The William Roberts Society
An Artist's House:
William Roberts and 14 St Mark's Crescent
Based on a talk given to the William Roberts Society on 29 June 2002
The houses in the Primrose Hill area of London were built as one-family houses for middle-class professionals and well-off tradesmen, but with the coming of the railway they turned into letting-houses of the kind described with such distaste by H. G. Wells, whose aunt ran a lodging-house in Fitzroy Road. The novelist George Gissing sent his most unhappy characters to live here, as a symbol of their failure in life (or, worse, he sent them to Crouch End).
William Roberts was no stranger to London NW1: in 1914 he was living in a room in Chalcot Crescent, and in the twenties, with wife and child, in one room in Albany Street. Sarah Roberts said that their son, John, grew up in Regents Park: it was their drawing-room.
War is a difficult time for artists who buys paintings then? and things had not been at all good for Roberts in the Second World War in Oxford, where he and Sarah had gone after being bombed out of their Haverstock Hill flat. Coming back to London in 1946, all they could afford was one unfurnished room in a letting-house backing on to the Regent's Canal in St Mark's Crescent a house then occupied by a Dickensian low-life crew.
The rear of 14 St Mark's Crescent (painted grey) as seen from the canal towpath opposite
It was the room next to the front door. They had brought their bed, an easel, a small table and two chairs, and an electric hotplate for Sarah to cook on. It was a style of living she was used to 'That's love among the artists,' she would say
Facilities that is, lavatory, bath and wash-place were shared with the basement tenants, a rowdy extended family waiting for the husband and father to serve his time in prison for bigamy. The terrifying mother-in-law of this brood was called Old Mother Dry Rot by Roberts. At one point she had to be bound over at Albany Street police station to keep the peace after attacking Sarah with a soup ladle. The husband or non-husband came out of prison, chose this family, and went off with them to Wales. The Robertses took over the vacated rooms.
WR's work was selling again, and he also had a committed patron in Ernest Cooper, who had made money in wartime from his health-food shops. Cooper's wife was a close friend of Sarah's and had presumably influenced him in his choice of artist to patronise. The Robertses could thus rely on a modest income and their needs were modest.
The official tenant upstairs, who had been subletting, left suddenly with her family and hangers-on. The Robertses were now sole sitting tenants, protected by the then current Rent Act. The owner, wanting to get rid of a troublesome property, offered to sell the house to them for the sum of £1,200 but this was a sum they had not got. Here a guitarist friend of Sarah's stepped in: Victoria Kingsley, a rentier who lived on inherited capital. Most generously, she offered the money as an outright gift, receiving in exchange some paintings which proved to be of more value in the long run. But it was a noble gesture.
Now William Roberts had security, no more problems of where to live, and a whole house to cherish. His fellow artists such as Bomberg and Gertler and Wyndham Lewis never had such a possibility, having to move from here to there in unsatisfactory accommodation till the end of their lives.
The house first had to be cleaned up a nasty task and then WR, the carpenter's son from Hackney, collected his tools and began by making a landing-stage in the garden for his and Sarah's newly acquired wooden rowing-boat. Cameras would be out as they rowed under the Regent's Park bridge.
In the house itself he put in a set of doors to screen off the hall. He chose good-quality wood, leaving it unpainted, and devised a system of bars and toggles for closing.
Sarah meanwhile was ripping up the rotting carpets, swearing she would never have any in the house, and prising up the nails a task of months. The broad floorboards were now revealed, and the treads of the winding stairs. Stripping and sanding was not the fashion in the forties; those who liked bare boards painted them with the glossy Brunswick Black used for painting kitchen ranges and polished them regularly, as did Sarah. There was a much-resented article on William Roberts by Barrie Sturt-Penrose, published in the Observer colour supplement in 1971. This enraged the Robertses not only because he had bluffed his way in to the house, but also because of his association of bare boards with dire poverty in his description of the interior. Roberts answered him smartly in his witty pamphlet Fame or Defame. 'What kind of art critic is this,' he wrote, 'who sets out to criticise my pictures, but criticises my gas stove and kitchen table instead?'
The hall and stairs
Jacob Kramer's easel
In the hall was the easel of Sarah's artist brother, Jacob Kramer, inherited from their sister, Millie. Sarah hung her walking-sticks and umbrellas on it. As a schoolgirl, Sarah had been Jacob's model: his drawings of her got up as a gypsy girl sold well and, after the death of their father, had kept the family going in Leeds for a while. When she moved in with WR in London Jacob lost both sister and model and there was some resentment, it seems.
In St Mark's Crescent the room they had first lived in remained the studio. As it was by the front door, visitors were asked to enter by the side door, down some breakneck steps, to avoid disturbing Roberts at work. No knocking on the front door! After his death, it was turned into an exhibition room, with a view to the projected house-museum.
The first time William Roberts spoke to me was soon after I had met Sarah in the late sixties. She had left her umbrella on the bus, and I went back and knocked on the forbidden front door. The mottled glass panels broke up the figure of whoever came to open up, and Robert's highly coloured face showed as blobs of red and purple. 'What is it?' he called petulantly through the door. I explained, and, knowing that he was 'he who must not be spoken to', I suggested pushing the umbrella through the letterbox. 'Thank you very much,' he said after a short pause. The voice was high, faintly Bloomsbury as to accent; both he and Sarah must have adapted their voices at some point.
When the contents of the house were sold, Roberts's great easel was initially described by the sale-room as the easel of 'the artist David Roberts' just a century out in date. The society put them right on this, and one of our members made bids for it but had to retreat, faced with a determined dealer. Who has it now?
The studio work-desk
There were also smaller easels and the work-desk above, which was left as on the last day of WR's life, when he was working on a drawing of donkeys on Hampstead Heath. His palette was taken into safe keeping by the Tate.
Their bedroom was next to the studio, and half-doors made by Roberts linked the two. The bed came from Heal's, with a beautiful hand-made mattress, ordered pre-war at a time when their finances were in somewhat better shape.
An Arts and Crafts chair shown here was one of a pair. The Robertses favoured this
period: there were a couple of early Liberty chairs and possible Gimson chairs elsewhere
in the house, including two alongside round a pedestal drop-leaf table in the studio part of the original furnishings when they were living in the one room. The chests
of drawers were declared to be 'Regency' by the auction house, a side table 'Georgian'
etc. The furniture had been bought mostly from junk shops and from Reggie's stall in the nearby Inverness Street market. With little money,
they bought with an eye for good design and simplicity.|
They especially liked early- nineteenth-century round pedestal tables: there were usually two to a room. To quote a poem by John on one of these tables, written after Sarah's death:
It's like herself, so delicately made,
she bought it in the twenties for a song.
To list the simple contents I'm afraid
O bedside table, all a lifetime long!
And there's a poem, too, that John wrote about keeping a Hazlitt on her bedside table Hazlitt being her favourite author, and, one assumes, a favourite of WR's too. He surely appreciated Hazlitt's pugnacious style. Sarah particularly liked Liber Amoris, Hazlitt's account of his desperate infatuation with his landlady's sly daughter. Having lived in so many lodging-houses she knew just the type, she said.
People often referred to the Robertses as wearing 'Oxfam' clothes. Well, yes and no. Sarah bought clothes from charity shops, or a friend would give her something suitable, and for herself she would cleverly remake or adapt them to her taste. She had often made special clothes and hats which feature in the paintings of her by Roberts. She also ordered lengths of hand-woven fabric from some handloom weavers whom she knew, to be made up into coats and skirts by a professional dressmaker friend in Bayswater. So, not all Oxfam . . .
She would dye the shirts or jackets she found for William or John, to fit in with the preferred colour scheme: rust, dark green, brown. 'I'm dyeing today,' she would tell friends. (This was rather disconcerting to hear when she was quite old.) 'Is there anything you'd like dyed?'It was usually green or rust or brown dye that was on offer, and striped fabrics would be dyed to 'tone them in' or 'bring them out' the stripes, that is. WR wore good solid clothes, of dark, strong cloth. He kept his clothes in a press.
This in the basement is where guests were entertained, and this room and the kitchen next to it are what most of Sarah and John's friends remember best: the below-stairs quarters.
The table by the window was where they had breakfasts and teas. Teatime entertaining was all that Sarah could manage in WR's lifetime, and was abruptly halted at six o'clock, when he stopped working. If guests were slow in going, WR sometimes went out and sat on the garden wall, watching the window I once saw him sitting there looking impish, amused at our predicament. John called this his 'leprechaun' mood. 'Shoo, shoo,' Sarah would be saying, waving her guests out pushing them out.
When tea was served in the garden, on fine days, one would see WR moving about in the room, impatiently waiting, and guests then had to leave by the garden gate. The house was arranged around him, and domestic routine was dictated by his needs. Early rise; work; walk some shopping; work; lunch; afternoon walk in the park; work.
Sarah wrote that when she first moved in with 'Bobbie', as she always called him, she was surprised by his dedication, used as she was to her brother's slap-happy attitude and constant need for company and entertainment.
As for the serving of teas: tea-matzo biscuits, buttered, Sarah thought were nice, and crumpets in winter, and then her sometimes too-solid cakes. As a Yorkshirewoman she should have been a better baker though she was an excellent cook. 'Everything I put in is good . . . ' she would say when rather puzzled at an occasional rock-like result. The Robertses liked digestive biscuits, and here they were connoisseurs, finding out when a supermarket had a biscuit delivery and thus ensuring that they were fresh.
The sitting-room table, with examples of the Robertses' taste in furniture and upholstery
Books in the sitting-room George Moore, Gissing, Andrew Lang, Hazlitt . . .
Books in the sitting-room. William and Sarah were very well-read in a way not common today, and were largely self-taught. They had read the Russian novelists as they came out in the Constance Garnett translations before 1914; they read George Moore and Edmund Gosse, Hazlitt and Charles Lamb. Their books had often been sold when they were hard-up, to be bought again when they were in funds. Sarah was shocked by some wealthy houses she visited: 'Not a book in sight,' she would cry 'must be some sort of savages. Yet they buy pictures!'
An elaborate music stand was in the corner, where guitar lessons took place. As to music, there was no canned music from a box in that house: you played yourself or you went to concerts. All three were regulars at the Wigmore Hall.
There were twenty-six guitars in the house when John died. These were sold early on, to cover legal expenses there were several very valuable instruments among them. One painting among the many displayed in the rooms was of John teaching his mother to play: they are posed in front of the sitting-room bay window. This is one of the few paintings showing the interior of No. 14 itself.
The Guitar Lesson
The question of fabrics was one on which the Robertses held strong views for clothes and for furnishings. WR disapproved of patterns, whether floral or abstract. Curtains had to be plain or self-striped, or of stripes in tones of ochre, brown and cream though a greyish blue was permitted, as was an almost red stripe in the kitchen curtains.
Plush-covered Victorian chairs were reupholstered by the friendly dressmaker's husband, who had a workshop in Clerkenwell. Again, it was weaver friends who provided the yellow wool fabric, or a striped greyyellowrust wool was chosen for chairs and cushions though Sarah did occasionally smuggle in a floral-patterned cushion cover. Curtains were changed seasonally, winter and summer curtains being stored in the capacious kitchen linen-press made by WR. The bedroom had light cream-coloured curtains made from fringed Indian cotton bedspreads; heavier curtains elsewhere had broader stripes: brownyellowcream, or bluerustgrey.
In the furnishing of the house they achieved a background of spartan elegance fit for the changing display of Roberts's paintings in the bedroom, sitting-room, kitchen.
For many visitors this was the favourite room, and Sarah asked me to make a set of photos for friends, she posing with the important telephone. WR's joinery skills are best displayed here.
Sarah seen through the hatch between the kitchen and sitting-room
Official visitors from the National Trust thought there was a 'Shaker-like' quality to the joinery work. It's practical too: there are racks for trays, and spaces for drying towels. WR liked round wooden knobs and big hinges, and doors were fastened with inventive bar-and-toggle closures.
Shelving and a cupboard
made by WR
A door fastening
made by WR
He made two big dressers to display the collection of pots and pans brought from abroad, jugs and bowls made by potter friends, humble pots and dishes, all well chosen and displayed in a series of still-life clusters though he wasn't a painter of still-life. Sarah was a skilled arranger of domestic objects. Teapots made by potter friends were found to be unsatisfactory because they dripped or chipped, so they became shelf ornaments.
'How could she cook on her stove?' I've been asked. Well, one can cook badly in an expensive kitchen, and a good cook can prepare a good meal on two burners. Sarah told me she was taught the skill of cooking on a simple charcoal grill, when they first went on holiday in Provence in the twenties.
The kitchen table and, behind, a dresser and the sinks
Many good meals were eaten at the kitchen table lunches and suppers. It was a sycamore-topped table, cleaned by vigorous scrubbing and finished off with the yolk of an egg.
Two ceramic sinks were set in a sturdy frame designed and made by WR. This kind of sink is now fashionable for rustic-style kitchens.
The washing-line in winter
Sarah was probably the last person in St Mark's Crescent to hang out washing. The Robertses had a D. H. Lawrence view of domestic tasks as hallowed rites here was a ritual of wooden pegs and wicker basket, prop and line. Sarah kept a couple
of desperately ragged garments to peg out in order to annoy those who had complained.
But she did use a commercial laundry for large items.|
No washing-machine, no television, no refrigerator, no record-player, no vacuum cleaner, no central heating . . .
They heated by small electric fires, just as Charleston was heated in Vanessa and Clive Bell's lifetime. And, like the Bloomsburyites, they were hardy and long-lived.
This was unknown territory mostly John's.
The front room was given over to storing paintings. Here Sarah would deal with a buyer or a gallery. When John was later given the selling agency by Sarah he set up his desk by the fireplace. There were some 500 works stored in the house at John's death, from large paintings down to two-inch-square sketch notes. A hundred or so pieces were on display after WR's death, in the studio exhibition as well as around the house. Though Sarah and John were still selling in order to live, much was collected with the idea of the future house-museum and they had stinted themselves to buy back paintings to show the sequence of sketch, finished drawing, watercolour, large oil.
John had been given the rest of the top two floors of the house for himself. Here he dedicated himself to poetry and the guitar. At one time he'd been a book-dealer in a small way, and he was himself always a serious collector, but with not much money he continued to sell books as well as to buy, so it was a constantly changing library.
There was a book-repair room: he took classes with the binder Sally Lou Smith, but never became an adept he did not inherit his father's manual dexterity. WR's handwriting remained firm and well-shaped to the end, a pleasure to read unlike Sarah's and John's ragged scrawl. Some of my material is taken from their autobiographical scraps, and very difficult they are to decipher. John labelled two folders of Sarah's scrappy reminiscences as 'Possible' and 'Impossible' to read, that is. Those who received John's typed notes know that he never mastered that skill, though there were about six typewriters in the house, all obviously found to be unsatisfactory.
The book-repair room complete with a tin of Backus bookcloth cleaner
John's sitting-room books, books, and more books
John's sitting-room contained a splendid Victorian sofa, inherited from his aunt Millie Kramer, which had formerly been in Jacob Kramer's studio.
This room had at one time been in an ordered state, the library neatly shelved and arranged, but steady buying led later on to the shelving of books in piles, sideways-on, un-get-at-able, or books spilling on to the floor in heaps; this was how we found it after John's death. But one day, quite some years before, John had said to me that he thought it was time he became more sociable. He was thinking of having occasional coffee evenings good talk and so on. Would we be guests for a trial run? Next week? Well, yes . . . we would.
It was Sarah who opened the front door (it was after William's death, and the front door was no longer forbidden), and she led the way to the private quarters, making elaborate mock gestures of welcome, walking ahead like a dancer up the two flights of stairs to where an anxious John was making coffee on the landing, using an electric kettle and a jug.
We saw, through the open door, a beautiful room, softly lit, striped curtains drawn, the gas fire putter-puttering in a cosy way, the handsome chairs drawn up in a half-circle. It was like coming to London in the twenties, renting a top-floor front, buying secondhand books from street barrows, and sitting down to read them in the evening.
John showed us his well-ordered library history of publishing here, theatrical memoirs there; memoirs of politicians; travel; London life; D. H. Lawrence; H. G. Wells; Arnold Bennett. We browsed happily . . . He then served us coffee in good earthenware cups, scuttling in and out with fresh supplies in a green Denby jug and another of silver-lustre. We were impressed.
Next day I thanked him for the evening. 'Shan't do it again,' he said. 'But why not?' 'Too much trouble. The talk was all right, but it took too much time making the coffee, serving it, running in and out. For any more people it would have taken all my time. No chance to talk . . . no-o . . . ' 'But you could make the coffee earlier, and keep it hot in a vacuum jug. People do. ' 'No, no good at all. It's got to be fresh or it's no good no good at all.'
Certainly the Robertses made excellent coffee, using the jug-and- strainer method and grinding the coffee for each batch. No other way would do.
I gave up. Eventually I began to think that the whole evening never repeated was a mirage: I had imagined it. Or perhaps we were unsuitable guests, not to be asked again. After John's death we found a box with the very coffee cups and saucers and the two jugs, carefully wrapped up in paper. 'Well, that's that,' I imagine him saying, as he put them away.
A mantelpiece grouping in John's bedroom
In John's quarters the chairs were noticeably more sturdy than elsewhere in the house
good rustic wheelbacks and reclining chairs. He preferred chairs with arms; otherwise,
apart from the basic bed, chests of drawers, chairs and round pedestal tables, his
idea of furnishing was books, shelving, and more books.|
The top back room, or the 'third-floor back', was in Victorian times considered the most wretched of rented rooms. (It was the cheapest.) It was here that John stored his own unsold publications. He sold them from home with fair success as regards some titles; others were harder to push. The books were beautifully printed and bound by a Spanish printer in Valencia; our society wrestled hard with the Treasury solicitors for the right to promote them, and we hope to find them a sympathetic readership. The piles of parcels looked like an 'installation' and there were more books in the room from John's own collection. The dealer who eventually bought the books in the house was intrigued by the character of the library, behind which one sees the owners, of course.
The paintings and drawings in the house were taken for safe keeping by the Tate as soon as John's death was discovered; their eventual fate remains unclear. The removal of the books and the other contents was the end of a uniquely furnished interior which spoke of good lives well lived, of simplicity, grace and style.
What we have left as a record is a set of professional photographs taken for the Historic Buildings Commission after the paintings had been removed; sets of assorted slides and photographs taken by me at different times, when the paintings were still on display in the house; two videos, yet to be edited; and the memories of those who visited No. 14 St Mark's Crescent.
The English Heritage blue plaque to William Roberts,
unveiled at 14 St Mark's Crescent on 24 October 2003.
The inscription reads:
lived, worked and died here
14 St Mark's Crescent a video tour
Filming and editing by David Cleall; narration by Pauline Paucker
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