London has always attracted the weird and wonderful. Throughout its history, the city has known countless oddballs and fruitcakes. In the eighteenth century foreign visitors to the capital were often surprised by the frank, if not rude attitude of its population. Society celebrated eccentrics and social rebels. It ridiculed affectation. Hypocrisy was considered an evil. That seems to be a lasting legacy. Cities in general tend to breed conformity, but that encourages single individuals to stand out and be unusual. The passion to be different supplies the air and breath that are essential to the vitality of London life. Loonies are the lungs of an urban culture.
One such characters was an Irish immigrant into London by the name of James Salter. He had formerly been a barber and a valet to Hans Sloane, before opening a coffee house at no. 59 Cheyne Walk, at the corner of Lawrence Street, in 1697. By 1715 he had moved his coffee house to the west side of Danvers Street, and then in 1718 to its final location at the newly-built no. 18 Cheyne Walk, close to Sloane’s manor house which stood at numbers 19-26 (the mansion was demolished in 1760). He named his Chelsea establishment Don Saltero’s Coffee House. The owner (most likely with a passion for Italian opera) was famous for his punch, he could play the fiddle, and would shave, bleed and draw teeth. He was an Irishman of all trades. Part of the attraction of the coffee house was the display of a large collection of unusual objects and curiosities.
The modern museum was preceded by what was known as a cabinet of curiosities. These sixteenth century cabinets were gathered by collectors with different social backgrounds and their contents varied according to the means and interests of the owners: physicians collected anatomical specimens; merchants bought rarities from far-flung trading posts; artists gathered prints, drawings and casts of ancient sculpture. By the turn of the seventeenth century collecting became increasingly an obsession of the wealthy and the well-connected. They were hoarding objects into vast personal collections. Starfish, forked carrots, monkey teeth, alligator skins, phosphorescent minerals, Indian canoes, and unicorn tails were acquired eagerly and indiscriminately. Critical taxonomy was rarely in evidence. The curiosity cabinet performed an educational function, facilitating the dissemination of knowledge. Unlike the museum, the curiosity cabinet was not intended for a public audience, but rather for the educated few. The coffee house museum functioned as an intermediate. The collection was there to attract the paying public into the establishment. It was a business venture in which the craving for coffee was linked to the growing urban passion for collecting curiosities and exotics. The experiment proved tremendously popular.
Saltero’s soon was frequented by Chelsea’s wealthy and fashionable residents, having received a special notice in the Tatler of June 1709. It was a favourite meeting-place for men like Hans Sloane, Richard Mead, and Nathaniel Oldham. As one of the local sights, the house was visited by antiquarian Ralph Thoresby in 1723 and by Benjamin Franklin about 1724. It also features in a passage of Fanny Burney’s novel Evelina (1778).
Items on display at the coffee house were donated by Hans Sloane, John Munden, Richard Steele and other Chelsea residents. Salter’s museum was an assemblage of oddities, including a petrified crab from China; medals of William Laud, Gustavus Adolphus, and the seven bishops who resisted James II’s declaration of indulgence; William the Conqueror’s flaming sword; Henry VIII’s coat of mail; Job’s tears (of which anodyne necklaces were made); a bowl and ninepins in a box the size of a pea; Madagascar lances; and last but not least: a hat which had belonged to the sister of Pontius Pilate’s wife’s chambermaid.
The curiosities were placed in glass cases in the front room of the first floor. Weapons, skeletons, and fishes covered the walls and ceiling. A poetical autobiography and account of his ‘Museum Coffee House’ appeared in the British Apollo and in Mist’s Journal (22 June 1723). Salter also published A Catalogue of the Rarities to be seen at Don Saltero’s Coffee House in Chelsea which he offered for sale to his customers (no less than forty-eight extant editions range from 1729 to 1795). This Irishman ran a roaring business. Salter died in 1728 and his daughter went on to run the premises as a tavern until 1758. It continued to attract considerable custom, but in 1799 the collection was sold in 121 lots at auction and dispersed.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the coffee house was described as a ‘quiet tavern’, and in 1867 the property was converted into a private residence. Salter’s ‘Chelsea Knackatory’ was not the only establishment that attracted a curious audience with his exhibition of rarities. He had in fact a rival which is evident from another published catalogue entitled A Catalogue of the Rarities to be seen at Adams’s, at the Royal Swan, in Kingsland-road, leading from Shoreditch Church, 1756. This catalogue lists some 500 rarities, including African artefacts. Visitors to the Royal Swan would be entertained by the sight of Walter Raleigh’s tobacco pipe; the Vicar of Bray’s clogs; an engine to shell green peas with; a set of teeth that grew in a fish’s belly; Wat Tyler’s spurs; Adam’s key of the fore and back door to the Garden of Eden, etc. There was fierce rivalry amongst the proprietors of coffee house museums to catch the public’s ear, eye and purse.
Cheyne Walk, known as the ‘village of palaces’, is named after the Cheyne family who owned an estate on the site. They were Lords of the Manor of Chelsea from 1660 to 1712. The first houses to be built in the Walk were a row of grand Queen Anne houses. At its creation Cheyne Walk was a desirable place to live and remained so to this very day. It can list a long line of famous residents, including Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards (no. 3); novelists George Eliot (no. 4) and Henry James (no. 21); painter James McNeill Whistler (at various times at nos. 21, 72, 96, and 101); author and social critic Thomas Carlyle (no. 24); Dracula’s creator Bram Stoker (no. 27); Hungarian film producer and Jewish refugee Max Schach (no. 35); pop stars Mick Jagger and Marian Faithful (no. 48); novelist Elizabeth Gaskel (no. 93); engineer Marc Brunel (no. 98); prophet Nicolaus Ludwig Zinzendorf of the Moravian Church (no. 99/100); Anglo-French poet Hillaire Belloc (no. 104); and painter J.M.W. Turner (no. 119).
The life of poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti is an extraordinary success tale in the history of migration. His father, the scholar, poet and revolutionary Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti, was born on 28 February 1783 in Vasto, Kingdom of Naples. The original family name was Della Guardia. Probably the diminutive Rossetti was given to a red-haired ancestor and, for reasons unknown, stuck. The son of a blacksmith, he made an impressive early career. In 1807 he was librettist at the San Carlo opera house in Naples and was later appointed curator of ancient marbles and bronzes in the Capodimonte Museum. His political poetry caused him trouble. As a member of the revolutionary society Carbonari in Naples, he directed his anger against Ferdinand II who had revoked the Constitution in 1821. Gabriele was sentenced to death. He escaped to England via Malta in 1824 never to see his homeland again. In 1826 he married Frances Mary Lavinia Polidori, the daughter of another Italian man of letters, Gaetano Polidori, Tuscan by birth but Londoner by adoption. The couple lived at no. 38 Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia.
It was here that Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born. The Rossetti children, all born in London, would make a massive impact on British cultural and artistic life. Gabriele was appointed Professor of Italian at King’s College London in 1831, a post he held until 1847.
09 D.G. Rossetti moved into Tudor House at no. 16 Cheyne Walk soon after the death in February 1862 of his wife, the Pre-Raphaelite model Elizabeth Siddall, from an overdose of laudanum. He spent several bohemian years at the place. It was here that he began collecting a menagerie of exotic animals and developed a passion for hoarding antique furniture, blue-and-white china, and vast amounts of bric-a-brac. His former lover and model Fanny Cornforth became housekeeper of the male-dominated daily life at Tudor House.
Rossetti shared the place with Algernon Charles Swinburne, the ‘demoniac boy’ of poetry. The latter contributed to the dissolute state of the place by drinking past excess to unconsciousness and getting into physical arguments with guests. Whistler, who lived nearby, was a regular visitor. Henry Treffry Dunn, who was Rossetti’s studio assistant and secretary between 1867 and 1880, has left a written account of life in Chelsea in his Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his Circle (Cheyne Walk Life). Dunn illustrated the book himself and his watercolours of Tudor House give a unique and intimate glimpse into the artist’s home – a Chelsea knackatory of chaos and creativity.