Photograph copyright ©1999 - 2018 Denis Waugh.
Chelsea's embankment boasts among its statues two close friends, Sir Thomas More and Erasmus, who often stayed with More in his Chelsea home. More expected to be buried in Chelsea's Old Church but history is comprised of twists and turns and continually sends people in unexpected directions. Who would have expected Henry VIII's clever lawyer to slip - or jump - from the royal stage?
Since 1517, More had been Henry's friend and intellectual sparring partner, discussing with the king subjects ranging from astronomy and the classics to politics and theology. But from this spot in 1535 More was rowed by his son in law, the faithful William Roper, to Lambeth Palace for examination regarding his attitude to the royal supremacy. At Westminster Hall he told his successor as Chancellor, Thomas Audley, that his conscience was clear regarding his disagreement with his fellow bishops because,
Of the aforesaid holy bishops I have, for every bishop of yours, above one hundred; and for one council or Parliament of yours... I have all the councils made these thousand years. And for this one kingdom, I have all other Christian realms.
More was imprisoned in the tower and when he died it was, famously, as `The king's good servant but God's first'.
The painter Joseph Mallord William Turner lived in More's orchard, albeit some time after it had ceased to be an orchard. His house, 119 Cheyne Walk, was one of a small group of houses in Cremorne Gardens when Turner moved here in 1846 with his landlady from Margate, Mrs Sophia Booth. He lived here incognito - or that was his intention - as `Admiral' or `Puggy' Booth.
Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) lived in the blue villa next door, but fortunately her house was not built until after the great man's death, or his view would have been severely curtailed. Turner had a small terrace built behind the roof parapet from which, before sunrise, wrapped in a blanket, he would assess each morning sky. He thought of his view upriver as his `English' view and that downriver as his `Dutch' view but he wouldn't think so now. I don't know what he'd think of the latter now, but I suspect he'd love it and be painting at every available moment this cornucopia of houseboats, pot plants and flags.
In 1848 Chelsea was badly affected by a cholera epidemic. Turner succumbed, but regained his health in time to submit The Wreck Buoy to the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition. No doubt Munro of Novar, who had bought it ten years earlier, was delighted to oblige, but less happy, perhaps, when he learned that Turner had then spent six days repainting it. But for a man who had such certainty of the value of his work Turner's actions were often curious. He refused to sell a painting to Sir George Beaumont, who had once criticized his work. Later, the ultimate put-down, he used the painting as a cat flap.
Artists seem to have a knack of finding people to look after them, but it seldom works in reverse. His mother, admitted to Bethlem Hospital, was seldom, if ever, visited by either her husband or her son,and it was the painter's father and Hannah Danby, who kept house for him, who supported him in his venture of opening his first gallery in Queen Anne Street. William Turner was finally worn out by his son's demands and as Hannah grew older, with a face disfigured by skin disease, Turner simply turned his back on her. For years he kept two establishments going independently and it is unlikely that Hannah, still `keeping house' in Queen Anne Street for her absentee master, even knew of Sophia Booth's existence until the weeks preceding his death. Queen Anne Street had been consigned to the `maybe later' file and she and her cats had been left to rot in the encroaching rain.
Yet there is a lovable side to the crusty old painter. Emerging, reeling, from the Academy along with a fellow drunk who complained of seeing two cabs, Turner advised him sagely: `That's all right, old fellow, do as I do - get into the first one.'
`The sun is God,' declared Turner during his final weeks. And he died overlooking the Thames on 18 December 1851, as a sudden shaft of brilliant winter sunlight flooded his Chelsea bedroom.
Text copyright ©1999 - 2018 Priscilla Waugh.