Recently I was lucky to be given the opportunity to give a London tour of my favourite parts of the capital to some friends, one of which is a painter blessed with a considerable talent.
So, naturally, the tour was given an ‘artistic’ slant and curiously featured some of the capital’s chairs.
Our first stop, on the full day tour, was St. Mary’s, Battersea, where J. M. W. Turner in his latter years would paint.
When Turner decided to return to London with his Margate landlady Mrs Booth he lived with her at Davis Place, Chelsea (now 119 Cheyne Row), under the pseudonym of Admiral Booth. It was his habit of a morning to ask on old waterman, Charles Graves if he predicted a fine day. Given to set-fair he would employ Graves to ferry him across the river to St. Mary’s, Battersea a little upriver from his home. Later Graves’ son, a painter and waterman, would later row James Abbott McNeil Whistler about Chelsea Reach.
From the vestry, Turner would view the Thames through an oriel window and paint some of his sublime works. The chair he would rest upon, now predictably called Turner’s Chair, is still to be found within the church.
Our next chair was at Truefitt and Hill the oldest barbershop in the world, considering they claim to count many of the rich and famous among their clients, surprisingly they were good enough to let us see the chair used by, among others, Winston Churchill and Field Marshall Montgomery of Alamein. A current customer, although not seated within their august walls at the time, is the Duke of Edinburgh.
Next ‘chair’ was a fictional one. In 1951 Abbey National hosted a Sherlock Holmes exhibition for the Festival of Britain. It featured much Holmes’ ephemera including crumpets supplied each day by a local baker and left on a plate with two different sets of bite marks. When the exhibition was over, it went on a world tour before returning to London.
A publican of a Charing Cross pub, the Northumberland Arms (then re-named The Sherlock Holmes), bought it exhibits and put them on display in an upstairs room where it remains to this day. It features what Holmes’s study would have looked in Victorian London.
Our last ‘chair’ was considerably less comfortable, and connected to a profession being decimated by the burgeoning cab trade; much like our modern nemesis – Uber. A short walk from Shakespeare’s Globe is Bear Gardens and near its original location is a ferryman’s seat. It is quite narrow and very uncomfortable, presumably early cabbies were more stoic – and thinner than today.
Although the exact age of the seat is unknown, it’s most likely to have been established around the 12th or 13th century; a period when London was beginning to spread south, where Southwark was gaining a reputation as a seedy but popular entertainment district.
Unfortunately, the city had just one river crossing – London Bridge – the result of which caused jams, which it could take over an hour to cross the river. Combined to this was the additional hazards of mugging in the slow moving traffic and getting contents of chamber pots which were lobbed out of the ramshackle houses lining the bridge.
The ferrymen provided this efficient form of transport until the building, in Victorian times, of London’s bridges, and cabbies were prepared to go ‘Sarf’ of the River.
Featured picture: The Thames above Waterloo Bridge J. M. W. Turner, painted in the 1830s. This unfinished painting takes us to the heart of the smoky commercial capital which, though a Londoner by birth and resident for most of his life, Turner usually preferred to depict from a distance. Here he looks along the Thames towards Waterloo Bridge © Tate (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0)