by Shirley Seaton
Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 6 (1997)
On 7 May 1897 the French Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro arrived in Bedford Park on the border of Stamford Brook, where he was to stay for over two months and to complete seven oil paintings. For Stamford Brook these pictures are a valuable record of everyday life capturing the area in the final years before bricks and mortar obliterated the fields and orchards. We are doubly fortunate that the paintings are by one of the Impressionist masters.
Camille portrayed the railway, games of cricket on a field adjoining the Common, the Bath Road, and a fête to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Although the paintings have been entitled ‘Bedford Park’, apart from the scene showing the Bath Road, they are all of Stamford Brook.
Camille Pissarro first came to this country with his young family in 1870 to escape the Franco-Prussian war and lived for some months in South London at Upper Norwood. He returned to England twice more and the visit to Bedford Park was to be his last; he died in 1903.
His eldest son, the artist Lucien Pissarro, settled in England in 1890, marrying an English girl, Esther Bensusan. In April 1897 with their three-year old daughter, Orovida, they moved from Essex to 62 Bath Road, Bedford Park. Soon after the move Lucien suffered two strokes, paralysing his left side. Camille, who had been enjoying painting the apple blossom at his home in Eragny, near Paris, hurried to Lucien’s bedside. As Lucien slowly regained the use of his limbs, Camille realised it would be several weeks before he could undertake the journey back to Eragny to convalesce.
On 24 May Camille wrote to Alphonse Portier, his picture dealer, ‘Je vais me mettre au travail, j’ai ici quelques motifs à faire fort jolis’. The Impressionist painters had moved out of the artist’s studio to paint en plein air, their philosophy being to paint directly from the landscape. Although house-bound Pissarro had a perfect place where he could set up his easel and view the ‘motifs’ which appealed to him: number 62, the last house on the south side of Bath Road, had a balconied flat roof at the back of the house which overlooked a single-track railway with its terminus in Chiswick High Road, signals on the approach to Bath Road and a footbridge over the railway. Beyond the railway, facing east, was a cricket field and Stamford Brook Common, and to the north-east open fields stretched as far as Starch Green.
The view from the balcony has been obliterated by the new Notting Hill Housing Trust development along Welstead Way. The site on which Welstead Way was built (for the last twenty years, the Bath Road municipal car park) was a branch line of the North and South Western Junction Railway, running between a small station in Chiswick High Road (called Hammersmith & Chiswick) and Acton Gatehouse Junction, where it connected with the main line from Richmond and Kew, providing a passenger service to the City from 1858 until 1917. It continued in operation for freight traffic until 1965.
In 1897 the little ‘puffing Jinney’ engine with two or three coaches was steaming to and fro beneath Pissarro’s viewpoint every half hour, goods trains were chugging past and the signals were almost immediately below the balcony. Camille’s painting The Train, Bedford Park records the scene and is a unique document in the history of London’s lost railways. The crossing keeper, Edmund Bates, lived in Railway Cottage the other side of the tracks and it must surely be his wife hanging out the washing in the painting of View across Stamford Brook Common which shows the edge of their cottage, and a man busy working on one of the allotments. Something which has not changed in the last one hundred years is this type of wooden allotment shed! The common looks surprisingly brown and worn – perhaps the whiter morass of mud has caked and grass cannot grow.
Maybe this was Camille’s last painting here, as some rainy days in May and June were followed by a long sunny spell throughout July. There are no visible paths, but people in twos or threes are promenading here and there, and what looks like someone teaching semaphore – or perhaps sorting flags for the Jubilee celebrations. The responsibility for this common land had been passed to the local authorities after the Metropolitan Commons Acts of 1866 and 1869, but it was not to be improved until 1912, as Chiswick and Hammersmith councils quibbled about their contributions to its upkeep, one eighth of the Common on the north side being in Hammersmith. St Mary’ s church, built in 1886 and the four-storey terraced houses, built as flats in 1881 by Thomas Hussey, the brickmaker, can be seen at the far end of the common, with Stamford Brook Lodge half hidden behind trees.
Around 1890 meadowland south of Stamford Brook Common, on what is today part of South Side, Prebend Gardens and Pleydell Avenue, was taken over as a cricket field, with a small wooden pavilion. In 1897 it was the home ground for two Hammersmith cricket clubs, Hammersmith and West End Hammersmith. There were two matches here on most summer Saturdays, and often a midweek game as well. Perhaps Camille witnessed the amazing boundary on 22 May when a player, as reported in The West London Observer, hit a ball into Mr Broad’s garden – Stamford Brook Lodge, on the east side of Stamford Brook Common!
Camille was fascinated by this English sport and he completed two oil paintings, Cricket at Bedford Park and Cricket Match, Bedford Park. In the second painting an additional tent has been erected and there are a large number of spectators. Perhaps it portrays the match to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee to be played on 29 June between Hammersmith and Shepherds Bush Police and Tradesmen, to start at 12 o’clock and to be followed by comical sports and dancing at 5.30pm.
Tuesday, 22 June 1897 was a public holiday to commemorate the Jubilee, with celebrations taking place over several weeks. Other fêtes were reported in the local press, but sadly there is no mention of the fête on Stamford Brook cricket field painted by Camille which he entitled Jubilee Fête at Bedford Park, London.
Camille also painted two scenes from the front of the house: Bath Road, London shows the front garden of 62 Bath Road with his granddaughter, Orovida, and a nursemaid, or possiblybe her mother Esther who was a keen gardener. It looks as if she is weeding under the rhododendrons with a trowel. The road, which is on the edge of the Bedford Park Estate, is nearing completion. Houses on the south side have been occupied for nearly 15 years, saplings to border the road have been planted, and the remaining three houses on the north side of the road will be occupied by 1898, number 43 by November 1897. In the painting, number 37 can be seen across the road, an attractive house with glassed conservatory which is little changed today. It is now on the corner of Abinger Road (which was not made up in 1897).
With his viewpoint a little to the right, Camille’ s painting Bedford Park, Bath Road, the Footbridge shows the wooden footbridge over the railway, with brickwork and possibly scaffolding down the left-hand side of the painting. This is most probably the edge of the newly completed number 43 Bath Road. As the rhododendrons are in bloom this canvas was possibly his first – painted before the end of May.
By 19 July Lucien was fit enough to travel and the family with Camille travelled to Eragny via Paris. Here Camille showed his Stamford Brook paintings to his friend, Emile Verhaeren, the Belgian poet; they were much admired.
Lucien was to make a slow recovery. He always walked with a limp and his left hand remained partially paralysed. He was not able to paint for several years, and concentrated on designing the enchanting books of his Eragny Press, with the engraving mostly carried out by Esther. They moved to the little Georgian cottage, The Brook, on Stamford Brook Road in 1902, which remained their home for the rest of their lives.
Five of Camille’s seven paintings are now in private collections. Bath Road, London can be seen at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and Cricket at Bedford Park is in the Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo.
Pissarro’s paintings (most in colour) are reproduced in Stamford Brook, an affectionate portrait by Reginald Coleman & Shirley Seaton, Stamford Brook Publications, revised edition 1997.
A photo in the Pissarro archive at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford shows Camille Pissarro on the balcony at 62 Bath Road, painting the Jubilee fête on the cricket field. A flat iron suspended from the easel adds weight against the wind. We hope to get permission to include this rare nineteenth century photograph of an Impressionist painter at work in the open air on our site.
An exhibition about the Eragny Press, a private press run by Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944), painter, engraver and printmaker, at Stamford Brook, was shown at the Ashmolean Museum in February and March 2011.