Thursday, December 11, 2008

Camille Pissarro's Lordship Lane Station

In an article in Saturday’s Guardian, writers reflected on the stories behind their favourite works in the Courtauld Gallery. Julia Neuberger selected Camille Pissarro's Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich (1871) . I have mentioned this painting before - the bridge from which it is painted still stands in Sydenham Hill Woods. Neuberger writes:

'This painting reminds me of my time as rabbi at South London Liberal Synagogue. Though the station no longer exists - it was part of the old Crystal Place high-level railway, serving the crowds who went to see the Crystal Palace exhibition centre in Sydenham - there are many just like it stretching from Herne Hill to Honor Oak and all stations south-east. Pissarro has evoked brilliantly the spread of suburban London. There was huge demand in the 1870s and 80s for respectable housing for clerks who hurried into London every day on the railway. They wanted all mod cons - and they got them, in row after row of identical red-brick houses. The painting shows the houses sketchily, narrow and dark, with little differentiating one from another.

If you walk up and down those same streets of Sydenham and east Dulwich now, only the different names of the identical houses stand out - Mapledene and Ashhurst, Rose Cottage and Oak Lodge - as well as the subtle differences in the stained glass in the front doors. No doubt these "differences" were meant to make their owners and renters feel that they were getting something "unique", rather as all apartments are described as "luxury" these days. But the careful attention to detail in these touches contrasts surprisingly with the fact that many of these houses were poorly built - put up in a hurry in the face of demand and the developers' desire to get rich quick...

...So here is an anti-establishment figure, looking at the spread of London, home of the empire and capitalism, southwards and eastwards. For someone who hated the bourgeoisie, these suburbs epitomised it. He rebelled against the "development" he saw, painting it darkly, with the train rushing though. The impermanence and speed of life is here, as is his life of constant change, always on the move. I look at this painting and see a man shocked by the spread of London's tentacles, saddened at the loss of green spaces, seeing darkness envelope a district formerly filled with light'.

Interesting, but I am not sure I completely agree with this. Pissarro was politically radical, but was he anti-urban? Undoubtedly something was lost with the spread of London into previous areas of countryside, but then as now it's misleading to present the suburbs as this homogenous mass of bourgeois householders just because a lot of the houses look similar. Lots of socially diverse and interesting lives have been lived in those Victorian terraces, and while it is true that some of the building was rushed and slipshod a lot of that housing is still in better conditon than much of what was built later in South London.


Anonymous said...

I lived round here for 25 years, until 10 years ago I moved to Devon. No regrets!

Unknown said...

The fourth paragraph says "...So here is an anti-establishment figure, looking at the spread of London, home of the empire and capitalism, southwards and eastwards". I don't think this is correct. I believe Pissarro is looking north whilst the train is heading south. I think the hill in the far distance to the left of the painting, between the trees and the red brick houses, is possibly Telegraph Hill with the light coloured curved road bending right below it is Brenchley Gardens. Regardless, wonderful painting.