It was serendipitous that I stumbled across an article in The Times last weekend that brought my attention to the 200th birthday of W.M. Thackeray. Serendipitous and – as I was hunting for something to write about in the first news post of the new Gallery 19 website – ridiculously appropriate; Gallery 19 is situated on the corner of Thackeray Street, around the corner from Thackeray’s house at 16 Young Street.
Thackeray enjoyed more fame in his own time then he does in our own. Born in Calcutta on the 18th July 1811, the only child of a high-ranking secretary to the board of revenue in the British East India Company, he was sent back to England after the death of his father where he was educated at Charterhouse School among others. The next seven years were unsettled for Thackeray – he dropped out of Cambridge University after a year, traveled the continent, studied art in Paris and law at the Middle Temple [pursuing neither career] and squandered away his £20,000 inheritance on gambling and a series of bad investments. In 1836 he married Isabella Gethin Shawe, who gave him three daughters before having a complete mental breakdown and becoming known as ‘Thackeray’s mad wife’. With a young family to support, Thackeray decided to try his hand at “writing for life”.
Between 1840 and 1847 Thackeray wrote three hundred and eighty six pieces and three books for several magazines under numerous ridiculous pseudonyms such as George Savage Fitz-Boodle, Michael Angelo Titmarsh, Théophile Wagstaff and C.J. Yellowplush. Then in 1847 Punch magazine published Vanity Fair in serial form which made Thackeray a household name. Subtitled “a novel without a hero” and illustrated by Thackeray himself, Vanity Fair is a wickedly satirical panorama of English society in the early nineteenth century and arguably the greatest novel in the English language. The success of Vanity Fair ensured future bestsellers and Thackeray was ranked second only to Dickens. He also became the first editor of the Cornhill Magazine.
After Young Street, where he wrote Vanity Fair, Thackeray never left The Royal Borough. At his daughters insistence the family moved to the more fashionable Onslow Square [a house Thackeray never liked] before building “the reddest house in all the town” at 2 Palace Green. After a lengthy bout of illness, Thackeray suffered a stroke on Christmas Eve 1863 and is buried in Kensal Green cemetery. He was fifty-two.
The Thackeray connections in Kensington do not stop with the man himself. He was survived by two daughters [the third died in infancy]. Anne Thackeray Ritchie lived in Kensington Square and was a successful writer herself while her sister Harriet “Minnie” Thackeray was the first wife of Leslie Stephen who, after Minnie’s death, went on to father Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell; on the facade of 22 Hyde Park Gate are three blue plaques in a vertical row for Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. The playwright J.M. Barrie – Kensington resident, creator of Peter Pan, and another Gallery 19 favourite – hero-worshipped Thackeray and told his daughter Anne that it was a shame he [Barrie] was born a generation too late to know the great man
If you want to see Kensington through Thackeray’s eyes read The History of Henry Esmond Esq, a historical novel in three volumes set in eighteenth century Kensington during the reign of Queen Anne. In The History of Henry Esmond Esq. you will find many characters Thackeray would have observed coming in and out of the Greyhound Tavern, situated opposite his house on Young Street. And if you happen to be in The Greyhound on the 18th of July, raise your glass to No. 16 Young Street and wish W.M. Thackeray many happy returns.