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Property: The leading lights of studio London: The splendid homes built for late-Victorian artists offer unparalleled light and space. Chris Partridge reports

MANY people know St Paul's Studios. They may not know the name, but the exotic outline of their huge, round-topped windows - like improbable survivors from the Crystal Palace - is etched on the memory of anybody who has spent time in the perpetual traffic jam on the Great West Road into London.

The windows are north-facing, showing immediately that the buildings were designed for artists to work in. The rooms inside are filled with a diffuse light that does not change in direction as the sun moves, making painting and drawing from life easier and more accurate. Today a couple of photographers are among those - in the main non-artists - who benefit from the calming, warm flood of light which fills the enormous space beneath the high ceiling.

St Paul's Studios, Talgarth Road, were built in 1891 by Frederick Wheeler for bachelor artists. Wheeler had previously built the very similar house on the same street, at number 151, for Sir Coutts Lindsay, founder of the Grosvenor Gallery, which was the main showroom for artists of the aesthetic movement such as Whistler. Sir Edward Burne-Jones painted his last canvas there, and his son, also a painter, lived there for many years.

The spaces for art and life at St Paul's Studios consist of three rooms on the ground floor, a studio 30ft long and 22ft wide with a 20ft-high ceiling on the top floor, and a basement flat (which was originally for the housekeeper).

Unusually, two (Nos 3 and 4) are on the market at the moment, at pounds 220,000 each through Barnard Marcus. Both have consents for commercial activity but any building expansion would need new applications.

No 3 was home and workplace for the Punch caricaturist Edward Tennyson-Reed from 1891 to 1912, the palmy days of British imperial humour. He spent his life extracting what jokes can be prised out of palaeontology, heraldry and archaeology.

London has an unusually large number of studios, built mainly between 1850 and 1910 in a striking variety of styles from the homespun shed of the struggling painter to the romantic Moorish palace of Lord Leighton, Leighton House, now an art gallery in Kensington. Most were built not just to work in but also to impress visiting clients, dealers and collectors.

Unfortunately, the property booms of the Seventies and Eighties put these lovely buildings out of the reach of all but the richest artists. The Filofax and BMW mob moved in, getting interior decorators to clean off the paint spots and transform them into living spaces that would impress their bosses.

There are a few survivors, however. The mural painter Leonard Rosoman RA works in one of the small complexes of studios that were built up to the turn of the century in west London. Pembroke Studios in Kensington consists of 11 studios, each with a skylight and a floor- to-ceiling, north-facing window.

When Rosoman moved in with his wife 25 years ago, most of the studios were occupied by artists, largely because they were all owned by the Prudential, which let to working artists where possible. 'There were three or four painters, a couple of architects and two or three sculptors,' he recalls. 'The landlord then sold out to the tenants and since then a number have sold, but very few artists can afford the prices they fetch these days.'

As a result, only two of his neighbours are now artists: David Hockney (who spends most of his time in California) and Henry Korda, who uses the studio as a pied-a-terre rather than a place of work. Korda's studio is currently for sale through Savills at pounds 485,000, a price that would certainly deter people from splashing turps over the decor. The room is a classic studio, consisting of a double-height space with huge bay window and a gallery at one side, designed to store canvases. Off the main studio are two bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen. Rosoman hopes that an artist might move in, attracted by the declining price (already down from pounds 525,000). 'The place had a very artistic atmosphere originally,' he said in nostalgic tones.

So what are the pros and cons of living in a studio? The sculptor Willi Soukop RA has lived in one of the studios in Greville Road, St John's Wood, since the early Fifties. Now 86, he arrived in England from Austria in 1934 to teach at Dartington Hall, later moving to Chelsea and the Royal Academy, where he taught Elisabeth Frink.

'A north light is not terribly essential, especially for sculptors. I can open a few doors and that generally allows enough light in, depending on the size of the piece you are working on. Heating is not so easy, because a studio is so high and the windows are so big that in the winter it is enormously cold,' he said. 'Studios are usually bad places to live in because they are difficult to heat. We were very lucky to have a flat on the side of the studio that we could live in.'

A characteristic of one of the most famous groups of studios, in Tite Street, Chelsea, is the lack of a north light - most face east. The street was laid out in the 1870s as part of the Chelsea Embankment project. Oscar Wilde lived at what was No 16 (now 64) from his marriage to his arrest, decorating it in a style that could be regarded as either the triumph of a fastidious aesthetic or outrageous camp, depending on your point of view. 'I have a dining room done in different shades of white, with white curtains embroidered in yellow silk: the effect is absolutely delightful and the room beautiful,' he wrote.

Just down the road, James McNeill Whistler commissioned E W Godwin to build him a studio, known as the White House. It was so stark a box that the Metropolitan Board of Works forced him to add some decoration. Whistler fell out with his architect, and added over the door the inscription: 'Except the Lord build the House, they labour in Vain that build It. Mr Godwin built this house.'

Whistler himself was to remain only a few months in the house, as his libel action against John Ruskin bankrupted him. He moved to No 13, and later to the studio in No 46 Tite Street, known as The Tower House, also built by Godwin, which is currently on the market at pounds 650,000 (through John D Wood).

The house is a characteristic example of the style the late Victorians called 'Queen Anne', for no readily apparent reason except that it is in red brick and aims at an effect midway between classical and Jacobean.

The huge studio window half-way up the house dominates the facade with its great red stone mullions and transoms. Inside, the studio room has a vast inglenook at one end, a dais at the other and a splendidly carved 'musicians' gallery' running along one side. It is magnificent, and the efforts of some trendy interior decorator in the Sixties to ruin it by removing much of the plasterwork and covering the walls with hessian or psychedelic paintwork have not completely concealed the shapeliness of the room as Whistler knew it.

Next door, at No 44, is a rather smaller studio by the same architect, which is still occupied by a working artist, although his art, fashion photography, would not have been recognised by Whistler or Wilde. It is for sale, again through John D Wood.

One of the best groups of artists' studios is in Glebe Place, Chelsea, which contains examples by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Philip Webb. One of the plainer ones, No 69, is on the market through Aylesford. It is a barn-like structure with the obligatory north lights. A subsequent owner has installed an inglenook fireplace right under the huge window, giving the eccentric effect of a fire with no chimney. The price is pounds 595,000.

The property slump has had a dramatic downward effect on studio prices, and there is some evidence that artists may be drifting back to London from the outhouses of country houses where they went to work in the Eighties. Several of the cheaper studios, mainly in south London, have been bought by up-and- coming artists recently.

If prices fall further, and the art market recovers, could artists begin to recolonise the studios in Kensington and Chelsea that were built for them a century ago? -

(Photograph omitted)