Pissarro in London

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Pissarro in London


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


IT would have done something to civilise the new and much hyped Modern Tate Gallery on the South Bank if the exhibition, Pissarro in London, had been held there, but it is being mounted at the National Gallery with a scholarship and coherence unknown across the Thames.

Fogs are almost unknown in London at present and snowfalls are uncommon. In Victorian times it was not so: that is what Monet and Pissarro liked. Monet once said that 'without the fog London would not be a beautiful city'. Pissarro relished the London winter and, in 1902, with customary amiability, told an admirer how he had 'studied the effects of fog and snow' in 'the charming suburb' of Lower Norwood thirty years before. He wrote in 1894 to his son Lucien, who had settled in Chiswick, 'If I could spend the autumn and winter in London, it would be a good way of catching some beautiful effects. It could be contrived that one worked from a window in severe weather'.

Camille Pissarro cheerfully flirted a little with the style of every fellow-artist he met, from the realism of Millet to the pointillism of Seurat. His pictures of London during 1870-71 are his most Corot-like, with muted tones enlivened with small patches of bright colour. He was in London because, as an ethnic Jew of Portuguese descent and Danish nationality from the West Indies, and a vague Socialist who called himself an Anarchist, with two children by his future wife, he thought it best to remove himseff, with all his complications, from the Franco-Prussian War and the repressions that followed it. He took refuge in Norwood, a suburb which, now heavily built up, remains unknown to most tourists and little known to many Londoners.

He would often have boarded the squat, sturdy steam-train he depicted in Upper Norwood Station (Courtauld Gallery, London), its vapour disintegrating into the drab sky, as it noses through the neat hillside village in the placid damp of south-east London on the line from Sydenham to London Bridge. In spite of the clouded sky, the scene is distinct and verdant, not much different from his Paris suburb of Louveciennes, but far more peaceful, since Louveciennes, and Pissarro's store of pictures there, was being devastated by the Prussian anny. One of Pissarro's fellow-passengers, a senior city-clerk much like Mr Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody, ascends a steep serpentine lane office-bound, in Snow at Upper Norwood (National Gallery, London). The lane is streaked with curvilinear snow, in places trodden into blue ice. The clerk pauses to greet two bulkily clad, dot-faced women wary of crossing the slippery road, but ungallantly fails to raise his regulation top-hat. The view is not utterly dismal. The tranquil ho uses of red and orange brickwork, with their auburn hedges, mollify the harshness of the sky above Pissarro's characteristically low horizon.

Like his friend Sisley, who painted six scenes around Hampton Court without introducing the Palace itself, Pissarro was more interested in common-place life than in grand spectacles. The Crystal Palace had been removed bodily to Norwood in 1853, but Paxton's mighty glasshouse, with towers by Brunel, is merely a peripheral detail in Pissarro's Hill in Upper Norwood (Private Collection). It emerges behind a huddle of Corot-style cottages as pedestrians (a man in baggy workman's trousers, a woman swaddled against the cold in a red shawl, a boy in knickerbockers) skirt the snow piled up, in those days before motor traffic, in the middle of the road. One of Brunel's towers points up at the sleet-washed sky. On the other side of Crystal Palace Park was Sydenham, the prosperous part of Norwood. There, as a contrast to Hill in Upper Norwood, he delineated the large tree-fringed houses, verged with grass and shrubs, of The Avenue, Sydenham (National Gallery, London), with its seemly white and slim-belfried church. The fashionably dressed churchgoers are returning from Matins, several of them in a landau. …

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