Chelsea residents recall the Swinging Sixties, the Psychedelic Seventies and why the area remains unique to this day. By Jane Slade
Chelsea is London’s ultimate village. It has been attracting mavericks and free thinkers since the 16th century. Today, it still brims with individualists and creative types, some young, some old and others who don’t just want to live anywhere else.
In the Fifties, Chelsea was a hotspot for spies and thriller writers. Ian Fleming grew up in Cheyne Walk and after the war moved back to live in Carlyle Mansions where he wrote his first James Bond book, Casino Royale. In Moonraker, his hero lived in “a comfortable flat in a plane tree’d square off the King’s Road”. The notorious real-life double agent Kim Philby lived in Carlyle Square and John le Carré’s fictional operative George Smiley lived in Bywater Street.
Chelsea and the arts
Chelsea was vibrant and accepting, and adored by stars of film and theatre. Lucy Fox, daughter of actor Edward Fox and granddaughter of the late film director Sir Carol Reed, was a frequent visitor to her grandparents’ home at 213 King’s Road. Sir Carol’s Oscar-winning musical Oliver! opened in 1968 when Lucy was just eight. The excitement of attending the first night was eclipsed only by the thrill of visiting her grandparents’ house.
“Carol loved animals and had an extraordinary menagerie of exotic creatures and birds,” she recalls. “The owl that belonged to Fagin in Oliver! came to live with them, but its swooping down to catch the live mice and chicks my grandmother Pempie had left out for its supper resulted in lots of blooded remains dotted about. It had to be swiftly despatched to London Zoo.
“I particularly remember Obadiah, a mynah bird which used to mimic their telephone. He would then pretend to answer and either call out ‘Pempie, telephone,’ in Carol’s voice or ‘Carol darling, telephone,’ in Pempie’s voice. This would have my grandparents racing to answer non-existent calls.”
The Chelsea Arts Club in Old Church Street is the heartland of old Chelsea, a sanctuary for those who want to chew the fat with old chums or wallow in nostalgia. The CAC attracts members like pop artist Peter Blake who co-designed the album cover for the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This is where Roddy Baldwin plays snooker with his chum cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, who is one of his best customers. Roddy owns Green & Stone, an arts materials shop which had stood for over 90 years on the King’s Road until 2018 when it moved round the corner from the Arts Club to the Fulham Road.
Roddy, 68, bought the shop in the 1970s after joining as a picture framing apprentice when he was just 18. He has supplied everyone with painting paraphernalia from Prince Philip to David Hockney. Princes William and Harry used to buy birthday presents for Prince Charles there. Damien Hirst orders huge oak easels and rock stars Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts are regulars.
“Charlie collects antique water-colour boxes,” says Roddy. “And Ronnie buys paints and canvasses. He’s a lovely chap and will pose for selfies with customers who recognise him.”
Roddy has now handed the day-to-day running of the shop over to his 32-year-old daughter Hester. She is promoting younger artists by offering them exhibitions in the shop’s gallery. “We still tie into Chelsea’s original ethos of supporting young up and coming artists,” Roddy explains. “We try to make it easier for them to show their work and it is much less expensive than curating an exhibition in a gallery in town.”
Green & Stone is a treasure trove of paints, palettes, paper and canvasses. It also sells antique paint brushes, hand-made china pots and pencils, as well as greetings cards and wrapping paper. Actress Felicity Kendal often pops in as does pop princess Kylie Minogue. “Kylie buys materials for her collages. Making them helps her relax when she is on tour,” Roddy says.
They are all part of the Chelsea village community which continues to attract an eclectic mix, from Mick Jagger and theatre impresario Sally Greene, to the late award-winning architect Richard Rogers and his wife Ruth, owner of the River Café.
The streets of SW3 are festooned with blue plaques: Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Bob Marley, AA Milne, Samuel Beckett, Augustus John are just a few. But one of the most well-known residents, who arguably should have his own plaque, was a lion cub who lived here in 1970. Conservationist John Rendall and fellow university graduate Anthony ‘Ace’ Bourke had just migrated from Australia and were working at a pine furniture shop called Sophistocat in the World’s End in Chelsea. “London was an exciting place to be,” Rendall says. “I followed on from Germaine Greer who had been my English lecturer at Sydney University. I knew Clive James, Barry Humphries, Martin Sharp, Richard Walsh and Richard Neville, who had started Oz magazine here, and fellow Australian patron Clytie Jessop had just opened a gallery in the King’s Road.”
Rendall and Bourke bought three-month-old Christian from Harrods, which in those days had a zoo on the second floor, and kept him in Sophistocat’s basement. They took him for walks and played with him in the churchyard garden in Moravian Close. “We could take him off the lead and play football with him there,” John remembers. “The vicar Rex Williamson loved animals so was happy to let us use the garden.” In the evening Christian would be allowed into the shop and would sit on the tables attracting a fan base of locals who would watch him through the window.
After ten months the actress Virginia McKenna and her husband Bill Travers wandered in looking for a desk. They had starred as naturalists Joy and George Adamson in the 1966 film Born Free. The Adamsons ran an animal rehabilitation programme in Kenya so Rendall and Bourke flew Christian out. It was time for the cub to swap SW3 for the African bush.
“There are still people on the estate here who remember Christian,” says Rendall. “The local community regarded him as their lion.” It is one of Chelsea’s many tales, never to be forgotten.
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