studios – some in Glebe Place and Tite Street, but the largest concentration in Manresa Road, with several groups of large rambling studios linked by courtyards.
In the early autumn of 1890 a group of artists began to meet in sculptor Stirling Lee’s studio in Manresa Road to discuss forming an exhibiting society. Many of them had studied in Paris, and they were perhaps inspired by the independent exhibitions which the Impressionists had held there.
The discussions became formal enough to be minuted, minutes which the Club still possesses. The first formal meeting on 30th September elected a Committee to examine how an exhibition could be held; the members included Stirling Lee himself and painters Percy Jacomb-Hood and Jimmy Christie.
A month later, on 25th October, Stirling Lee reported on the work of his committee and proposed that their plan for an exhibition be adopted. Arthur Ransome, in his history Bohemia in London, tells the story of what happened next:
The report was duly read, when someone [it was Theodore Wores, a friend of Whistler’s from San Francisco] got up and said that surely there was something that Chelsea needed more than an exhibition, and that was a Club. ‘Club, club, club!’ shouted everybody, and the exhibition was completely forgotten at once and has never been held to this day.
Backing his friend up, James Whistler proposed – and Jimmy Christie seconded – that a new Committee should be formed to ‘draw up a scheme for the conduct of a Club.’ There were clearly no hard feelings, because Lee and Jacomb-Hood – along with Christie – were appointed to this new Committee, where Whistler joined them too.
Over the next couple of weeks a list of possible Members was prepared, and on 15th November what was minuted as being a ‘Third Meeting of Chelsea Artists’ was held. Lee was unanimously voted into the Chair, and it was agreed that the Club:
▪ Should be called Chelsea Arts Club
▪ Should consist of professional architects, engravers, painters and sculptors
▪ Should aim to advance the cause of art by means of exhibitions, life classes and other kindred means and to promote social intercourse amongst its members.
The meeting also decided that the Club should be governed by a Council, and Lee, Christie, Jacomb-Hood and Whistler were all elected to it.
The Club now needed a home and it was Christie who came up with the answer. He offered the use of the ground floor and basement of his house at 181 Kings Road. A final general meeting on St Valentine’s Day 1891, at number 181, approved the motion that these rooms should be taken for the Club. It’s nice to know that Theodore Wores was there, because in the same month he was dined out by his friends and went back to the States, having played a key role in the Club’s Foundation.
The formal launch of the Club took place at 181 King’s Road on 18th March 1891, with 55 Members present; so this is the day the Club has celebrated ever since as its birthday.
Soon gas rings were installed, 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 – which still serves as the Members’ Table in the Club to this day.