What the impressionist painter Camille Pissarro saw in London

In the early 1870s, an émigré painter watched from a railway footbridge as a steam locomotive left a station on the outskirts of London. His name was Camille Pissarro and he was developing a style of plein air painting that would soon be called “Impressionism”.

Pissarro and another émigré, Claude Monet, remained in London for only a few months. In April 1874, they were among the painters who held the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris, the subject of a retrospective that will run until July 14 at the Musée d'Orsay and will open on September 8 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC

But London was one of their earliest muses. Monet painted the River Thames and the Palace of Westminster, among other central landmarks, while Pissarro captured suburban scenes where houses and railway tracks were replacing forests and farmland.

I have a special interest in Pissarro's painting of the train because it shows the neighborhood where my wife grew up, in a Victorian house rendered as a “stain” on the impressionist's canvas, as my father-in-law calls it.

The railway, closed in the 1950s, is now a nature trail where our children go in search of blackberries when visiting their grandparents.

On our last visit, I decided to find out what Pissarro saw in that train and what his early London paintings tell us about Britain’s Victorian past. I discovered that his brushstrokes captured a moment of dramatic urban transformation whose impacts on the shape of the city are still visible today.

My Pissarro project involved long winter walks, trips to museums, a ride on a vintage locomotive, and a bit of investigative journalism surrounding an arcane mystery. My primary guide was my father-in-law, a former “trainspotter” with a fervent interest in railroad history.

A 1990 history of my in-laws’ area describes the old railway as “lost.” But, like other places painted by Pissarro in south-east London, the site where the tracks once ran was not hard to find. I could see it through a bedroom window, just beyond the camellia and winter jasmine.

Pissarro, a Danish citizen fleeing a Paris suburb during the Franco-Prussian War, was used to being an outsider. He was born on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas to French-Jewish parents and moved to Paris in 1855 after years in Caracas.

But he was not completely isolated when he arrived in London with his partner, Julie Vellay, and their two young children in December 1870. They stayed with relatives in the south-eastern suburb of Norwood, and he socialized with Monet and other émigré artists in a café central run by a French wine merchant.

Pissarro, 40, was frustrated by his lack of commercial success and his family was homesick. Vellay described the English language as a “succession of curious noises.”

London wasn't so bad for them, though. It is there that Pissarro and Vellay got married; where he met Paul Durand-Ruel, an art dealer who would sell his works for decades; and where he painted several canvases in his formative impressionist style.

“Monet and I were very enthusiastic about the landscapes of London,” he later wrote. “Monet worked in the parks, while I, living in Lower Norwood, then a lovely suburb, studied the effects of fog, snow and spring.”

Pissarro lived near the Crystal Palace, a glass-domed exhibition space that embodied Victorian Britain's sense of modernity and had been moved from Hyde Park to south-east London in the 1850s. But the painter, who worked outdoors in wooden clogs, was more interested in the suburban scenes unfolding around the corner.

One of Pissarro's early London paintings, “Fox Hill, Upper Norwood,” shows figures walking down a snow-covered residential street. When my father-in-law, Alec, drove me there one stormy December morning, we noticed that many of the same houses were still there.

The winter sky was the same dappled gray that Pissarro loved to paint (and that my long-time expat wife Cat loves to hate). I was struck by the way his silent canvas still captured the area’s rolling hills and refracted the sunlight.

Then we noticed two people wandering down the street holding a print of the same painting. What were the odds? It turned out that they were also Pissarro groupies, searching the present for clues about the past.

“It’s just like time travel,” one of them, Libby Watson, told me. “It’s the closest you can get, isn’t it? — looking at old buildings and imagining yourself there.”

When Pissarro arrived in London, the city was still expanding alongside the new railways. The railway line he painted in 1871 had opened in 1865 to serve new suburban commuters, as well as tourists traveling to the Crystal Palace from Victoria Station, near Buckingham Palace.

In 1866 or 1867, my in-laws' house was built next to the line on a road that had been a footpath through fields near the village of Dulwich, the name of which was derived from an Old English term for “the meadow where the dill grows “. The street was in Forest Hill, a fairly new suburb which, like Norwood, took its name from the Great North Wood, an ancient forest that was largely cleared as London surged south in the 19th century.

Not everyone liked the pace of change. The Victorian art critic and social philosopher John Ruskin, who lived in the Dulwich area, complained that fields near his home had been dug up to create building sites or cut up by the “wild crossings and connections” of the railways.

“No linguistic term known to me is sufficient to describe the forms of filth and the modes of ruin,” wrote Ruskin, who left London in 1872 for the English Lake District.

London's expansion in the 19th century was not well organised, but “haphazardly”, as my father-in-law says, and fueled by railway rivalries. The line painted by Pissarro was operated by a company that competed for passengers with a neighbor. Both were run by “belligerent characters” who built useless tracks for the sake of competing, according to railway historian Christian Wolmar.

The competition “resulted in a complex and underinvested network that still causes commuter inconvenience today,” Wolmar wrote in “Fire and Steam,” his 2007 history of Britain's railways. And as any south-easterner will tell you of London, rail service in the area remains notoriously inconsistent.

But for a visiting 19th-century Impressionist, it must have been fascinating to watch a giant city devour the countryside in real time.

Pissarro’s 1871 railway painting, “Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich,” shows a black engine belching smoke as it approaches the viewer on tracks that run through empty fields. A railway signal—a metal or wooden device whose positioning indicated whether an engineer should stop or start—hovers horizontally overhead.

Today the scene is almost unrecognisable. The railway line closed in 1954, some 18 years after the Crystal Palace fire. Lordship Lane station was later demolished and a local bus route was extended to cover the former railway route.

The houses now stand on what was once open land, and the railway bridge painted by Pissarro is in a nature reserve (and is temporarily closed for renovations).

The strip of land where the tracks that passed my in-laws' house once ran has been transformed into a nature trail.

As for the canvas, it is now exhibited in the Courtauld Gallery in central London. When we visited in December, I was so busy trying to keep our children from destroying priceless works of art that I didn't have much opportunity to study it.

But we got a glimpse of Britain’s railway heritage at other points on our trip. One day we took our locomotive-obsessed boys on a steam train ride along the Bluebell Railway, a heritage line outside London. Those tracks were once owned by a railway company that financed the relocation of the Crystal Palace to southeast London after the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The children also played on trains at the London Transport Museum, where an exhibit informed us that the “unstructured” growth of the 19th century had transformed the city.

“Lordship Lane” highlights the drama of that transition, because Pissarro's train tracks divide a still-rural plot of land from a newly suburbanized one, Karen Serres, senior curator of paintings at the Courtauld, told me when I called her for a chat.

And unlike many of Pissarro's other works, “Lordship Lane” does not show people. When staff at the Courtauld X-rayed the canvas in 2007, they discovered that a human figure had been painted in one corner of an early version, and then repainted.

The train, then, is the main subject. And you can't avoid it because it's coming right at you.

“Lordship Lane” is often compared to “Rain, Steam and Speed,” an 1844 landscape painting by J. M. W. Turner. Pissarro and other French Impressionists openly admired English artists, whose works they saw in London museums. Art historians have long debated the extent to which the Impressionists were influenced by British painters.

I don't have a strong opinion on the matter. But in London I was very interested in resolving another, even more arcane, historical debate.

Specifically, I was told that “Lordship Lane” is the painting about which the Courtauld receives the most complaints. Among other things, critics apparently argue that Pissarro’s Victorian train signal should have been vertical for “go,” not horizontal for “stop.”

Dr. Serres told me that what I had heard was correct. Over the years, she had changed the museum's description of the painting after railway enthusiasts pointed out errors, including the original title of “Penge Station, Upper Norwood”.

But he had never known what to make of suggestions that the signal should be vertical for “go” because the train appeared to be stopped at the station. His impression was that the train was “slightly beyond” the platform and had already received the signal to proceed. On the other hand, other details in the painting, including the station and the train's smoke, did not seem particularly accurate.

“It’s very hard to know how completely accurate these things are, and that really wasn’t the point,” he said. “It was to create a beautiful composition.”

My father-in-law said he tended to think the signal was correct because the train appeared to have already passed the station. But he wasn't entirely sure.

So I called Mr. Wolmar, the author of “Fire and Steam,” who later emailed me to say he agreed.

“The train has now passed the signal, so it will have returned to its default position, which is horizontal,” he wrote.

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