W B Yeats and Bedford Park

First Garden Suburb

Camille Pissarro

Irish lawyer-turned-painter John Butler Yeats’s 1879 decision to move his family to Bedford Park — a move key to WBY’s development as poet and dramatist — combined a desire to find a more aesthetically-pleasing way of life than their current inner-London world of railways, traffic and steep Victorian houses, with a shrewd career move: with the new District Railway (Bedford Park is by Turnham Green station) they could live pleasantly near the river in semi-rural Chiswick, while remaining within easy reach of his potential West-End and Westminster portrait-painting clients.

More significantly, in moving to a suburb designed by Jonathan Carr, (a Dublin-born businessman from an artistic family), he would find himself in the company of many of Carr’s gallery-owning brother’s painters, along with writers, publishers, actors, set-designers, and social and political thinkers in a community whose ethos was liberal, progressive, multi-cultural, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, pro-women’s rights and gender equality, somewhat vegetarian, and committed to exploring a wider spirituality.

An aspiring artist — and gregarious caharacter — such as John Butler Yeats, would inevitably enjoy a high-level of social contact with fellow residents as the community had been created with artists and aesthetes in mind: architect-designed Queen-Anne-style houses; winding tree-lined avenues; a sense of separateness from London’s bustle; and unique attention to work-life balance incorporating, in the original plan, inn (named after Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales tavern), stores block, church, community centre (The Bedford Park Club, where residents gathered for parties, pageants and political discourse), tennis courts, school of art, and even its own community newspaper!

Getting to Know Bedford Park

The Bedford Park Society is a key source of information about the suburb’s history and works today to preserve the character of the area and maintain and improve its amenities in the interests of the local community. The area’s two most significant annual arts-and-culture events are June’s Bedford Park Festival with its famous Green Day and an annual poetry event (organised by Anne-Marie Fyfe of Coffee-House Poetry), and September’s Chiswick Book Festival, both festivals centred on St. Michael and All Angels Church by Turnham Green Tube at the entrance to Bedford Park. Chiswick Timeline has had a powerful impact on the wider Chiswick area, including Bedford Park, in terms of transforming public spaces to celebrate the area’s hsitory and its unique role as a focus for artists and writers. And the book to get hold of is Bedford Park: The First Garden Suburb by T. Affleck Greeves (3rd edition) with contributions from Peter Murray and new photography by Ellen Rooney.

Printing & Publishing

Eragny Press

Chiswick and Bedford Park were central to poetry publishing with an emphasis on fine, small press publications including Withingham’s Chiswick Press who published Wm. Morris’s Chaucer and, later, the poetry of Yeats’s friend, Rabindranath Tagore, Morris’s own Kelmscott Press, the nearby Doves Press on Upper Mall, &in Bedford Park, the Webbs’ Caradoc Press, Lucien & Esther Pissarro’s Eragny Press which shared its font with Charles Shannon and Charles Rickett’s Vale Press, publisher of The Dial, and Elkin Matthews’s Bodley Head which published The Yellow Book.

Had I the Heavens’ Embroidered Cloths

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half–light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Bedford Park People

First-garden-suburb residents included founder Jonathan Carr, architects Maurice B Adams and CFA Voysey, and the talented Yeats family: that’s — in addition to poet WBY and his father John Butler Yeats, brother — Ireland’s greatest 20c painter — Jack B., and sisters, Susan (Lily), embroiderer, who worked with Wm. Morris’s daughter May, and painter and educator Elizabeth (Lolly), the two sisters going on to found Ireland’s craft revival with Cuala Industries and Dun Emer Press

Other local notables included:

  • John Todhunter, Irish poet/dramatist whose Bedford Park Club theatricals inspired WBY’s Irish National Theatre
  • Ukrainian anarchist, and editor of Free Russia, Sergius Stepniak
  • Moncure Daniel Conway, Virginian abolitionist, follower of Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, and Walt Whitman’s London literary agent
  • actor William Terriss
  • Mancherjee Bhownagree, Britain’s second-ever Asian MP
  • Henrietta Paget and Henry Marriott Paget, painters with J Comyns Carr’s Grosvernor Gallery
2 Rupert Road
  • Henrietta Paget’s sister, Florence Farr, one of George Bernard Shaw’s leading ladies, she inspired and encouraged WBY
  • RAM Stevenson, art critic, cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson
  • leading playwright Arthur Wing Pinero who collaborated with Arthur Sullivan and Jonathan Carr’s brother J Comyns Carr
  • Frederick York Powell, Oxford historian, expert on Stéphane Mallarmé and Icelandic folklore, encouraging WBY’s interest in both symbolist poetry and Irish folklore
  • Elkin Matthews, publisher of The Yellow Book, also published the work of WBY’s group, The Rhymers’ Club and went on to found The Bodley Head
    and painters including the Pagets, above, brothers Lucien and Ludo Pissarro, E Blair Leighton, and TM Rooke who worked with Edward Burne-Jones and John Ruskin.

Also nearby… Wm Morris whose theories on art and crafts were central to Bedford Park’s existence and in whose creative industries WBY’s sister Lily worked, and poet/journalist WE Henley whose soirées WBY attended. Frequent visitors included Robert Louis Stevenson, poet and illustartor Edwin Ellis who collaborated with WBY on the works of William Blake, poet Robert Browning, poet and activist Sarojini Naidu, artist Aubrey Beardsley, Lily Voynich, author of The Gadfly, author GK Chesterton (who married Bedford Park resident Frances Blogg, and whose novel The Man Who Was Thursday is set in Bedford Park), WBY’s great unrequited love, Maud Gonne, painter Camille Pissarro, Fenian John O’Leary, members of London’s Irish Literary Society, diplomat, humanitarian and Irish nationalist, Sir Roger Casement, and many, many more from the world of arts and letters.