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Travel through London with the Impressionists


In the early 1870s, an exiled painter watched from a railway footbridge as a steam locomotive left a station in suburban London. His name was Camille Pissarro, and he was developing a style of open-air painting that would soon become known as Impressionism.

Pissarro and another exile, Claude Monet, spent only a few months in London. By April 1874, they were among the painters who staged the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris, which was themed The retrospective will run until July 14 at the Musee d’Orsay and opens on September 8 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

But London was one of their early inspirations. Monet painted city-centre landmarks such as the Thames and the Palace of Westminster, while Pissarro depicted suburban scenes where houses and railway tracks replaced forests and farmland.

I was particularly interested in Pissarro’s train painting because it depicts the neighborhood where my wife grew up—a neighborhood of Victorian houses that, as my father-in-law put it, were rendered as “smudges” on the canvases of the Impressionists.

The railway closed in the 1950s and is now a nature trail that we children would follow to pick blackberries when visiting our grandparents.

On our last visit, I decided to find out what Pissarro saw on that train and what his early paintings of London tell us about Victorian Britain. I learned that his brushstrokes captured moments of dramatic urban change, whose impact on the city’s layout is still visible today.

My Pissarro project involves long winter walks, museum visits, vintage locomotive rides, and investigative reporting around mysterious events. My main guide is my father-in-law, who wasTrain enthusiast”Has a keen interest in railway history.

In 1990, a history book near my parents-in-law’s home described the old railway as “vanished”. But like other sites Pissarro painted in southeast London, the site of the former tracks is not hard to find. I see it from my bedroom window, behind the camellias and jasmines.

A Danish citizen who had fled the Paris suburbs during the Franco-Prussian War, Pissarro was accustomed to being an outsider. Born on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas to French-Jewish parents, he moved to Paris in 1855 after living in Caracas for several years.

But he did not completely isolate himself when he arrived in London with his partner Julie Vellay and their two children in December 1870. They stayed with relatives in the southeast suburb of Norwood, while he socialized with Monet and other exiled artists in a city-centre café run by a French wine merchant.

At the age of 40, Pissarro was frustrated by his lack of commercial success, and his family was homesick.Villet described the English language as “a strange succession of sounds”.

London wasn’t all bad for them, though. It was here that Pissarro and Villet were married; it was here that he met the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who sold Pissarro’s work for decades; and it was here that he created several paintings in his early Impressionist style.

“Monet and I were both greatly interested in the London landscape,” he later wrote. “Monet worked in the parks, while I lived in the then charming suburb of Lower Norwood, studying the effects of fog, snow, and spring.”

Pissarro lived near the Crystal Palace, a glass-domed exhibition space that epitomized Victorian modernity and relocated from Hyde Park to southeast London in the 1850s. But the clogged painter, who worked outdoors, was more interested in the suburban scenes that unfolded on street corners.

One of Pissarro’s early London paintings,Foxhill, Upper Norwood” The figures in the painting walk down a snowy residential street. When my father-in-law, Alec, drove me there on a blustery December morning, we noticed that many of the original homes were still there.

The winter sky was the same mottled gray that Pissarro loved to paint (and that my longtime expat wife Kate hated with a passion), and I was surprised to see how well his muted canvas still captured the region’s rolling hills and refracted sunlight.

Then we noticed two people wandering the street holding prints of the same painting. What are the odds? They were also followers of Pissarro, looking for clues to the past in the present.

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

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

In 1866 or 1867, my parents-in-law’s house was built next to a street that had once been a footpath through fields near the village of Dulwich, which got its name from the Old English word for “meadow where dill grows.” The street was in Forest Hill, a newer suburb that, like Norwood, was named after the Great North ForestThis is an ancient forest, much of which was cut down as London moved south in the 19th century.

Not everyone liked this pace of change. Victorian art critics and social philosophers John RuskinLiving in the Dulwich area, complain Fields near his home were dug up for building sites or cut down due to the “mad crossing and concurrence” of the railroad.

Ruskin, who left London for England’s Lake District in 1872, wrote: “No term of existing language, which I know of, is adequate to describe the form of filth and the manner of destruction.”

London’s 19th-century expansion was not orderly but “disorganized,” as my father-in-law put it, and driven by railroad competition. The line Pissarro painted was run by one company that competed for passengers with a neighboring company. According to rail historian Christian Walmer, both operators were “militant” and built unnecessary tracks in order to compete.

Competition “led to a complex and underinvested rail network that continues to frustrate commuters today,” Mr. Walmer wrote in Fire and Steam, his 2007 history of British railroads. Any southeast Londoner will tell you that the region’s train service remains notoriously unreliable.

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

Dulwich Lord Lane Station” Pissarro’s 1871 painting of a train depicts a black train puffing smoke as it moves toward the viewer on a track in an empty field. A railroad signal (a metal or wooden device whose placement indicates to the train driver whether he should stop or go) hovers horizontally overhead.

Today, the scene is almost unrecognisable. The line closed in 1954, nearly 18 years ago. Crystal Palace burns down. Lordship Lane station was later demolished and local bus routes extended to the original railway line.

Today, the house stands on what was once a vacant lot, while the railway bridge from Pissarro’s painting is located on Nature Reserve (Temporarily closed for renovation).

The land near my parents-in-law’s house where the railroad tracks once passed through has now become Nature Trails.

As for the painting, it now hangs in the Courtauld Gallery in central London. When we visited in December, I was busy trying to stop the kids from destroying such precious artworks, so I didn’t have much chance to study it.

But we also discovered the charm of British railways elsewhere on our trip. One day, we took our train-obsessed children on a steam train along the Bluebell Railwaya heritage line outside London. The tracks were once owned by a railway company which funded the relocation of the Crystal Palace to southeast London after it was demolished. The Great Exhibition of 1851.

The children also played with trains at the London Transport Museum, where an exhibition showed how “unstructured” development in the 19th century had transformed the city.

When I called to chat with Karen Serres, senior curator at the Courtauld Museum of Fine Arts, she told me that “Lord’s Lane” highlights the drama of this transformation, as Pissarro’s train tracks separate a still-rural stretch of land from one that has become newly suburbanized.

Unlike many of Pissarro’s other works, Manor Lane does not feature any figures. In 2007, an X-ray of the canvas by the Courtauld Museum revealed a figure that had been painted in the corner of an earlier version and then repainted.

The train, then, is the main subject. You cannot avoid it because it is coming towards you.

“Lord’s Lane” has often been compared to the 1844 landscape “Rain, Steam and Speed”. John William TurnerPissarro and other French Impressionists openly admired British artists, whose work they saw in London museums. Art historians have long debated the extent to which the Impressionists were influenced by British painters.

I have no strong opinion on that. But in London I was very interested in resolving another, more arcane, historical dispute.

Specifically, I was told that Lords Lane was the painting that received the most complaints at the Courtauld Institute. Among other things, critics seemed to think that Pissarro’s Victorian train signals should be vertical, meaning “go,” rather than horizontal, meaning “stop.”

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

But she never knew what to make of the suggestion that the “go” signal should be vertical, as the train appeared to be idling at the station. Her own impression was that the train had “slightly overshot” the platform and had received the go signal. However, other details in the painting, including the station and train smoke, do not seem particularly accurate.

“It’s hard to know how accurate these things are, and that wasn’t really his intention,” she said. “His intention was to create a beautiful piece of work.”

My father-in-law said he was inclined to think the signal was correct, as the train appeared to have passed the station. But he wasn’t entirely sure.

So I called Mr. Walmart, the author of Fire and Steam, and he later emailed me to say he agreed.

“The train has already passed the signal well enough so it will revert to its default position, which is level travel,” he wrote.

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