At Home With Wilde, Sargent and Whistler
Did you know that Oscar Wilde, John Singer Sargent and James Abbott McNeill Whistler were neighbours? The three lived on Tite Street in Chelsea towards the end of the 19th century. Wilde was able to look out of his window and observe Ellen Terry, leading actress of the era, emerge from Sargent's studio dressed as Lady Macbeth. He declared the street 'Full of wonderful possibilities,' the title Devon Cox has chosen for his group biography of the Tite Street celebrities.
And what a group biography. It doesn't hurt that two of the leading lights — Wilde and Whistler — were towering personalities with significant character flaws. The book would stand up well on the egotism and mischief of that pair alone. The real delight, though, is in the extended cast of lesser artists, writers, socialites and suffragettes who frequented this tiny Chelsea enclave during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Their names might not be familiar to everyone, but such is the flair of Devon Cox's writing that the interest never wanes.
Unlike many books dealing with the history of art, no assumed knowledge is required here. Cox bounces back and forth across Tite Street, rallying his subjects like characters in a high-class soap opera. One minute, we're enjoying the company of Whistler's ennobled sitters, the next we're watching Wilde fly into a rage and alienate yet another friend of family member. It's thrilling stuff, made all the more special by a glorious cavalcade of colour illustrations.
The Street of Wonderful Possibilities is an assured and dazzling debut for the author; a top-notch read even for those unfamiliar with the aesthetic movement or the houses in which it blossomed.
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Last Updated 28 August 2015