Built in Chelsea: Two Millennia of Architecture and Townscape by Dan Cruickshank - review by William Boyd

William Boyd

Where George Eliot Meets Mick Jagger

Built in Chelsea: Two Millennia of Architecture and Townscape

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In 1988, we – the Boyds – were looking to move to a bigger house in Fulham, where we were then living. But by haphazard miracle we ended up buying a house in the heart of Chelsea, between the King’s Road and the Thames, and have never moved. It’s impossible to imagine living anywhere else.

Chelsea in 1988 was markedly different from Chelsea in 2022. For example, many of the houses in our street were, then, modest rentals and the social mix in the area was richly diverse. But then Chelsea itself became rich in the decades that followed – the ‘Chelski’ years – and the nature of the place became manifestly plutocratic. But that changing demographic didn’t, initially, really impinge on the face of the area. Chelsea, in the words of Cyril Connolly (a Chelsea habitué), was ‘that leafy, tranquil, cultivated spielraum … where I worked and wandered’. That atmosphere has not altered significantly, at least on the surface. Like many of London’s villages (Hampstead, Notting Hill, Greenwich), the streets can present a near-perfect example of domestic architecture and town planning – or, rather, tree-planting and square-nurturing. In the little square next to our house there is a blue plaque noting that Mark Twain lived here in 1896–7. If he time-travelled back to modern Chelsea and half-closed his eyes, he would find the immediate neighbourhood remarkably unchanged.

Dan Cruickshank has written a splendidly detailed architectural history of Chelsea that covers almost two thousand years, from Roman times up to the present. For the greater part of its existence Chelsea was a riverside village clustered around Chelsea Old Church. Palaces and grand houses were built by aristocrats and wealthy merchants and the village was separated from London proper by fields and market gardens. Samuel Pepys would sometimes walk out from Westminster to enjoy a pot of ale at a riverside inn and then stroll homeward. And it remained something of a village through the centuries, until the construction of the Chelsea Embankment in the 1870s, when it was effectively swallowed up by the growing Victorian city and the Chelsea that we know today swiftly took shape.

Cruickshank’s book is lavishly and beautifully illustrated and he writes about the architecture of the place with great learning and insight. As a dedicated flâneur of Chelsea’s streets, I can testify to the many architectural delights Chelsea has to offer and Cruickshank is ideally informative about many a familiar building.

It’s impossible to summarise Chelsea’s particular feel and texture, but Cruickshank’s history reveals an extraordinary eclecticism of architectural styles and buildings, from Dutch Revivalism to Arts and Crafts experimentation, from Georgian terraces to Victorian mansion blocks. The one genuine architectural masterpiece in Chelsea is Christopher Wren’s 17th-century Royal Hospital, which was added to by another genius, John Soane, who designed the stable blocks in the early 19th century. But while Chelsea may lack stunning great buildings, it does have more than its fair share of amazing houses.

This domestic architecture seems to me the most abiding characteristic of the place. The streets are on the whole low-rise: there are very few buildings higher than six storeys. The King’s Road – Chelsea’s spine – possesses a human scale along almost its entire, considerable length. Many of the houses in the streets off the King’s Road are simple, modest terraces that remind one of the fact that, until fairly recently, Chelsea’s population was predominantly working class. In the 1960s Chelsea property was cheap, a feature that brought artists and designers to the neighbourhood; along with Carnaby Street and Portobello Road, Chelsea helped create the phenomenon that was Swinging London.

Charles Booth’s 1898 ‘Poverty Map’ of London is very revealing about Chelsea. Different colours mark out the relative prosperity of the streets, from black (designating ‘Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal’) through blue (‘Very poor, casual. Chronic want’) to yellow (‘Upper-middle and upper classes. Wealthy’). Great tracts of Chelsea are marked black and blue, including the street where I currently live. And then in the 1990s and the early 21st century, Chelsea became rich, London’s astonishing property boom transforming the place as significantly as Joseph Bazalgette’s Embankment had. There’s no doubt that this near-obscene prosperity has changed Chelsea’s character. Its old bohemian, rackety, artistic nature is harder and harder to spot as developers build plush apartment blocks and iceberg basements are excavated beneath terraces of brick houses that were designed for London’s artisan classes.

But, even if the population is changing, the buildings remain as testimonial to Chelsea’s unique character. You can still admire the astonishing range of Dutch gables in Cadogan Square or saunter along the length of Cheyne Walk and see where George Eliot lived, or confront stark Bauhaus modernism in Old Church Street. The streets are well dotted with blue plaques and Cruickshank’s excellent book is also a reminder of how many artists and writers have chosen to live in Chelsea over the years. Not just authors, but fictional characters too. John le Carré gave George Smiley a house in Bywater Street and Ian Fleming housed James Bond in a flat very nearby in Wellington Square, across the King’s Road.

One can’t help feeling – and Cruickshank’s book exacerbates the mood – that all this money pouring in provides a sad, minatory note to the latest transformation of Chelsea. Chelsea, in Cyril Connolly’s opinion, was not just a place but a state of mind, a set of values: worldly, hedonistic, egalitarian, tolerant, a little bit decadent. Virginia Woolf didn’t like it at all. Encountering Connolly and his wife at a house party, she sourly noted in her diary that ‘they brought the reek of Chelsea with them’. Let’s hope that reek can still persist, here and there.

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