William Cleverly Alexander and his family lived at Harringay House for five years between 1869 and 1873. I’ve written before about the James McNeil Whistler connection to the Alexanders, but beyond that I assumed that William was just another dull Victorian man of money. However, having dug a little deeper recently, I’ve found that both he and his family don’t deserve to be so carelessly dismissed.
My recent investigations came about as a result of my arranging to see an archive of papers handed over to Kensington & Chelsea’s Archives by the Alexander family several decades ago. I’ve been wondering for years if amongst the stacks of papers (and there are a lot of them), there might be a picture of Harringay House. I came away empty-handed in that respect, but, by way of compensation, I was taken on an interesting journey of discovery, one which I finished convinced that a drawing, painting or photo of Harringay House must have been done or commissioned by the Alexanders.
In this article, I’m sharing what intrigued me about the family including one particular part that is related to Harringay. Throughout, I refer to William Cleverly Alexander simply as Alexander. Any of his relatives, when mentioned, are referred to by name or familial relation.
Like Edward Gray, the builder and first owner of Harringay House, the great-grandparents of both Alexander and his wife were from Quaker stock. Both great-grandfathers first came to attention in relation to the Royal dockyards at Chatham, in which they held senior positions. Together, they apparently took a moral stand and resigned their employment with the dockyards. According to a Victorian Quaker antiquary, they did so ‘on conscientious scruples, possibly on the lawfulness of war’. It seems that taking moral stands such as this and acting on principle became hallmarks of the family, which they managed to find a way to reconcile with their privilege and wealth.
After the dockyards, great-grandfather Alexander (1734 – 1785) went on to found a school in Rochester. His son, grandfather Alexander (1769 – 1819), moved to the City in 1792 and embarked on a career in banking. In 1810, he left banking and founded William Alexander’s Bill Brokers in Lombard Street, a firm that would eventually transform into one of the most prominent of City firms.
Despite his career in the ‘Temple of Mammon’ grandfather Alexander still found the time and space for causes in which he believed. One example related to a contemporary Quaker City banking family, the Gurney’s (remembered for their role in the spectacular crash of Overend & Gurney). A daughter of the Gurney family, and a contemporary of grandfather Alexander was the well-known social reformer Elizabeth Fry. Grandfather Alexander and his family were good friends with the Frys and became involved both with Elizabeth Fry’s prison reform work as well as her anti-slavery activities.
George William, Alexander’s father (1802-1890), is where the family starts to get particularly interesting. He joined the family bill broking firm when he was just 14 years of age, working half a day until he was 14 ½. At this point, he became a regular clerk. His duties included taking down the shutters and sweeping out the offices. In 1819, when was 17 years old his father died, after falling from a coach. This was just nine years after setting up the bill broking business. I was surprised to read that George William’s widowed mother, Ann, then ran the business. She did so with the help of one of her deceased husband’s clerks as well as her son's.
George William worked very long hours to support his mother. In fact, he worked without a day’s holiday for four years. Apparently, he worked, so hard that he had a bad breakdown. However, he quickly recovered and in 1823, he entered into partnership with his mother to jointly run the firm.
Some years later the family moved to Stoke Newington to a house called The Willows in Paradise Row on Church Street (later considerably extended as a Gothic mansion). It was in this house, by a bend in the New River, that in 1840 William Cleverley Alexander was born. Less than thirty years later, he moved in to another house by another bend in the New River, less than two miles to the north, Harringay House.
Fig. 1: The Willows showing on the 1869 Ordnance Survey map. The park area is now Clissold Park. To its west is Green Lanes. To it's south, just below Paradise Bridge, is The Willows.
As George William gradually took over and grew the firm, he continued to find the time to engage in activities driven by his moral compass. Perhaps encouraged by his relationship with the Frys, he became active in the anti-slavery movement. Although slavery had been abolished in the British Empire in 1833, there remained many places in which slavery still thrived. As a result, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1839. Its founding treasurer was George William Alexander.
One of the Society’s first significant deeds was in 1840, when they organised the World Anti-Slavery Convention. It lasted for two weeks and had almost 500 delegates. George William reported on his recent visits to Sweden and the Netherlands to discuss the conditions of slaves in the Dutch colonies and in Suriname.
Benjamin Robert Haydon, the British history painter, produced a huge 120sq ft canvas with at least 130 recognisable participants. Alexander’s father is pictured on the far left, holding a scrolled copy of the Anti-Slavery Society Convention.
Fig. 2: The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840 by Benjamin Robert Haydon. George William Alexander is on the far left, holding a scrolled copy of the Anti-Slavery Society Convention.
Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave, writer, orator and statesman said of George William Alexander that he ‘spent more than an American fortune in promoting the anti-slavery cause...’
In 1853, American author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose father was a friend of George William, came to at the stay at The Willows. Her book “Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands”, included a reference to her stay at the house:
In the afternoon we drove out to Mr. Alexander's. His place is called Paradise1, and very justly, being one more of those home Edens in which England abounds, where, without ostentation or display, every appliance of rational enjoyment surrounds one. We were ushered into a cheerful room, opening by one glass door upon a brilliant conservatory of flowers, and by another upon a neatly-kept garden. The air was fresh and sweet with the perfume of blossoming trees, and everything seemed doubly refreshing from the contrast with the din and smoke of London. Our chamber looked out upon a beautiful park, shaded with fine old trees.
Fig. 3: Paradise Row, Church Street c1900. The gable end of the gothic rebuild of The Willows can be seen towards the right, before the large tree. It was a large house. The main frontage was set back from the road. It was four or five times the size of the gable end that is just visible. In the forground is the New River.
By 1861 William Cleverley Alexander (1840 – 1916) was 21 and at work in the family firm. In that year, he married a school friend of his sister's, fellow Quaker and banker’s daughter Rachel Agnes Lucas (1837 - 1915). For an unknown reason, on their marriage, the couple renounced their Quaker faith and became members of the Church of England.
In 1869, the couple took a lease on Harringay House, becoming its third occupants. The 1871 census shows that William and Rachel were living there with six children. One can imagine that the gardens and grounds of Harringay House with the river winding through were a wonderful playground for the children. The family shared the house with eight domestic servants. Their staff was further augmented by a coachman who occupied the coach house with his family and groom. In the gardener’s cottage and the lodge was a staff of three gardeners and further family members.
One of the decisions the Alexanders took whilst at Harringay House was to become a lasting legacy and perhaps Alexander’s greatest claim to fame. It related to the couple’s passionate interest in art. Both Alexander and Rachel were keen art lovers. Rachael’s family seemed to have been particularly artistic, one of her then-recent ancestors having been the notable quaker artist, Samuel Lucas. Various references to Alexander focus on him having been an ‘art lover’, often to the exclusion of any mention of his career in finance. He was a noted collector and connoisseur of Japanese and Chinese art, a member of the Burlington Fine Arts Club and a founding member of the National Art Collections Fund.
Both Rachael and William were also keen amateur artists themselves. Watercolours of Rachael’s are included in the Kensington archives and when I searched the internet, I quickly found paintings and sketches by Alexander’s being traded. Many of those focus on architecture, including one of his homes after Harringay House.
Fig. 4: Watercolour of Lucca, by Rachael Alexander. The painting shows that she was a competent water-colourist. (Image: Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea. Local Studies Centre)
Fig. 5: Aubrey House, the Alexanders’ Home after Harringay, by William Cleverley Alexander. The view includes Tower Cressey which was at the end of Aubrey Walk and was not part of Aubrey House. (The tower was built in 1852–3 for Thomas Page, the engineer who designed Westminster Bridge). (Image from From RKBC Time machine.
After Alexander's death in 1916, one of his obituaries referred to his artistic skill.
It is worth remembering that Mr Alexander was himself known as an artist. Six years ago, a number of his deft architectural drawings were exhibited in Bond Street together with some studies of Nankin (sic) blue and white porcelain.2
The British artist and critic Roger Fry paid tribute to Alexander’s taste in an obituary in the Burlington Magazine in 1916:
He was the most unpretentious of men. He seemed incapable of regarding his wealth or the quite remarkable taste which guided its expenditure as any claim to distinction. In contradistinction to so many collectors who use their possessions to make status, he seemed almost to apologise for his good taste and his good fortune.
Fig. 6: Rachael & William Cleverley Alexander c1870 (Image: Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea. Local Studies Centre)
The art connection for which the Alexanders are best remembered is their patronage of the American artist James McNeil Whistler during the period he lived in London. Alexander, (but we should probably say the Alexanders, plural), is/are credited with recognising Whistler’s talent at a time when few others did. Roger Fry described Alexander as one of the 'most important figures in the world of art' and maintained that Alexander saved England from the disgrace of leaving Whistler unrecognised.
In around 1870, Alexander had met Whistler, probably as a result of their shared passion for Japanese art. The City financier bought Whistler's 1871 work, Nocturne: Blue and Silver — Chelsea and commissioned the artist to paint portraits of all his children. Studies and sketches were made, but only one portrait was finished. This was ‘Harmony in Grey and Green', a life-size portrait of the Alexanders’ second daughter Cicely, aged eight. Painted in 1872 whilst the family was at Harringay House, it has been called ‘the very finest flower and culminating point of the Butterfly Master's3 art’. Whistler’s characteristic butterfly signature is painted above a grey coat on the chair to the left side of the picture. Although dated 1873, the portrait of the the Alexanders' oldest child, Agnes May, was never completed. The painting had to be suspended, apparently due to Agnes May's being ill. (Though reading of her younger sister's experiences with Whistler, I wonder if the older child was simply less patient than er sister!) Agnes' portrait remains a rather sombre sketch of a girl in riding-habit drawing on her gloves.
Fig. 7: A Harmony in Green & Grey, James McNeil Whistler, (National Portrait Gallery).
Blogger Jim Carrol offered a neat summary of Whistler’s work.
Working from a limited colour palette, Whistler sought to achieve ‘tonal harmony’. He often compared his work with music. He painted subdued, thoughtful, full-length portraits. He painted dreamy ‘nocturnes’ of the Thames at rest. He painted his mother in profile, seated, in an austere black dress, her white bonnet atop neat grey hair, her lace-cuffed hands clasping a handkerchief.4
Cicely had seventy settings for the portrait.5 Apparently the experience of being painted was not always a happy one for her. In a short piece in the Observer newspaper, in a series called ‘Pictures in Disgrace’, we read the following:
The child fairly loathed Mr Whistler. She loathed him because, despite her tears he made her stand without food for hours on end. She loathed him because he would repeatedly scrape the canvas clean and start all over again.6
Fig. 8: Cicely Alexander as a girl, undated (Image: Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea. Local Studies Centre)
Cicely’s own words describing her Whistler ordeal were included in one of her father’s obituaries.
My father wanted him to paint us all, I believe, beginning with the eldest (my sister, whom he afterwards began to paint, but whose portrait was never finished). But after coming down to see us, he wrote and said he would like to begin with 'the light arrangement,' meaning me, as my sister was dark. I was the first victim, and I am afraid I rather considered that I was a victim all through the sittings, or standings, for he never let me change my position, and I believe I sometimes used to stand for hours at a time.
I know I used to get very tired and cross, and often finished the day in tears.This was especially when he had promised to release me at a given time to go to a dancing class, but when the time came, I was still standing, and the minutes slipped away and he was quite absorbed and had forgotten all about his promise and never noticed the tears.7
Fig. 9: James McNeil Whistler, c 1865 (Inscribed "To my Friend Rosetti / J Whistler”. (Image: Library of Congress).
Whilst the work is now rated as one of Whistler’s best works, at the time it was first shown, Whistler was unappreciated and the work came in for a great deal of criticism. The same Observer article included the following description of the initial reaction to the painting.
They called her a bilious young lady in a dirty white dress! They called her portrait a Rhapsody in Raw Child and Cobwebs! The Era said it was “one of the strangest and most eccentric specimens of portraiture we ever saw”. The Times dismissed it as “uncompromisingly vulgar”. Punch called it “a gruesomeness in grey”.8
This ridicule of the Whistler work is in stark contrast to how the painting was perceived a few decades later. In 1932 James Laver, art historian and Keeper of Prints, Drawings and Paintings for the Victoria and Albert Museum was quoted in The Times expressing the art world’s revised views.
The whole painting is a miracle of lightness, and the little girl herself is like some delicate white moth poised for an incident with featly fluttering wings.9
In fact, the painting had already become a celebrated work by the end of the nineteenth century. Such was its notoriety, that the press coverage of Cicely’s grand society wedding seemed to have, as its primary focus, a personage in the famous Whistler painting, rather than Cicely herself. Below is a selection of the February 1908 headlines referring to her wedding.
One can imagine that seeing yourself reduced to a caricature could very quickly become most tiresome.
Another of Whistler’s most well-known paintings also has a Harringay connection, of sorts. Whistler’s Mother was painted in London, in 1872, just before Harmony in Grey and Green. As a result of Alexander’s purchase of the Nocturne in Blue and Silver, Mrs Whistler got to know the Alexanders and was a visitor to Harringay House.
Fig. 10: Whistler's Mother, James McNeil Whistler, 1872 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris)
A letter written by Mrs. Whistler in November 5 1872 gives us a few details of this relationship.
We have formed a friendship with Mr Alexander and his family since he bought that picture in June. He is a banker of prominence. Jamie is painting a life-size portrait of his second little daughter. The picture is nearly finished now. Mrs Alexander has brought Cecily twice a week to stand in the studio. The home is 8 miles from here, so of course they come for the day and lunch with me.
I went once to the home of the Alexander family in the carriage and stayed with them from Saturday afternoon till Monday, attending the church and the Lord’s table with them, so at once we became attached. They have sent me delicious fruits, hot house grapes and peaches. Always so thoughtful of me.10
Shortly after the ‘Harmony’ painting was finished, the Alexander association with Harringay was cut short. In 1873, Alexander was given the unexpected opportunity of buying the much sought-after Aubrey House in Holland Park, a large mansion with a two-acre garden, originally a Jacobean house.
Fig. 11: Aubrey House c1965 (Family photo published in Home & Garden)
Fig. 12: William and Rachel at Heathfield Park, c1890. (Image: Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea. Local Studies Centre)
Alexander died in 1916 after a fall at his country pile, Heathfield Park. Aubrey House was loaned to the military for use as a hospital till 1920, after which it was reclaimed by the Alexander family. It stayed in the family until c1970.
The house survives today. In 1986 Prince Andrew's bachelor party was held at Aubrey House. It was sold in 1997 for £20 million. The purchaser was the owner of Granta publishers Sigrid Rausing. It remains a private residence.
The low expectations I had of finding a picture of Harringay House when I embarked on this piece of research were most wholly met. However, my estimation of the chances of a picture of the house having been painted have increased significantly. Not only were both William Cleverley and Rachael keen amateur artists, William seems to have had a predilection for drawing and painting architecture, including at least one of his own houses. The couple also moved in art circles, and no doubt had more than one artist as a guest at Harringay House. It seems almost impossible to imagine that, amongst all this artistic creativity, at least one picture of Harringay House was not done. Perhaps the picture even survives somewhere in the no doubt extensive archive still in the possession of one or other of the Alexander family descendants. Perhaps one day, I, or someone else will dig deeper again and find it.
In the meantime, I’ve been interested to learn more about Alexander and his family.
1. This is a slight mistake by Beecher Stowe. In fact the house, called The Willows, was in a part of Church Street called Paradise Row.
2. “A £40,000 Picture. Whistler’s ‘Miss Alexander’ Will it come to the Nation?”, an unmarked newspaper cutting with no publication title shown, but readily dateable to 18 April 1916, Kensington Archives, noting Alexander’s death two days earlier. This was probably the Times. As a note of interest, picking up on the article’s title, in fact the painting was bequeathed to the Tate with a life interest for daughter, Cecily.
3. "Throughout his life and work, American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was absorbed by the imagery of butterflies. His famous signature integrated his initials ‘J’, ‘M’ and ‘W’ into a stylized come perky butterfly, figuring in the margins of a painting or etching, or even engraved on his silverware". (Kristina Astrom, writing on The Hunterian.)
"No one knows when James McNeill Whistler first used the butterfly as a signature in his paintings and prints. By the 1870's it had become a very important element in his works and he even used it as a decoration and signature on letters, notes and invitation cards. The butterfly symbol became so popular that people used to bring back paintings they had purchased before he started using the symbol so he could paint in on the ones they owned.
"Whistler liked the effect of the butterfly because it resembled ideographs used in oriental works of art". (Whistler House Museum of Art)
4. Whistler’s Butterfly: Creative Talent Often Comes with a Sting in Its Tail, Jim Carroll's blog
5. Arts Council Cultural Gifts Scheme & Acceptance in Lieu, Report 2016
6. The Observer, 13 April 1958, p14
7. The Life of James McNeill Whistler, Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Joseph Pennell, 1908, Heinemann, London
8. See Footnote 6.
9. Times, May 7, 1932.
10. The”this painting” to which the author mentioned was the Nocturne in Blue and Silver referred to earlier in this article. The letter was published in The Atlantic Monthly in September 1925.
I was interested to see the portrait in Fig. 2 crop up in an episode of the ITV programme ‘DNA Journey’ featuring Alison Hammond the other day.
The brother-in-law of Alison’s x3 great-grandfather was Louis Lescene who is the one black face in the portrait, one row behind and five to the right of George William Alexander. The story of Lescene and Alison’s blood-relative. Jean Escoffery, is fascinating and will be of particular interest to those interested in black history.
You can watch the episode on ITV.
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