Following in the Crystal Palace footsteps of Camille Pissarro

The Avenue, Sydenham, photographed in 2017 by Ken Towl, doesn’t hang in the National Galley

WANDLE WANDERINGS: This week, KEN TOWL has headed for the high ground and tries to retrace the steps of one of the world’s most famous impressionist painters

If you are as boring as I am (and you might be, but probably not), you can get hung up about the small things such as “What made Camille Pissarro take the trouble to paint streets in south London and what was he doing there in the first place?” I had seen a blog about Pissarro’s painting of Fox Hill in Upper Norwood which suggested that it was difficult to find the point where Pissarro had painted it.

It is half-term, and I like a challenge, so I thought I’d have a go.

Fox Hill, Upper Norwood, by Pissarro in 1870

A little research uncovered another painting by Pissarro that sits in the National Gallery called The Avenue, Sydenham.

This suggested a walk: “In the footsteps of Camille Pissarro, South London Painter”.

A quick check of the map showed that the sites of the paintings sat either side of Crystal Palace Park. And did those feet, in ancient times, walk upon Crystal Palace Park? Well, probably.

The Crown Point transmitter dominates the modern skyline

So I would indeed be walking in the footsteps of “the father of impressionism”, one world’s most renowned painters of the 19th century.

Pissarro arrived in south London in 1870 as a refugee from a war zone. And while the Franco-Prussian War may have not have witnessed the same slaughter and inhumanities as Syria in the 21st century, having troops from a bellicose neighbour marching into your home land might be good cause to flee with your family to somewhere safer.

It’s good to think that when Pissarro arrived in Norwood, he encountered a warmer welcome, perhaps, than some of the Syrian refugees whose first real experience of Britain has been Croydon’s Lunar House.

To get on the Pissarro trail, I took the 410 bus from East Croydon up to Crystal Palace Station and made my way to Fox Hill.

Go down the hill a few metres and take Waldegrave Road. The Crown Point mast dominates the skyline as you walk along this road. At the end you can see the beginning of Fox Hill just to your left. Cross over and follow the curve of the path and you will be ascending Fox Hill.

Here is my attempt to emulate the painting:

‘Many of the houses in this street have been rebuilt but the general character of this view and the distinctive bend still correspond with Pissarro’s painting,’ according to The National Gallery notes on the Pissarro painting of Fox Hill

At the top of the hill, turn right and approach the southern point of the Crystal Palace Triangle.

Take the west side of the triangle. This area is rightly lauded for its variety of restaurants. I lost count of interesting-looking places. I certainly intend to try the Venezuelan Mi Cocina es Tuya (My Kitchen is Yours). There is also Sardinian, Portuguese, French and Nepalese cuisine, and an Italian called, curiously, Four Hundred Rabbits, as well as pubs and cocktail bars.

There’s even a van selling street food. There’s always a van these days. The Triangle is like a Boxpark for grown-ups, and without the benefit of millions of pounds of council loans and subsidies.

This self-portrait of Camille Pissarro, hangs in Tate Britain

Before turning right on to the north side of the Triangle, look ahead down the steep descent of Gipsy Hill. You should be able to make out the Shard and other landmark London buildings.

Pissarro had access to views like this and yet he chose smaller, more suburban subjects. I asked myself why.

Perhaps the contrast between his painting and my photograph taken 147 years later provides a clue as to the answer: he was able to see beauty in and create beauty from the most mundane of subjects.

Not that, during his spell in Norwood, everything was wonderfully successful for the struggling artist. When Pissarro arrived in England, Norwood was still very much a village on the edge of London. It had only just been connected to the railways, but had not yet developed into a suburb.

While in London, he began working with an art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, who would market his work for the rest of his life, and he also met up with Monet, another French artists based here. They studied the works of the popular British artists, Constable and Turner, who influenced their working style in the open air, to capture the light and atmosphere of a scene which could not be accomplished in a studio.

But as far as selling his work, Pissarro was far from successful during his lifetime.

The sphinxes have been in Crystal Palace Park since the time of, if not the pharaohs, certainly since Pissarro was a regular here

He wrote to a friend from Norwood, “my painting doesn’t catch on, not at all …”.Struggling to make a success of his art, living in a foreign country, Pissarro must have wandered around the neighbourhood, and the relatively new Crystal Palace, to fill his days and to find new subjects for his paintings.

Following in his footsteps, you will shortly arrive at the corner of Crystal Palace Park.

Follow the side of the path to the right, down the hill past Crystal Palace Station, descending the hill to the dinosaurs. Surely Pissarro will have been here?

The dinosaurs (though strictly speaking, some of them are not dinosaurs), dotted in and around the parks ornamental ponds, were opened to the public in 1854, after the Palace had been transferred here at great expense following the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. So they had all been in place some 16 years when Pissarro was first in London.

Cut across the park, and pass the boarded-up café (a new one opens next year), but there is a van. There is always a van these days.

The dinosaurs are an enduring attraction in Crystal Palace Park

If you fancy a tea or a snack, you can get the usual drinks as well as burgers and those thin chips that the Americans like to call “fries”. This is not street food; more park food.

You might be interested in the maze, though children may find it a little low-tech for their tastes.

I rather liked what I thought was a sculpture on a large scale, a huge leaning metallic wall that had weathered over the years. On closer inspection it turned out to be a stage with a pond in front and a backstage area behind it accessed by a drawbridge. A cursory inspection of the stage suggested that it has been out of use for many years.

If you leave the park by the Sydenham Avenue Car Park exit, all you have to do is cross over (there is a convenient crossing) and head along the avenue.

Once past the mini-roundabout you should be able to make out the Parish Church of St Bartholomew ahead, just like in the painting, though these days it may be a little obscured by foliage.

In Pissarro’s painting, there are the elegant little posts, with chains hanging between them, separating the road and walkway from the grass verge, somewhat similar to what you might find around the college estate in nearby Dulwich to this day.

The Avenue, Sydenham, painted in 1871 by Camille Pissarro, hangs in The National Gallery

The National Gallery’s notes on the painting says that it is among the largest that Pissarro is known to have painted in London during his stay in Norwood. “The painting conveys the atmosphere of an early spring day, with oak trees coming into leaf against a soft blue sky,” the gallery notes.

“This work depicts a scene that is little changed today.”

Judge for yourself.

Continue ahead and turn right at the church. Just a few metres down the hill you can catch the 197 back to Croydon. Even without the dinosaurs this is a pleasant stroll, and not too difficult either.

It’s literally a walk in the park.

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2 Responses to Following in the Crystal Palace footsteps of Camille Pissarro

  1. Nick Mattey says:

    This piece below about Pissaro was taken from ” Norwood Review” . The French were crushed in the completely avoidable Franco Prussian war in 1870-1871 which left around 150,000 dead of which 140,000 were French men and women.

    Pissaro settled in Norwood because his mother (now a widow) was living at 100 Rosendale Road in West Norwood and his brother Alfred at the bottom of Knight’s Hill, almost opposite the cemetery gates, there being a sizeable Jewish community in West Norwood. He lived first at Canham’s Dairy on Westow Hill next to the White Swan, although the name of this venerable public house has changed fairly recently. The present building on the site, which for many years housed a branch of the Natwest Bank, was erected in 1884. A blue plaque commemorates Pissarro’s residence there. In April 1871 he moved to 2 Chatham Terrace, Palace Road, off Anerley Hill. The houses in Palace Road were demolished in 1977 to make way for a new housing estate. Perhaps a little surprisingly, Pissarro’s name does not appear in the census (taken in April 1871) for either address.

    Some of Pissarro’s pictures of Norwood and neighbouring localities are in major British galleries. His famous painting of Fox Hill (I am sure many readers of the ‘Norwood Review’ will have a reproduction of it) is in the National Gallery, as is his ‘Sydenham Road’ (Lawrie Park Avenue with St.Bartholomew’s Church in the background), while ‘Lordship Lane Station’ (on the now defunct line from the High Level station), which was for a long time thought to be of Penge station, is in the Courtald Institute Galleries. But his paintings of Dulwich College and St Stephen’s Church, South Dulwich (next to Sydenham Hill station), then both newly-built by the same architect, Charles Barry, as well as a most delightful one of Beulah Hill and All Saints’ Church, Upper Norwood in the snow, are all in private collections.

    In a later letter to an English friend, Pissarro recalled his stay in Norwood: ‘Monet worked in the parks, whilst I, living at Lower [sic] Norwood, at that time a charming suburb, studied the effects of fog, snow, and springtime: We worked from Nature, and later on Monet painted in London some superb studies of mist’.The letter goes on to say how much he and Monet admired the English landscape painters, Gainsborough, Constable and Turner.

  2. Lewis White says:

    Thanks to Ken for the illuminating article and to Nick for the comment, which have really boosted my knowledge of Pissaro and his stay in the Montparnasse of S London . I must go and see the paintings and the sites!

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