The Norwood Society


It is remarkable that the two famous Frenchmen who lived for some months in Norwood in the second half of the nineteenth century have both left wonderful visual records of the area as it was then. The novelist Emile Zola, whose ‘naturalistic’ style of writing left no details of real life, however sordid, unrecorded, was also a gifted amateur photographer and, in a unique series of photographs taken during his stay at the Queen’s Hotel in 1898/9 when he had escaped from France in order to avoid a sentence of imprisonment for his outspoken defence of Captain Dreyfus in a newspaper article, left a valuable legacy for modern residents of Norwood to enjoy. The Impressionist painter, Camille Pissarro, stayed in Norwood from the end of 1870 until the middle of 1871 in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War and produced thirteen oil paintings, as well as several sketches and watercolours, of the area.

Pissarro’s importance as a painter of Norwood was brought home to me most vividly on Christmas Day 1976 when my brother arrived carrying his present for my wife and myself; a copy he had done in acrylics (from an illustration he had seen in a magazine) of Pissarro’s famous painting of the Crystal Palace and the Parade. We were delighted with this unusual and unexpected present and our copy of Pissarro’s painting (exactly the same size as the original in the Art Institute of Chicago) has had pride of place in our living room ever since.

Camille Pissarro, the oldest of the Impressionists, was born in 1830 in a town with the charming name of Charlotte Amalie, the capital of the island of St.Thomas in what was then the Danish West Indies. His father and mother were both Jews, his father’s family having fled from Portugal to Bordeaux in the eighteenth century. His father was a prosperous trader in this Danish colony. Its favourable geographical position on the northern Caribbean perimeter and the enlightened policy of the Danish authorities attracted a cosmopolitan community, and the young Pissarro grew up speaking French, Spanish and English. At the age of eleven he was sent to a boarding school in Paris where the headmaster fostered his artistic talents. He returned to St.Thomas at sixteen as a clerk in his father’s business, but meeting a Danish artist, he travelled with him to Venezuela for two years and this experience convinced him that his vocation was to be an artist. In 1855 he persuaded his father to allow him to return to Paris to pursue a career as a painter. Here he was influenced by Corot and then met his younger contemporaries, Monet and Sisley. In the 1860s he moved out of Paris, first to Pontoise and then to Louveciennes, which is to the west of the city. In 1860 he set up home with a young woman called Julie Vellay, by whom he was eventually to have eight children. Marriage was out of the question. Firstly, Julie was not Jewish, but more importantly, she was of a much lower social class, having been his mother’s maid. Camille and Julie did at last marry, however, in the Croydon Register Office in June 1871!

In the summer of 1870 disaster struck France when the Emperor Napoleon III, tricked by the Prussian Chancellor Bismarck, rashly declared war. As in 1940, France was brought to its knees in a matter of weeks. Zola was later to narrate the story of this disastrous war in his novel, La Débâcle. Paris was besieged by the Prussians and Pissarro’s studio at Louveciennes was pillaged. Only forty of his fifteen hundred paintings were saved. Pissarro fled, first to Brittany, and then, in December 1870, to London. It was natural for him to settle in Norwood because his mother (now a widow) was living at 100 Rosendale Road in West Norwood and his brother Alfred at the bottom of Knight’s Hill, almost opposite the cemetery gates, there being a sizeable Jewish community in West Norwood. He lived first at Canham’s Dairy on Westow Hill next to the White Swan, although the name of this venerable public house has changed fairly recently. The present building on the site, which for many years housed a branch of the Natwest Bank, was erected in 1884. A blue plaque commemorates Pissarro’s residence there. In April 1871 he moved to 2 Chatham Terrace, Palace Road, off Anerley Hill. The houses in Palace Road were demolished in 1977 to make way for a new housing estate. Perhaps a little surprisingly, Pissarro’s name does not appear in the census (taken in April 1871) for either address.

Some of Pissarro’s pictures of Norwood and neighbouring localities are in major British galleries. His famous painting of Fox Hill (I am sure many readers of the ‘Norwood Review’ will have a reproduction of it) is in the National Gallery, as is his ‘Sydenham Road’ (Lawrie Park Avenue with St.Bartholomew’s Church in the background), while ‘Lordship Lane Station’ (on the now defunct line from the High Level station), which was for a long time thought to be of Penge station, is in the Courtald Institute Galleries. But his paintings of Dulwich College and St Stephen’s Church, South Dulwich (next to Sydenham Hill station), then both newly-built by the same architect, Charles Barry, as well as a most delightful one of Beulah Hill and All Saints’ Church, Upper Norwood in the snow, are all in private collections.

In a later letter to an English friend, Pissarro recalled his stay in Norwood: ‘Monet worked in the parks, whilst I, living at Lower [sic] Norwood, at that time a charming suburb, studied the effects of fog, snow, and springtime: We worked from Nature, and later on Monet painted in London some superb studies of mist’.The letter goes on to say how much he and Monet admired the English landscape painters, Gainsborough, Constable and Turner. The contemporary British artists who interested them most were Watts and Rossetti. While both of these latter artists have enjoyed a revival of their reputations in recent years, neither have the world-wide fame of the French Impressionists. Pissarro concludes his letter by mentioning that he and Monet submitted some of their studies for the Royal Academy’s exhibition. ‘Naturally we were rejected’, he wrote.

Pissarro returned to France in the summer of 1871, soon after his wedding. Although he, Monet, Sisley and others were well-established painters, the name ‘Impressionists’ had not yet been invented. The name was, in fact, coined as a jibe by a journalist called Leroy who did not like these rather ‘unfinished’-looking paintings. There were eight Impressionist exhibitions in all, held in Paris between 1874 and 1886. Pissarro was the only artist to exhibit at all of them. In 1883 he visited Rouen and then moved from the Paris region to Normandy. He was influenced for a while by the Neo-Impressionist school of Seurat and Signac and for some time his paintings reflected their ‘pointilliste’ style. In his later years he moved back to Paris and some of his finest paintings of the 1890s are of the city’s famous boulevards, then relatively new, having been constructed by Baron Haussmann under Napoleon III. In 1894 he was forced to flee to Knokke in Belgium for a while. His Jewishness (although he was a free-thinker) and his sympathy with anarchists did not go down well with the ascendant right-wing Catholic nationalists, who were also responsible for sending Dreyfus to Devil’s Island and (indirectly) for Zola’s later sojourn in Norwood.

In 1892 Pissarro visited London again to see his son Lucien. Lucien had fallen in love with a student at the Crystal Palace School of Art called Esther Bensusan, whose family lived in Mowbray Road. Camille tried unsuccessfully to promote his son’s suit with Esther’s reluctant father, although the couple did marry later that year and the marriage was a happy one, lasting fifty years. Lucien, a painter like his father, settled in England and became a member of the ‘Camden Town’ school of painters led by Walter Sickert. As a critic, he did much to promote understanding of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists in England. He died in 1944. Camille Pissarro himself died in Paris in November 1903. He was buried in the famous cemetery of Père Lachaise, the ‘West Norwood’ of Paris!

Much of the information in this article I have gleaned from a delightful little illustrated book by Nicholas Reed, a former Editor of the ‘Norwood Review’, called ‘Camille Pissarro and the Crystal Palace’, published in 1987 and in a revised edition in 1993. Readers wishing to know more about Pissarro and wanting to follow his trail in Norwood are recommended to read this book. Sadly, it is now out of print.

(This is a revised and shortened version of a talk given by Richard Lines to members of the Norwood Society on 22nd June 2004.)

(Copies of ‘Emile Zola: Photographer in Norwood, South London 1898-1899’, published by the Norwood Society in 1997, may be obtained from the Society’s Secretary, Anna Lines, 38 South Vale, Upper Norwood, London SE19 3BA, tel. 020 8653 8768, price £7.95, postage extra at cost.)

The Norwood Review Edition #15.