Chasing Pissarro in Upper Norwood
By Padraig Belton
Now home to a Pedder’s estate agency and the Westow House pub, Crystal Palace’s Westow Hill was once the locus of a burgeoning Impressionist movement. The estate agency is at the spot where
Camille Pissarro lived after fleeing his home in Louveciennes at the start of the Franco-Prussian War. In between the windows boasting glimpses of local properties for sale, there nestles a blue plaque to note the painter lived here at the age of forty. “The building was a bank before we moved in,” an estate agent explains. “Lots of bank-related things”, but nothing left of Pissarro’s.
One could argue that Impressionism was born right here, as during his Norwood time Pissarro cemented a friendship with Claude Monet. It was here that he also met his lifelong dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, who championed him and sold his works well into the twentieth century. Like Pissarro, Monet and Durand-Ruel had fled France; all of them wound up in London. Both the new neighbourhood and the Crystal Palace itself loom large in Pissarro’s drawings and paintings, even if the movement itself didn’t gain its name until four years later, in April 1874.
“Yes am aware of it. It’s a popular image of the church, as are his other paintings of the area,” says Father Leonard Marsh, vicar of the Church of All Saints. Marsh was talking about several pictures Pissarro produced of the Anglican church on Beulah Hill, in different media. All were made around 1871, soon after he became a local resident.
In Pissarro’s earliest subjects from his new Norwood neighbourhood, there are also glimpses of Pissarro the refugee, drawn to sites that evoked home. The neo-Gothic parish church on Beulah Hill Pissarro depicted was built in the nineteenth century but, encrusted in its first snow, may equally have represented scenes he left behind in Pontoise or, more immediately, Louveciennes.
Pissarro’s views from 1870 on Fox Hill, Upper Norwood, are “aesthetically similar to his scenes of Pontoise; we have the gravelly road, the snow dappled buildings, the select figures walking up a hill leading our eyes to the cozy homes in the distance,” says Emily Cox, a Pissarro researcher at Oxford University, adding “a lovely one is currently in the National Gallery.” That must be his painting The Avenue, Sydenham, from 1871, which features a church (this is St Bartholomew’s, built between 1827 and 1832), amid green and lemon grassy verges, and street posts of yellowing white.
“Monet worked in the parks, while I, living at … Norwood, at that time a charming suburb, studied the effects of fog, snow, and springtime,” Pissarro recounted in a 1902 letter to the English impressionist Wynford Dewhurst. “We worked from Nature, and later on Monet painted in London some superb studies of mist.”
J M W Turner was a strong influence on both Monet and Pissarro, whose watercolours they sought out in the National Gallery, the Dulwich Picture Gallery closer by and private galleries scattered around London. Paul Signac, a French impressionist whom Pissarro befriended in 1885, recalled in 1899 what Pissarro and Monet took from staring at works of the English Romantic landscape painter:
“They are struck primarily by his snow and ice effects. They are astonished by the way he has succeeded in giving an impression of whiteness to the snow, they who so far had not been successful with their big white patches laid on with wide sweeps of the brush.”
Pissarro’s choice of flight to London shouldn’t be seen as unexpected: coming from a multilingual family in the Danish West Indies, he spoke English well. Furthermore, he had family here. His mother had already settled in Norwood, on Rosendale Road, where she joined the area’s substantial Jewish community. His brother Alfred lived virtually opposite the West Norwood cemetery gates. Pissarro’s nephew, Alfred Isaacson, was a bourgeois business owner in the city.
Pissarro liked London, notes Cox. She works with the extensive archive of the painter’s unpublished letters and drawings held in the university’s Ashmolean Museum. “Though he distrusted what he considered to be the rampant capitalism and industrialisation of the city, and also judged the English aesthetic taste to be less developed than that of the French, he enjoyed his time in the city and would return throughout his life,” she says.
His 1871 Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich, now hanging in the Courtauld, is a commentary on that industrialisation, visualising a steam train cutting through London and remaking the Great North Wood into suburbs yoked to London’s urban core.
The Crystal Palace also provided the subject for one of his finest works, from 1871, now in the Art Institute of Chicago. “Obviously, the Crystal Palace was very important for Pissarro, as it was for any artist who lived in London by the mid-19th century,” says Joachim Pissarro, Camille Pissarro’s great-grandson and the Bershad Professor of Art History at Hunter College in New York. Crystal Palace was to London “what the Eiffel Tower was to Paris, and maybe even more so,” he adds.
In Pissarro’s 1871 painting The Crystal Palace, the building, which had hosted the first World’s Fair twenty years earlier, faces the red brick houses of Sydenham. Families enjoy a sunny outing through what then was a new south London suburb. There are couples moving past horse-drawn carriages and nannies with prams.
In his brushwork on the surface of the Crystal Palace itself, “we can see evidence of the Impressionistic abstraction to which Pissarro would continue to trend,” says Cox, particularly in the “dense smears of grey and blue paint, which stand for what must have been a stunning show of reflected light on the surface of the Palace’s glass and metal structure.”
For an avid explorer and country man who distrusted cities but enjoyed exploring them, always in search of an ever-elusive motif, the Crystal Palace offered Pissarro the chance to depict everyday life and atmospheric conditions, as well as offer social commentary. The flashy, ingenious structure of Crystal Palace poses against the peaceable, comely exteriors of the homes in which many of the bourgeois couples pictured might have lived.
Homes not unlike the one on Westow Hill, in which Pissarro resided himself.
Impressionists in London continues at Tate Britain until 21 Jan2018