Bohemia, SW3

Barry Turner delves into an illuminating and entertaining insight into Bohemian life in the fast lane


This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Swan Court is a Chelsea landmark. Set back from the King’s Road, this mammoth redbrick apartment block is by no stretch an architectural masterpiece though it compares well with the unlovely towers that now scar the London skyline.

A Perch in Bohemia by Nicola Braban Matador, £15

When the first tenants moved in, Swan Court was the epitome of 1930s stylish living, a contrast to the lodging houses, workshops and cheap studios that were gradually being cleared away for new housing. Its mix of maisonettes, flats and studios, unusual at the time, not to mention an in-house restaurant, attracted an arty crowd who wanted space, light and clean lines in accommodation that needed minimum upkeep.

And what an extraordinary bunch they were. Sharing a double studio was the American designer Edward McKnight Kauffer, known as the Picasso of advertising whose posters are now collectors’ items, and his partner, Marion Dorn, famous for her rugs and textiles in many colours. A near-neighbour was Peter Gregory, a patron of the arts whose wealthy contacts were eager to commission original work in modernist style. There was other work to be had close to hand. The actor, Ernest Milton, not much known today but pre-eminent in his day, engaged Kauffer and Dorn to design sets and costumes.

Acting was almost part of the fabric of Swan Court

Acting was almost part of the fabric of Swan Court. An inexhaustible source of gossip was Virginia Cherrill. Who she? Recognition dawns with knowing that she was plucked from obscurity by Charlie Chaplin to play the flower girl in City Lights. It made her a star and a magnet for unattached men. She settled for Cary Grant until she found he was not the easygoing character portrayed on film.

After the stormy breakup, she moved to Swan Court where she was squired by an enormously rich maharajah and the equally wealthy but chilly ninth Earl of Jersey, her next husband, with whom she shared little except a taste for art. It was the prelude to another short marital gallop.

More than a match for Cherrill’s sensual energy was Rosalinde Fuller, actress and singer, who made her name on Broadway playing Ophelia to John Barrymore’s Hamlet. After a fling with Scott Fitzgerald she worked her way through a succession of lovers before settling in Swan Court with the photographer and abstract film maker Francis Bruguière. As an exponent of the therapeutic qualities of free love, Fuller proved her point by keeping up an active sex life until not long before her death aged 90.

More conventional in their marital life though no less radical in other respects, the larger-than-life theatrical partnership of Sybil Thorndike, renowned for her portrayal of Shaw’s St Joan, and Lewis Casson, her actor-director husband, regaled their friends with diatribes on left-wing causes. Along with other notable artists, writers and performers, they were at the heart of Bohemia in miniature.

But there was part of the Swan Court fellowship that was anything but left-leaning. Reflecting the political divide of the 1930s social elite, Nicola Braban reflects on the contingent of Nazi sympathisers. Among them was Tom Mitford, who shared the passion of his sisters Diana and Unity for all things German including the Nuremberg rallies; Peter Eckersley, the pioneering BBC radio engineer who fell foul of Reithian puritanism; his wife Dorothy who ended up broadcasting wartime propaganda from Berlin; and Arthur Bryant, the romantic historian who tailored the facts to suit his prejudice which pre-war had him choosing Mein Kampf as his book of the month. Losing faith in Nazism after 1940, he switched to passionate chauvinism while toadying his way to a knighthood.

The inter-war years are the core of this delightful dip-into book, a collective biography of characters who for the most part would not now qualify for full-length life stories. Together they provide an illuminating and entertaining insight into Bohemian life in the fast lane. After the war, Swan Court attracted a new generation seeking elegant, trouble-free living. One arrival was a paint and chemical executive who set up home with his wife, a future prime minister. There was a message here; whatever the future of Swan Court, Bohemia had had its day.

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