Washing the dust of daily life off our souls*

*Picasso’s definition of the purpose of art

One morning in 1889, Oscar Wilde looked out of his window in Tite Street, Chelsea, towards John Singer Sargent’s residence across the road. He was in time to see Ellen Terry, dressed in her stage costume for the part of Lady Macbeth, arriving in an open top carriage for her sitting with the portrait painter. When Wilde described the scene, he commented that the street would never be the same for him again: “It must always be full of wonderful possibilities.”.

That same year, Walter Sickert’s Introduction to the only show of the “London Impressionists” described London as “the most wonderful and complex city in the world “.

Sickert’s return to London in 1905, following seven years in Dieppe, heralded his attempts to progress modernism in England. He took a studio at 8, Fitzroy Street, James Whistler’s former home. Albert Rutherston and Spencer Gore had studios at nos 18 and 21 respectively in the same street.

In the spring of 1907 Sickert founded the Fitzroy Street Group to form “an incessant proselytising agency”. Its members included Harold Gilman, Nan Hudson, Lucien Pissarro, William Rothenstein and his brother Albert Rutherston, Robert Bevan and Ethel Sands. They shared the rent of a studio at 19, Fitzroy Street, to store work and hold informal displays or Saturday afternoon “At Homes”.

I have come, on this Saturday afternoon, to the “1910” room of the Tate Britain on Millbank, on the site of the former Millbank Prison, to see a representative sample of these paintings.

Rutherston’s “Laundry Girls” (1906) was originally exhibited as “The Linen Markers”. As the Tate’s notes admit, “Far from being an accurate record of working class labour, Rutherston’s painting reveals his own position as a middle class man who did not do his own laundry.”.

Before I leave the building I learn from the visitor information, too late, that the sommelier of the Rex Whistler Restaurant, in the basement, would have been “delighted to decant my wine prior to my arrival”, though possibly I was supposed to let him know my requirements: I can’t spot him, and content myself with a quick peep at Whistler’s commissioned mural of 1927.

The Fitzroy Street Group, the first artists’ collective, came to form the nucleus in 1911 of the new Camden Town Group (including Charles Ginner), and by November 1913 the Fitzroy Street Group had ceased to exist. In August of that year, Spencer Gore and his family had moved to 6, Cambrian Road, Richmond. Gore died of pneumonia in March the following year.

In 1914, Robert Bevan set up a studio in Cumberland Market, better to observe working horses in the square. The Cumberland Market Group, comprising Bevan, Gilman, Ginner and John Nash, was formed and held Saturday “At Homes” based on the Fitzroy Street model.

Walter Sickert wrote to Ethel Sands in 1915: “I remember Albert used to hang out of his window in Fitzroy Street when I had the old studio here till he saw a lady ring at my bell. Five minutes afterwards he would ring the bell with the intention of dropping in.”.

Rutherston became best known as an illustrator and theatre designer. For a time, however, he appeared to align himself with the subject matter of the Fitzroy Street Group, with subjects such as working class women engaged in domestic labour. He later recalled that he had once been “a painter of solemn and serious pictures, who painted costermongers, laundry girls, seamstresses, and the like – and very glad I am that I did.”.

In his autobiography, Humbert Wolfe described Rutherston painting from a working class model in his studio in 1903:

“Albert had two rooms – a living and (it seemed from its general appearance) a dying room…….But again, how wrong to make that pun, because the second was in fact not merely dead but doubly alive. For here creation was in progress.”

In the 1920s and 1930s, Rutherston was principally involved in teaching and publishing, and he was employed as a visiting lecturer at the Ruskin School, Oxford. Until 1929, Sydney Carline was the Ruskin Master of Drawing. Following a visit to John Nash on a particularly cold evening, he developed pneumonia and did not recover from it; Rutherston succeeded him to the post.

George Bernard Shaw, born in 1856, lived with his mother from 1881-82 on the first floor of Fitzroy House, at 37 Fitzroy Street. He would live at 29, Fitzroy Square between 1887 and 1898 (when he married). In 1884, he joined the Fabian Society and met E Nesbit.

Edith Nesbit had married Hubert Bland, who gained the infamous reputation of a libertine, when she was twenty one, and two months away from giving birth to his child. The couple were socialists, and three years later formed a debating group which in January 1884 they decided to call the Fabian Society. They jointly edited the Society’s journal, “Today”.

The 1880s saw an upsurge in socialist activity in Britain, and the Fabian Society was at the heart of much of it. Against the backdrop of the Match Girls’ Strike and the 1889 London Dock Strike, the landmark “Fabian Essays ” was published, containing essays by, among others, George Bernard Shaw and Annie Besant.

The Society meetings were soon joined by other London socialists, including Eleanor Marx and Annie Besant. George Bernard Shaw joined in August that first year. In 1885, Edith and Hubert joined the Social Democratic Federation, whose members included Tom Mann, Eleanor Marx, William Morris and Ben Tillett. The leadership was too revolutionary for their taste, however, and their membership was short lived.

In February 1886, Edith gave birth to a stillborn child. Her friend Alice Hoatson, assistant secretary to the Fabian Society, came to look after her. Alice stayed as their housekeeper in a ménage a trois, and the following year gave birth to Hubert’s baby, Rosamund. Edith accepted the situation and brought up Rosamund as her own child.

George Bernard Shaw found Edith very attractive, and met her two or three times a week at local cafes. However, in May 1887, he reported that: “she went away after an unpleasant scene caused by my telling her I wished her to go as I was afraid that a visit to me (at his home) would compromise her.”.

Edith left a highly fictionalised account of her friendship and courtship with Shaw in her 1909 novel, “Daphne in Fitzroy Street”.

Three years earlier, she had published “The Story of the Amulet “. In this story, the children who first appeared in “Five Children and It” are lodging with their old nurse at 300, Fitzroy Street, Bloomsbury, “near the British Museum”. After Father’s departure for Manchuria as war correspondent – perhaps covering the Boxer Rebellion – the children resolve to raise their spirits by walking to St James’s Park to feed the ducks: “….they were used to crossings, for they had lived in Camden Town…”.

The second half of the book seems to hold poignant and passionate references to this period of Edith’s life. (Chapter IX comments: “Every one on the ship seemed too busy at first to notice the group of new-comers from Fitzroy Street.”)

In Chapter XI, the Pharaoh is so impressed by Cyril’s striking of a match on his boot that he grants his people longer rest periods and extra rations.

Chapter X holds the most touching scene:

” “But is she really? Her child, I mean?”

“Who knows?” said the Psammead; “but each one fills the empty place in the other’s heart. It is enough.” “.

In passing, Nesbit satirises Annie Besant, orator and Theosophist, who had grown very close to George Bernard Shaw in the early 1880s: though she invited him to live with her, he declined.

In Chapter VIII, by the magic of the Psammead (or sand-fairy), the Queen of Babylon has been transported to London, and speaks her wish “very loud and clear” in the courtyard of the British Museum. Babylonian artefacts begin to emerge from the museum. A passing journalist mistakes the Queen for Annie Besant and publishes in the late edition:


Earlier in the day’s proceedings, the Psammead had lost his “priceless woven basket of sacred rushes”, though the children point out that a bass bag is “given to you for nothing if you buy fish in Farringdon Market.”. Anthea and Jane decide to sew him a “travelling carriage”:

“They cut off half a yard from each of their best green Liberty sashes…..Each worked at a half of the bag. Jane’s half had four-leaved shamrocks embroidered on it.”

The Psammead accepts their gift:

” “Humph,” it said, sniffing a little contemptuously, yet at the same time affectionately, “it’s not so dusty.”

….For a creature that had in its time associated with Megatheriums and Pterodactyls, its quickness was really wonderful.”

The children tell Nurse half truths before they undertake their magical journeys:

” “…We’re just going off to see some old, ancient relics.”

“Ah,” said old Nurse, “the Royal Academy, I suppose?…” “.

In the closing chapter, the two halves of the Amulet are finally reunited: “as one drop of water mingles with another when the panes of the window are wrinkled with rain, as one bead of mercury is drawn into another bead…”. The date is specified as December 3rd, 1905. In Russian revolutionary history, this date fell a week before the Moscow Uprising, and marked the day that the St Petersburg Soviet was arrested en masse after Socialist Democrats had handed out weapons.

In a quiet moment, Anthea falls into conversation with the learned gentleman who is Old Nurse’s upstairs lodger, and to whom a friendly colleague has recommended Dieppe for a rest cure:

“The other three were all out that day. The boys had been going to the Zoo, and Jane had said so plaintively, “I’m sure I am fonder of rhinoceroses than either of you are,” that Anthea had told her to run along then. And she had run, catching the boys before that part of the road where Fitzroy Street suddenly becomes Fitzroy Square.”.

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