24 - 36 Finchley Road - a group of houses 1839 - 1970s
Villas on the Finchley Road
Devonshire Villa (28 Finchley Road) was built by John Wright Treeby , a builder from Dorset Street whose first lease was for a house on the Finchley Road in 1839. He lived there for three years and then moved into a new house, Elizabethan Villa, which he had built just to the north.
The use of the word Villa illustrates the conflict at the time between calling the houses on the Eyre Estate Cottage or Villa – villa was thought to bring in a higher price. In 1842 Treeby took on a larger plot of land bordering on Queens Grove (which had yet to be made) running along to Avenue Rd and built more houses.
Thomas Hood, the writer, left his home in Elm Tree Road in 1844 and moved to a 10 roomed part of Devonshire Villa. Having endured years of penury he at last was earning £300 p.a. as editor of the New Monthly magazine, but died barely a year later.
The whole area of land was sold in 1868 to the Metropolitan and St Johns Wood Railway Co but after the Marlborough Road station was built they disposed of the rest of the land and the houses on it. A most valuable property for conversion to business purposes, being the High Road close to Marlborough Rd station and no shops within a quarter of a mile. The complete house that comprised Devonshire Villa was sold for £1240.
In 1882 no 28 was being lived in by various artists including Herbert Olivier 1861 – 1952 (uncle of actor Laurence Olivier) who exhibited this painting Passion Flower at the Royal Academy in 1883 – his address is on the stretcher. Arthur Elsley (1860 – 1952)was also there, painting his ever popular pictures of playful children and pets.
In 1900 the whole house became the third home of the St Johns Wood Art club, who had been founded in 1894 and whose band of brothers found their first home in the Knights of St John and their second in the Eyre Arms, which had a billiard table. Originally it comprised a few painters and sculptors plus Voysey, the architect, but by 1900 it had 111 members and did valuable work in campaigning for protecting artistic copyright. Montgomery Eyre wrote in 1913 Whenever I enter its cosy precincts I am warmed by the homeliness and good fellowship. Many of the old faces whose silhouettes form the frieze of the large room will no longer meet us face to face,but there is always an atmosphere in the place which holds one and bids one stay a bit.
In 1882 the Queens Grove artists studios had been built, perhaps by Albert E Pridmore, approached by a narrow entrance and virtually unseen from the road. Over the years they housed a motley collection of artists and writers, and in the 1930s, England’s highest paid actress and box office draw, Gracie Fields.(1898 – 1979)
Gracie had looked for somewhere small and homely after her marriage collapsed and she had to leave her mansion in Bishops Avenue; she came to Queens Grove studios to be nearer to her close friend John Flanagan’ s studio. Her home had a stone floor, a bath which doubled as a dining table and a cooker. Upstairs it had a tiny attic room for her Aunt Margaret. But she finally admitted that a tiny studio was unsuitable place for a star and bought Greentrees, at 31 Finchley Road, which was tucked away behind another house so that its trees and hedges with only a gate onto the Finchley Rd could protect her from the many fans trying to see her.
She lived at Greentrees with her aunt as housekeeper, a companion Mary Barratt, an Irish gardener Seamus and an Italian maid FloFlo. There was however a constant stream of composers visiting her, so there were four pianos and she had to insist on a 2 am curfew as they tried out their songs and kept her aunt awake. A visitor in 1939, Joan Goldthorp, wrote Gracie’s office is a large room with long windows at one end, opening on to a surprisingly large strip of garden – large for London that is, but retaining the essential homeliness of the rest of her house.
But Gracie was living beyond her means and when faced with a vast tax demand had to sell Greentrees and its contents at a loss. She said they’re not going to have my goldfish or my tiger lilies in the garden. I planted them myself, they’re mine – so she dug up all her lilies and took every goldfish with her.
After the Second World War the studios had various tenants. One couple were novelist Olivia Manning and her husband Reggie Smith. In 1946 they were living in Shepherd’s Market but by 1951 they appear on the electoral roll at 26 Queens Grove Studios, St John’s Wood. Olivia had a long term lover in Dr Jerry Slattery, a Hampstead doctor who “collected” women novelists, and she also pursued some of the various lodgers who rented the basement flat, including actor Tony Richardson who was so nervous of her unrequited love that he hardly dared to take a bath. By 1962 they were threatened with a writ from the Eyre estate and struggled to find money to pay for dilapidations at Queens Grove.
Post war flats
A large tall block of flats was built on the site in the 1970s, hiding what is still a grassy patch behind.
Philip Saville, the television producer, for many years lived in what had once been the artist Augustus John’s home, with his lover actress Diana Rigg in an adjacent flat.