Pissarro’s view with St Luke’s

The meeting of the Norwood Society held on 30 November 1993 was a well-attended and stimulating talk given by Nicholas Read on a favourite topic of his, the founder of the Impressionist School of French paints, Camille Pissarro. One of the many slides shown of the artist’s work was a sketch identified by a title written at the bottom of it as Lower Norwood (now West Norwood). It shows the spire of St Luke’s Church in the background – one of the many pictures of the Norwood area executed by Pissarro during his stay here in 1870-71. The sketch also appears in Nicholas Reed’s book, Camille Pissarro at Crystal Palace (1987: rev. London, 1993, p. 50). It had been assumed that the viewpoint of this sketch was from a point where today Waylett Place enters Norwood Road but a member of the audience at the talk suggested that the viewpoint was from Norwood High Street and, indeed when we consult the relevant Ordnance Survey map for 1870 which was published in 1875, it becomes obvious that no spot in the present Norwood Road can have offered a viewpoint for the sketch.

There are several reasons for this conclusion. First had the artist placed himself there, the façade of the church would be prominently in view. Secondly, the spire of the church would be seen more to the right of the picture as it is in the photograph which is also reproduced on the same page of Nicholas Reed’s book. Thirdly the corner of the cemetery would be clearly visible in front of the church on the left. None of these statements is true of Pissarro’s drawing. Finally the building on the left in the photograph, which is now Barclay’s Bank, is three storeys high whereas the building in the sketch, which is supposed to represent it, is two storeys high.

In the sketch, a thoroughfare is seen to rise from the foreground to the middle ground. Now Norwood High Street actually descends quite steeply northwards from south of Gipsy Road to the bridge which carries the railway line (opened in 1856) over the High Street. There is, however, a break in this descent: at a point about half way between Gipsy Road and what was then Windsor Road (now Windsor Grove), the High Street actually rises for a short distance. To anyone standing on this slope, the line of the railway bridge is visible as a parallel just above the summit of the hill. A line representing the railway can be seen in the background of the sketch. The precise viewpoint appears to be established by the same Ordnance Survey map mentioned above where we can see that at the corner of Windsor Road and the east side of the High Street, the map shows a small gateway leading to the garden of a detached house. Let us then continue northwards. Beside this gate is a small group of buildings directly fronting the pavement. Then comes the King’s Head public house which at that time was set back from the street. The public house is followed by the gardens of two adjoining properties. From this point to Gloucester Road (now Cotswold Street), buildings are set well back from the High Street with the exception of two about mid way.

All these features are reproduced in the sketch. The viewpoint is towards the east of the High Street south of Windsor Road. On the right is the wall continued as the buildings on the corner of the High Street and Windsor Road. Across the street, on the left of the picture, is the garden gate with a small group of low buildings beside it. The furthest of these buildings from the viewer represents the King’s Head. A photograph of this public house is reproduced in J.B and H.A. Wilson’s ‘The Story of Norwood’ (London, 1973: rpt.1990 Ill.36 in which we clearly see a two-storey structure although it has a side attic window. The indications in the sketch of a small sign superimposed on a larger rectangular sign above the parapet are unmistakably shown in the photograph as a long rectangular advertising board with a smaller rectangular signboard above it. Further into the background of the sketch, on the same side, other buildings are indicated. Any space between them would be lost by foreshortening. But above these buildings rises the spire of St Luke’s seen on the left as it would be from a point in the High Street south of Windsor Road – a point which I estimate to be just opposite the present Rothschild Street.

This new identification throws a little more light on Pissarro’s work in London in general and on Norwood in particular.

My thanks to Mr. George Caton, Estates Manager, Charrington & Co. Ltd., for allowing me access to documents relating to the King’s Head.

Robert Mullally

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