The Chelsea Arts Club was founded in 1890 by a group of artists living and working in the area. For the first ten years of its existence the Club occupied premises in a studio at 181 King’s Road. In 1901 the Members purchased a house just round the corner, at 143-5 Old Church Street; the Club has been there ever since.
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. So what had started as a meeting of Chelsea artists broke up as the first meeting of Members of the Chelsea Arts Club.
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 facilities took place at 181 King’s Road on 18th March 1891, with 55 Members present.
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.
The United Arts Force (later the United Arts Volunteer Rifles) was a Home Front Defence battalion formed from artists in August and September 1914. In the early weeks of the war, whilst they waited for their uniforms and rifles to arrive, the members of the Force paraded in white jerseys, carrying broomsticks and snooker cues instead of weapons. A white jumper of the time was advertised as ‘The Unshrinkable’ and the whole artists’ corps swiftly acquired the nickname ‘The Unshrinkables.’
One of the first platoons of the Unshrinkables was formed by Members of Chelsea Arts Club in August 1914. They drilled with their snooker cues in the Club garden in preparation for the more public parades which were recorded in a contemporary account:
Towards the end of August, 1914, squads of strange looking men of all ages in white (at any rate they were supposed to be white) sweaters, and often without hats, could be seen drilling and marching in the grounds of Earl’s Court Exhibition.
Their drill was poor, and they made all sorts of mistakes, but so few people visited the Exhibition at that time that their earliest efforts were for the most part mercifully hidden from the public gaze. Later in the autumn, in October, a move was made to the Royal Academy.
In effect the curtain was then up, and the white sweaters and their owners were more or less in the public view. From that time onwards, on almost any afternoon, a long trail of men could be seen filing out of the Royal Academy quadrangle. Collectively, they still did not know much about drill or tactics, but their mistakes were not then so obvious, they were all keen to learn, and their drills and long marches were making them fit.
There were many opinions as to their identity; curiosity sometimes prompted brass hats to look into the Academy Quadrangle to see the very latest thing in War, and they left — amazed.
Some people said that these men were German prisoners, others thought they might be convicts. There were even suggestions that they were boy scouts, a subtle compliment which some of the older men possibly appreciated. But no one suggested that they might be soldiers.
But soldiers they were – the artists of London.
In the summer of 2014 the Club’s Honorary Archivist, Stephen Bartley, led the reformation of a platoon of Chelsea Arts Club Unshrinkables. And for the next five years, to mark the centenary of the First World War, the reformed Unshrinkables paraded each November at the Royal Academy.
Tom McNie captured the 2015 parade on film:
Never shall I forget how suddenly Chelsea seemed to become an armed camp. Soldiers were bivouacked in Ranelagh Gardens and the Royal Hospital Grounds …… It was a heart-breaking sight to see the young men of all ranks going up the steps of the Chelsea Town Hall to enlist.
So wrote the Australian artist Dora Meeson, wife of Chelsea Arts Club member George Coates, who in 1914 lived in a studio in Glebe Place.
Many members of the Clubs joined up, amongst them Punch cartoonist Bill Baynes, who joined the Rifle Brigade. A visit Bill paid to the Club whilst on leave is recorded in the memoirs of Bert Smith, the Steward of the day:
On Monday night the Club gave a dinner to Bill Baynes, and a riotous affair it was. ‘Bill’ drank innumerable pints of beer and sloe gin.
After dinner the company went into the billiard room, where singing and a general carousel took place. One member happened to say that any person serving in France must be lousy. Bill Baynes instantly let down his trousers and pulled up his shirt and said ‘Look at this and see if I am lousy’ which they did do. Afterwards they patrolled the Billiard Room, headed by Bill, singing ‘Ribs of beef and b-y great lumps of Duff.’
This went on until 2 o’clock and then they dispersed as best they could. On the following day Bill returned to France. Mr Bell went to Victoria with him, and Mr Lambert followed them and arrived just before the train started. and jumped over the barrier to wish ‘God speed’ to poor Sergeant Baynes; and that was the last we saw of him, as he was blown up by a shell three weeks afterwards. But he is often spoken about by his friends here.
The following Members of the Club are known to have given their lives in the 1914-18 war: Philip H. Baynes (known as “Bill”); Percy F. Gethin; Brian Hatton; James Mitchell White Halley; Charles Quiller Orchardson; Campbell Linsday Smith; Gerard H. Chowne; Brownell Cornwallis; William Hammond Smith; Gordon Dexter; Leonard Finn; William Haines; Tom Van Oss.
The variety of service given by Members of the Club was remarkable: Cecil King helped Norman Wilkinson with Dazzle camouflage; Derwent Wood used his sculptural skills to manufacture facial prosthetics for wounded servicemen; and the likes of Will Dyson and Alfred Munnings worked as war artists at the Front.
The Club as a whole did War Service, too, as a refuge for Belgian artists driven into exile by the German invasion – a fact commemorated by the maquette, the work of the sculptor Rousseau, which was presented to the Club as a gift from the Belgian nation after the War and which is displayed in the Dining Room to this day.