Design for conversion of The Mystery House, Chelsea, London

M340 Design for conversion of The Mystery House, Chelsea, London

Address: Upper Cheyne Row, Chelsea, London
Date: 1920
Client: Arts League of Service
Authorship: Authorship category 1 (Mackintosh) (Mackintosh)

Photograph of Mystery House from S.E.


In 1920, Mackintosh became involved with several building schemes for a site in Chelsea bounded by Glebe Place, Oakley Street and Upper Cheyne Row. The site had been owned until his death in 1912 by the architect and collector Dr John Samuel Phené. 1 It had been the garden of Old Cheyne House, a dilapidated 18th-century dwelling that still stood at its W. end. Along the N. edge, facing Glebe Place, were some cottages, and at the E. end, on the corner of Oakley Street and Upper Cheyne Row, was the eccentric Mystery House.

Begun by Dr Phené in 1901, the Mystery House was intended as a re-embodiment – or 'renaissance', as it said over the door – of the Chateau de Savenay on the Loire, a demolished mansion once owned by his family. 2 It was encrusted with ornament, colourfully painted and gilded.

The Mystery House had been offered for sale by Messrs Tyler & Co. in November 1913 and again in July 1914. 3 It is not clear if it found a buyer at that time, but in October 1919 it was on the market again through Messrs E. D. Winn & Co., with the suggestion that it was suitable for conversion into flats. It was offered on a 74-year lease for £2500, with an annual ground rent of £13. 4 It was probably at this point that it came to the attention of the Arts League of Service.


The League was a voluntary organisation established in 1919, 'To bring the Arts into Everyday Life'. 5 Its moving force was a dynamic South American woman named Ana Berry, and among its supporters were the Mackintoshes' friends, the painter J. D. Fergusson and his partner, the dancer Margaret Morris.

One of the League's concerns was the shortage of artists' studios in post-First World War London, and at a meeting in May 1919, Miss Berry outlined an ambitious plan to build a block of studios in Chelsea. 6 Two months later, a notice appeared in The Times inviting 'artists and writers who have been, or are being, ejected from their studios or houses' to contact the League. 7 While still pursuing the idea of a new building, Miss Berry seems to have hit on the idea of converting the Mystery House into studios, and Mackintosh was brought in to see how this might be done.

Mackintosh's involvement

Mackintosh visited the Mystery House in mid February 1920 and made sketch plans. 8 Then, on 27 March, he met Miss Berry, J. D. Fergusson and Margaret Morris on site, and showed them over the building 'with a view to the Arts League of Service acquiring the property for their purposes.' 9

Photograph of ground- and first-floor sketch plan of Mystery HousePhotograph of second- and third-floor sketch plan of Mystery House

It was probably to the Mystery House that the Athenaeum referred on 9 April, when it reported with approval a scheme being developed by the League, 'by which one or two large houses should be bought for the sole purpose of providing artists with accommodation and thus establishing the nucleus of an artists' quarter in London, whence they cannot be evicted by persons with a larger bank balance, but infinitely less claim on the consideration of a civilised community.' 10

In April Mackintosh made a further sketch of the house, and on 18 May he borrowed plans from Messrs Winn, with the help of which he carried out a survey of the building on 20 May and took measurements. 11

Photograph of sketch plan and section of Mystery House

On 20 December he noted in his diary that he was to 'proceed with plans for Mystery House & get grant if possible', and on 3 January 1921 he gave the key to Miss Berry, but after this, nothing more is recorded. 12

In the meantime he had taken on a number of architectural projects for other parts of the Chelsea site: a large block of studios and studio flats for the League on the site of Old Cheyne House; a studio-house for Arthur Cadogan Blunt, a studio-house for Harold Squire and a building containing studios for Francis Derwent Wood, all in Glebe Place; and a second studio block for the League, also in Glebe Place. He had also designed a theatre for Margaret Morris, which was almost certainly intended for part of the same site. Except for Harold Squire's studio, which was built in a much simpler form than Mackintosh had originally envisaged, none of these schemes got off the drawing board.



1: Alan Crawford, 'Lost and found: architectural projects after Glasgow', in Pamela Robertson, ed., C. R. Mackintosh: The Chelsea Years, 1915–1923, exhibition catalogue, Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, 1994, pp. 8–9.

2: Thea Holme, Chelsea, London: Hamilton, 1972, pp. 241–2.

3: The Times, 1 November 1913, p. 14; Sale Particulars, 8 July 1914, Kensington Central Library.

4: The Times, 14 October 1919, p. 7.

5: Eleanor Elder, Travelling Players: The Story of the Arts League of Service, London: Frederick Muller, 1939, pp. 1–7.

6: Eleanor Elder, Travelling Players: The Story of the Arts League of Service, London: Frederick Muller, 1939, pp. 5–6.

7: The Times, 16 July 1919, p. 9.

8: The Hunterian, University of Glasgow: GLAHA 53015/49 (M340-002) and GLAHA 53015/50 (M340-001).

9: The Hunterian, University of Glasgow: Mackintosh's diary for 1920, GLAHA 52408.

10: Athenaeum, no. 4693, 9 April 1920, pp. 469–70.

11: The Hunterian, University of Glasgow: Sketcher's Notebook, GLAHA 53015/48 (M340-003); Mackintosh's diary for 1920, GLAHA 52408.

12: The Hunterian, University of Glasgow: Mackintosh's diary for 1920, GLAHA 52408.