This is the house that J M W Turner, one of this country’s (UK) greatest artists died in.
He spent his final years with the last love of his life and lived here in obscurity and with eccentric style.
119 Cheyne Walk was previously 6 Davis Place. It is next door to the taller Victorian terraced house which women’s rights campaigner Sylvia Pankhust would live in more than half a century later- Number 120 Cheyne Walk.
Sylvia was the more left-wing radical daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst- the founder and leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Sylvia lived in this house in Chelsea from 1906 to 1909.
Turner’s affair with Sophia Caroline Booth developed after her second husband had passed away and he moved in with her from 1846 at her charming little terraced house overlooking the River Thames to Battersea.
As the heavy traffic thunders past on the embankment to get to Westway, A40, A4 and M4 it is difficult to imagine perhaps that in the years Turner was living there the little house had a front garden which would lead to an almost country riverside scene of barges and rowing boats.
He called himself ‘Mr Booth’ or ‘Admiral Booth’ until his death from cholera on 19th December 1851 at the age of 76.
He would be buried in St Paul’s Cathedral close to the monument to fellow painter Sir Joshua Reynolds.
There is an account that his last words uttered in Chelsea were ‘The Sun (or Son?) is God.’
This may well be mythology.
The Survey for London published in 1913 designated Turner’s House as comprising of numbers 118 and 119 Cheyne Walk:
‘The western part of this house (N. 119) dates from the latter part of the 18th century. Its interest, however, lies in its having been the last home of J.M.W. Turner, the great artist, who died here on 19th December 1851. The exact time of his coming here is apparently unknown, but it was in the forties. The story of his arrival, the care taken of him by his landlady, Mrs. Booth, his adoption of her name to conceal his identity, and of his death, is told by Thornbury in his Life of Turner. The balustrade on the parapet of the house is commonly said to have been placed there by Turner, as he used the roof as a place of vantage for his work. If this is so, it was probably purchased second-hand, for its character is somewhat earlier than mid-19th century.
The two houses were offered for sale in 1895, and some efforts were made to secure No. 119 as a permanent memorial of Turner. The project fell through. The house has recently been restored by Mr. C. R. Ashbee.’
Nos 119 and 118 Cheyne Row- photograph taken circa 1913. Turner’s house with the balustrade is towards the left.
Chelsea Borough Council’s Official Guide published in 1951 explained: ‘No. 119 is where Turner passed the last four years of his life in quiet obscurity, often watching the sunsets that he loved and the river that he knew so well. (Before the word became the monopoly of film stars, “glamour” was the accepted term for the sunsets of London’s River.) It was here that Turner died on December 10th (sic), 1851. Many of his masterpieces are a glory of the Tate Gallery. Turner was so prolific that it is questionable whether all the walls of the Tate would suffice for a display of his multitudinous paintings, sketches, and drawings.’
Reginald Blunt wrote about the house in 1900 and quoted from the first biography of Turner written and published in the Victorian age. This revealed a quaint and Dickensian way of describing Turner’s love affair and co-habiting with a widow, ostensibly his landlady, and trying to live anonymously in Chelsea:
‘Thornbury’s Life [Turner’s first biographer] gives in detail the story of his coming here ; of the landlady’s demand for references and agreement, and his flourishing a roll of bank notes (a most improbable item) and saying he would buy the house outright. Finally, she wanted her proposed lodger’s name. “Name?” he exclaimed, puzzled for a moment, for he had no intention of revealing his identity. “What is your name?” ” My name is Mrs Booth.” “Then I’m Mr. Booth !” And Mr. Booth, “Puggy Booth,” or Admiral, he became, in name and something more.
Up to the time of his very last illness “he would often rise at daybreak, and with blanket or dressing gown carelessly thrown over him go out upon the railed-in roof to see the sun rise and to observe the colour flow flashing back into the pale morning sky.”
“Within an hour of his death his landlady wheeled his chair to the window to enable him to look upon the sunshine, in which he delighted so much, mantling the river and illuminating the sails of the passing boats ;” and with that same December sunshine on his face, in this humble garret chamber (of which there is a picture in Thornbury’s book) the great painter died.
Mr. Ruskin writes : “Cut off a great part from all society first by labour and at last by sickness, hunted to his grave by the malignities of small critics and jealousies of hopeless rivalry, he died in the House of a Stranger, one companion of his life and one only staying with him to the last. The window of his death chamber was turned to the West, and the sun shone upon his face in its setting and rested there as he expired.”‘
In more recent years Dan Cruikshank wrote in Built In Chelsea (2022) ‘In about 1846 J.M.W. Turner leased a most modest terrace house on Cheyne Walk, no doubt drawn to Chelsea village by the sparkle of sunlight upon the water and by its quayside life. He lived with his old Margate mistress, Sophia Booth, and called himself Mr Booth, presumably because he wanted to merge with his surroundings, observing without being observed, and be left undisturbed to get on with his work. It was in this Cheyne Walk house that Turner died, on the morning of 19 December 1851. His alleged last words, “Sun is God”, could well have been inspired by the drama of a winter dawn over the Thames, visible from his first-floor bedroom.’
St. Mary’s Church, Battersea added a commemorative stained glass window for Turner, between 1976 and 1982.
Tate Gallery Joseph Mallord William Turner Battersea Church and Bridge, with Chelsea Beyond purported to be in 1797 https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-battersea-church-and-bridge-with-chelsea-beyond-d00857
The images in the top slideshow:
1.The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, c. 1835, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art Public Domain. (In colour)
2.Photograph of 118 and 119 Cheyne Walk in 1900. (Black and white)
3.Photograph of the house in 2023. (Colour)
4.Late 1930s postcard of children lining up against the embankment wall in front of the artists’ Cheyne Walk houses. (Black and white)
5.Image of the artists’ houses from Battersea Bridge 1951. (Black and White)
6.Cover of the Official Guide to Chelsea Borough Council- 3rd edition published in 1951. (Colour) Bearing the Borough’s motto Nisi Dominus Frustra– (Except the Lord in vain- taken from psalm 127)
7.Self-portrait of JMW Turner when a young man. J. M. W. Turner. Self Portrait, Tate Gallery, London Date 1799. Source http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-self-portrait-n00458 Public Domain. (Colour)
8. Photograph taken of numbers 119 and 118 Cheyne Walk circa 1912-13. (Black and White).
In February 2023 Time Out reported: ‘JMW Turner’s grade II-listed house in Chelsea is for sale. It’s got eight bedrooms, five bathrooms, two kitchens and a courtyard.’ In fact both numbers 18 and 19 Cheyne Walk have been combined as one freehold property in the sale providing a library, two balconies, three reception rooms, a formal dining room, and two patio gardens.
Carter Jonas estate agents explained ‘The combined two freehold houses feature many of the original and historical features with an impressive, cloistered hallway ceiling with original herringbone parquet flooring dating back to the 18th Century. The balustrade on the parapet of the house is commonly said to have been placed there by Turner, as he used the roof as a place of vantage for his artistry.’ See: https://www.rightmove.co.uk/properties/131184809#/?channel=RES_BUY
The Times also reported (behind paywall) ‘Buy painter JMW Turner’s former home in Chelsea for £11m.’ See: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/buy-painter-jmw-turners-former-home-in-chelsea-for-11m-b32pkcnh6
There are two accounts online about Turner’s life in Chelsea:
British History Online Settlement and building: Artists and Chelsea. A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 12, Chelsea. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2004. https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol12/pp102-106
‘TURNER AND THE RIVERSIDE
‘Chelsea, like other villages around London, always had its share of artists living there, attracted by its charm and its cheapness compared with more fashionable areas near central London. The most famous of these was Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), but the fame he brought to Chelsea was posthumous, since hardly anyone knew he was living there. He kept his house and gallery in Queen Anne Street (St Marylebone), where he had lived since the end of the 18th century, but when his companion, Mrs Sophia Booth, moved to London in 1846, they looked for a house by the river and took a 21-year lease of no. 6 Davis’s Place, at the western end of Chelsea’s riverside. Turner spent most of his time there, concealing his private life from his friends and acquaintances; he was known in the neighbourhood as Mr or Admiral Booth. The house, 3-storeyed but only one bay wide, was one of a row of seven small cottages which stretched westwards from the King Arms public house. It had a small garden in front bounded by a low wooden fence, and Turner had the roof flattened and added a railing to make a balcony from which he could observe the river. (fn. 2) Their neighbours included a boat builder and shops selling beer, wine, and ginger beer, and across the road were steps down to the Thames foreshore. Turner died at this house in December 1851; it was later incorporated with its eastern neighbour into a larger house, now nos 118-119 Cheyne Walk. (fn. 3)‘
British Library ‘JMW Turner’s First and Last Loves’ See: https://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2019/02/jmw-turners-first-and-last-loves-part-2.html
“In 1846 they moved to Davis Place, Cremorne Road, Chelsea, which is now part of Cheyne Walk. The house was rented in Sophia’s name and the neighbours assumed that Turner was Mr Booth. He habitually wore a naval greatcoat and was known as ‘Puggy Booth’ or ‘The Admiral’ in the area. Turner died in the house in 1851.
After Turner’s death, Sophia told his friend, David Roberts, that Turner never made any financial contribution to their life together but that he had composed verses in honour of ‘herself and her personal charms’ and had been jealous. She claimed that he had told her that she was ‘the handmaid of art.’”
See also Art UK Joseph Mallord William Turner at https://artuk.org/discover/artists/turner-joseph-mallord-william-17751851
A miracle Turner’s Chelsea house survived into the 21st century
English Heritage has never sponsored a Blue Plaque to be placed upon this building as a celebration of the artist’s residence there. That honour has been bestowed upon 40 Sandycoombe Road, Twickenham, TW1 2LR, in the London Borough of Richmond Upon Thames.
The plaque was erected in the Twickenhm property 1977 by the Greater London Council because it was Turner’s country retreat for thirteen years between 1813 and 1826, and it was then and remains now his only significant residence to survive unaltered.
119 Cheyne Walk is a different story. Should it have been bought by public subscription and preserved for the nation to include a museum and permanent gallery of his works?
The matter was the subject of an intense debate in 1895 and occupied the correspondence columns of the Times and local press.
And there were people around who knew him when he was alive and even visited him and had good knowledge of the houses he lived in. The Chelsea residence where he would die did not command much admiration and affection.
A Mr. A.S Bicknell of Onslow Gardens said he had an ‘unsentimental common-sense view’ of the plan to celebrate Turner’s sojourn in Cheyne Walk.
He thought it was a ‘squalid Chelsea tenement, where a man known as “Puggy Booth”, renting a garret, hid at night in his declining years.’
He said there was no proof that ‘in it Turner ever executed a single oil painting, or, if he sketched impressions of sky and water there, that he sat upon a roof commanding no better view than the window of his room a few feet below.’
Even by 1895, the small front garden and dwelling was now in a hole obliterated by the Embankment raised above it with adjoining cottages having been rebuilt in an advanced position at the road line, so as to ‘entirely cut off the view on either side.’
And by 1895 ‘there are no relics inside, and outside absolutely nothing left of what Turner saw than a narrow strip of mudbank opposite.’ No ‘light of other days’- just ‘the grim, murky atmosphere of present London.’
Bicknell saw no point in the public buying ‘this crazy building’ in order to celebrate an abode where a famous Academician once chose to ‘conceal himself with degrading companionship’ and thus keep on record a monument to his failings which in the long term would only serve to obscure his genius.
Why give homage to a place associated with ‘the feeble chromatic improvisations of his old age?’
His final riposte was ‘save the nation from an ungrateful blunder in taste almost as bad as a crime.’
Bicknell’s advice was followed. It remained in private ownership. In the Thames flooding of 1928 the basement and ground floor would be damaged when the river water poured in- largely because they were below the Embankment ground level. Valuable antiques were ruined.
In the 1921 census it would appear both houses were rented out to artists; something Turner would most probably have approved of. William Park Atkin, born in South Shields County Durham (1897-1937), described himself as an ‘artist (painter) living on his own account.’ Next door were the artists and painters Gerald and Nora Summers who at the time have been described as living ‘a roving, bohemian life, including friendship with Augustus John.’ The Summers were also attended to by three servants- 20 year-old nurse maid Aimée Laporte from France, 50 year old house keeper Mary Home and 30 year old house parlour maid Mary Williams from Ffestiniog, Merionethshire in Wales.
In the 1930s the house had been joined with numbers 118 and 117 and would be owned by the Fleming family of James Bond creator Ian and his brother the diplomat and author Peter.
It would be in their mother’s portfolio of properties during the Second World War when she moved to a safer place in the countryside The Abbey in Sutton Courtenay.
The Flemings actually resided at number 14 Cheyne Walk when they were in Chelsea where Peter and his actress wife Celia Johnson were registered at the beginning of World War Two.
Evelyn Beatrice Sainte Croix Fleming, known as Eve Fleming lost her husband Valentine when he was killed in action during the First World War and the terms of her rich inheritance meant she would be impoverished if she remarried.
She did though have an affair and child with the painter Augustus John.
Her Cheyne Walk houses were badly damaged by Luftwaffe high explosive in October 1940 and incendiary in May 1941. Much of the inside was gutted though what had been 119 fared better than numbers 118 and 117.
The Chelsea Blitz records compiled by Jo Oakman show that a high explosive bomb made a direct hit on 118 Cheyne Walk on 19th October 1940 leaving a crater in the front gardens. The building was ‘badly damaged.’ There were no casualties. On the 11th May 1941 the roof of number 118 was on fire from an incendiary bomb and collapsed into the floors below. The fire spread across the roofs between 116 and 118 Cheyne Walk and was put out by fire wardens and the Auxiliary Fire Service. There was no damage to the road.
After the war they were boarded up. Eve Fleming applied for war-time repair licences two times, but was unable to get the work done. The local Chelsea war artist and Air Raid Warden Jo Oakman sketched the rather sad and dilapidated scene with for sale signs failing to arouse any interest.
Eve Fleming bought what had been three houses in one in the early 1920s from an architect called Ashbee who by merging 119, 118 with the old Aquatic pub at number 117 had been able to add a bowling alley at the rear.
Chelsea Borough Council planned to redevelop parts of the World’s End to build new council houses on bomb sites and pull down housing damaged beyond repair. The Cheyne Walk terrace was part of this plan. The Chelsea Society began a campaign to prevent the sun setting on what had by mythology become the centre of Turner’s Thames river vision of sun rising and setting in London.
It raised a petition.
Mrs Fleming’s frustration was that post war shortages in building materials meant she could not carry out the necessary repairs. She explained: ‘At that time the property would not have needed a great deal of work to reinstate it to its former beauty, but as the licence was refused [a claim disputed by the Council] it has deterioriated, partly due to the weather partly to vandalism and theft.’
The Council was eventually persuaded to save the terrace from demolition. Mrs Fleming would sell the property in 1949 to a developer Mr G G Glazebrook who repaired and divided the houses, and successfully sold them for profit from 1950.
By 1960 part of what had been thought of as Turner’s house was owned by the journalist and novelist Noel Barber at number 118, and it featured in a news story when his wife went to the aid of a butler from Barcelona who was found in the rear garden of 119 with stab wounds. He later recovered and returned to Spain.
Barber had been a longstanding foreign correspondent for the Daily Mail and he himself had survived being stabbed five times in Morocco, and shot in the head in Hungary during the 1956 revolution.
In July 1960 he received serious head injuries in a two car road accident near Beauvais in France while driving to Monte Carlo for a holiday. Four people in the other vehicle were killed.
His novels Tanamera: A Novel of Singapore (1981) and The Other Side of Paradise (1985) were both adapted for television serials.
As reported by Time Out and the The Times number 119 Cheyne Walk- condemned as a squalid and crazy house in 1895, nearly destroyed in the Blitz and cleared for demolition in a post war council development- would be on the market in February 2023 for £11 million.
Turner’s association with the house is commemorated by unofficial plaque and historical tradition.
Paint brushes and palette are sculpted on a tablet set into the 18th century brickwork with the words: ‘Joseph Mallord William Turner, landscape painter B-1775 D- 1851. Lived and worked in this house.’
Google satellite view of the current location of the 119 and 118 Cheyne Walk
Special thanks to Karen White and Chris Pain whose families lived in Chelsea during World War Two and have very kindly encouraged and assisted my research. Special thanks to Marja Giejgo for editorial assistance. Research and archive facilities from Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council library services, The Imperial War Museum and National Archives at Kew.
Meticulous research Tim! Fascinating!
As you say, up until his death in 1851 the fact that Turner was living at Chelsea was known only to a select few; afterwards, when it became common knowledge, you can almost imagine a queue of artists queueing up to paint or sketch the little house.
Among these is the prolific Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, a watercolourist who managed to fit two spelling mistakes into his picture of the house. Here is his effort. https://rbkclocalstudies.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/turners-house-119-cheyne-walk-147a.jpg
West Chelsea resident, Charles William Sherborn, on the other hand, produced a very different view in his etching entitled Turner’s House of 1874. Squeezed into the bottom left-hand corner is Turner’s house it encompasses the entire north bank at Battersea Reach as far as and including most of Old Battersea Bridge. Standing outside the house and pointing at it is a tiny figure wearing a sandwich board on which is written “Hic obit Turner” (Turner dies here).
Another painting, maybe the nicest of all for its bright colours and its inclusion of Turner and Sophia Booth in the picture, was produced by Alexander McInnes in 1852. This featured in a 2014 episode of Antiques Roadshow.
I could go on. The list is endless.
Many thanks for these marvellous references to celebrations of Turner’s life in Chelsea by artists. I imagine he would have been amused to know what they did. Totally agree that the McInnis picture is really lovely. Showing what a really modest home he had. Right next to a boatyard business. Really charming narrative picture.