I’m sure that most of the people reading this blog will know that James Gillray lived above Hannah Humphrey’s printshop at 27 St James’s Street in London. But I wonder how many could tell me where Gillray lived before this, or something of the circumstances that brought about the decision to move in with Mrs Humphrey?
Contrary to what we may imagine, Gillray was not a born and bred resident of the city of London. He actually spent the first forty-two years of his life living with his parents in a small terraced cottage on the edge of Chelsea, which was then a effectively a separate village some two miles to the south-west of London’s western perimeter. The house stood on at the north-eastern end of Milman’s Row and backed on to the Moravian chapel and burial ground in which James Gillray Senior worked as the sexton. The family had settled in the area during the late 1740s or early 1750s, drawn no doubt by the presence of a community of their fellow Moravians and by the proximity of the Royal Military Hospital, from where Gillray’s father continued to draw a small military pension.
Gillray’s Chelsea was very different to that of today. The area was not finally swallowed by the westward expansion of the capital until the early decades of the nineteenth-century and in the late 1700s it would still have had the feel of large country village. Standing at his front door, Gillray would have surveyed a landscape which consisted almost entirely of market gardens and fields on which the herds of diary cattle would have grazed. Looking westward along the line of the King’s Road, the only substantial structure that would have met his gaze would have been the seventeenth-century brick and timber frame of the World’s End tavern, a turnpike inn which was surrounded by open fields on the northern side of the road. To the south one would have been able to see the River Thames flowing past the end of Milman’s Row, and may have been able to discern the sounds of industry drifting up from the small wharf that lay there for the purposes of unloading timber and coal for the local brewery.
There are no surviving images of Milman’s Row as it would have looked in Gillray’s day. The closest we can get is this photograph of the Chelsea embankment taken sometime during the 1860s, in which the southern end of Milman’s Row can be seen and is marked with a black arrow . The area had already been built over by the time this picture was taken, with many of the earlier Georgian structures being heavily modified or completely demolished to make way for new buildings. The four houses standing to the immediate right of the turning into Milman’s Row appear to be the only structures which would have been entirely recognisable to someone living in the area sixty years earlier.
The Gillray’s lived at the opposite end of the street, at number 26 Milman’s Row, we know that parts of the building survived into the twentieth-century, as an account of the history of Chelsea published in 1913 notes that the land was:
…bought by Sir William Milman, and in the year 1726 his four nieces leased the property for building “a new row of buildings intended to be called Milman’s Row.” These buildings are upon the east side of Milman’s Street, and at the north end there used to be a tablet bearing the inscription “Millman Row 1726.” They have been much modernised, but the backs of Nos. 21 to 33 retain their old brickwork and no doubt much of the original structure remains .
Gillray lived with his parents for the majority of his life. His mother Jane probably passed away sometime during 1797 and this appears to have made the caricaturist even more protective of his elderly father. In December 1797, he wrote what appears to have been a rather intemperate letter to the officials of the Moravian chapel, castigating them for paying their sexton so little that the old man was “obliged to attend every Sunday, at the chapel door” and collect alms from his fellow churchgoers . As Gillray’s reputation as an artist grew during the 1790s, and he found himself spending time away from home painting for wealthy patrons, he always took steps to ensure that his father was properly looked after. Hannah Humphrey, who must have already been a close friend of the family, would sometimes call by to keep an eye on the old man and convey news from his son. In the summer of 1798 she wrote to reassure Gillray that:
I was yesterday at Chelsea and found your father in good health and good spirits, which hearing from you did not at all diminish .
James Gillray senior died in March 1799. The bill from John Nash, undertakers, indicating that his son spared no expense for his funeral, burying him wrapped in a fine sheet of pinked crepe and a:
A strong elm coffin lined & ruffled with fine crepe. Handsomely finished with the best burnished nail & swaged plate & four pairs of handles
Gillray himself dressed for the occasion, renting a black crepe hat band and silk gloves which were worn as a traditional sign of mourning [5.]
The surviving remnants of Gillray’s personal papers allow us to narrow the date of his departure from the house on Milman’s Row to the period between late March 1797 and February 1798 [6.] By the spring of 1798 he had finally left Chelsea to take up residence with the printseller Hannah Humphrey. It was from this point onward that Gillray would begin working exclusively for Humphrey and become increasingly integrated into her household and family.
1. Photograph taken from https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2011/12/29/down-by-the-river-chelsea-reach-in-the-1860s/
2. Walter H. Godfrey, ‘Milman’s Street’, in Survey of London: Volume 4, Chelsea, Pt II (London, 1913), p. 45.
3. Add Mss 27337 ff.13.
4. Ibid. ff. 29.
5. Ibid. ff. 44.
6. The last surviving letter sent to Gillray at Milman’s Row is dated 22nd March 1797 while the earliest document we have placing him in St James’s Street can be dated to February – March 1798. See Ibid. ff. 17 & 20.