Peter York: The way we live now

Artistic merit
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The Independent Online

Studios are tremendously artistic. You don't have to be an artist to live in one, just have the right feelings, proper sensibility and right clothes.

Studios for successful artists are a particularly Victorian thing. There are more in London than anywhere else in the country, and they're concentrated in very particular areas. Around Melbury Road in Heavy Kensington, W8, is where some of the most successful Victorian artists lived. Their rewards were massive: royalties from oleographs and steel engravings across the Empire; commissions from the New Rich, from companies and institutions. They got big houses, knighthoods (Frederick Leighton became a Lord) and a second-generation transfer into the generalised upper class.

Along with all this came a new building form, the purpose-built gentleman-artist's studio, designed to do the job and look artistic. Some were annexes with a bit of living space, some were studio-houses (look at that extraordinary development on Talgarth Road, west London a long terrace of studio houses all featuring a huge first-floor studio room with massive and fanciful fenestration).

The essentials of the studio life are at least one massive double-height room built for artistic production with relevant old props and fantastic light from giant windows. The knighted Royal Academician's studios in Hampstead and St John's Wood were quite dignified affairs with bits of fancy joinery and separate rooms and staircases for models to change discreetly.

The full-on vie bohme stuff came with the 1890s and after, the rush to Chelsea and development of a less dignified idea of artistic life more Europeanised or Aesthetic Movement and heavy on cloaks (think of Augustus John or the studio in Wilde's Dorian Gray). Most of those delicious 19th-century artists' studios are now prime property for conventional rich people. Chelsea and Kensington are hardly edgy. And, for the most part, unaffordable for working artists.

Those studio houses, originally built on odd bits of land, usually without gardens and the full Victorian package of rooms especially bedrooms now make sense for a range of rich people. They love that huge light room (an interior decorator's dream), which allows them to be that bit artistic and un-bourgeois, 10 times smarter than their Breeder contemporaries in Home Counties houses.

This Chelsea studio really hits the mark. The nice parquet floor and pleasant 1890s staircase mean this isn't a "loft". There's a pleasant life lived here. The big kilim cushions, the wicker chair and the Sloaney bicycle suggest a certain kind of lady. There are massive canvases above, but the owner appears to be at work on a rather small one.

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