Anyone who has sat waiting for the lights to change on Westow Hill, at the top of Crystal Palace Park, might have seen a little blue plaque on the wall of the last building on the left.
The spot, now home to Pedder estate agents, was once the refuge of Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, the godfather of probably the most influential movement in art history. The artist had arrived in Gipsy Hill, to live in a house overlooking the original Crystal Palace building, former home of the Great Exhibition, which was moved to the neighbouring Penge Place, now part of Crystal Palace Park, in 1852.
Pissarro was escaping the bloodshed of the 1870 Paris Commune, the revolutionary uprising in the French capital which followed Emperor Napolean III’s abdication after his defeat by Bismark in the Franco-Prussian War.
The Prussian advance had overtaken his home town of Louveciennes and many of his paintings were destroyed as well as a number by Claude Monet, ironically left there for safe-keeping.
Pissarro was the oldest of the movement’s artists and the only one to exhibit work in all of the Impressionist exhibitions in Paris from 1874-86. He lived in Westow Hill – the current building on the site dates from 1884 – for several months, and completed oil paintings, as well as several sketches and watercolours of the area.
The most famous was of the Crystal Palace and the Parade, and is usually housed in the Art Institute of Chicago.
Pissaro brought with him his mother’s former maid, Julie Vellay, with whom he would eventually have eight children. They had set up home in the 1860s but did not marry until June 1871, in Croydon Register Office.
The painter’s mother – by then a widow – was already living at 100 Rosendale Road in West Norwood, which had a substantial Jewish community, and his brother Alfred was at the bottom of Knight’s Hill, almost opposite the cemetery gates. There were no passports, visas or border controls in those days. The couple lived first at Canham’s Dairy on Westow Hill next to the White Swan, although the name of this pub house has changed recently.
In April 1871 he moved to 2 Chatham Terrace, Palace Road, off Anerley Hill – the houses were demolished to make way for an estate in 1977.
Pissarro’s name does not appear in the 1871 census for either address. His paintings from his “West Norwood Period” include ‘Sydenham Road,’ painted in Lawrie Park Avenue, with St Bartholomew’s Church in the background; and ‘Lordship Lane Station,’ on the now defunct line from the High Level station.
He also painted Dulwich College and St Stephen’s Church, South Dulwich, next to Sydenham Hill station. Both were then newly-built by the same architect, Charles Barry, who also designed the Houses of Parliament.
Pissarro also painted Beulah Hill and All Saints’ Church, Upper Norwood in the snow.
The painter said of his stay in “Lower” Norwood: “Monet worked in the parks, whilst I, living at Lower 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.”
He and Monet admired the English landscape painters Gainsborough, Constable and Turner. The contemporary British artists who interested them most were symbolist GF Watts and the Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Both Pissarro and Monet submitted some of their studies for the Royal Academy’s exhibition. “Naturally we were rejected,” he wrote.
In 1892 Pissarro visited London again to see his son Lucien, who had fallen in love with a student at the Crystal Palace School of Art called Esther Bensusan, whose family lived in Mowbray Road.
Esther’s father was reluctant, but the couple did marry later that year and the marriage lasted 50 years.
Camille Pissarro himself died in Paris in November 1903.
Art historian John Rewald called him the “dean of the Impressionist painters”, not only because he was the oldest of the group, but also “by virtue of his wisdom and his balanced, kind, and warmhearted personality”.
Cézanne said “he was a father for me. A man to consult and a little like the good Lord,” and he was also one of Gauguin’s masters.
Renoir referred to his work as “revolutionary”, through his artistic portrayals of the “common man”, as Pissarro insisted on painting individuals in natural settings without “artifice or grandeur”.
Tate Britain’s forthcoming show Impressionists in London, French Artists in Exile (1870-1904) explores in detail the residence of many French painters and sculptors in London, especially Monet and Pissarro.
Several London landscapes by Monet are included in the Tate’s show – and one interior with his wife Camille.
Both painters signed a letter, along with Alfred Sisley and Renoir to London’s Grosvenor Gallery in 1885, proclaiming their homage to Turner as “un grand maître de l’école Anglaise”.
Sisley had spent three years in London before he decided to become a painter, working in his family’s import-export business in the City.
In 1874 he returned to London and settled down to paint the Thames at Hampton Court and East Molesey.
The young Vincent van Gogh also spent probably the happiest months of his life in Stockwell from 1873-75 discovering work by British painters and writers that would profoundly shape his career.
He was transferred to art dealer Goupil’s London branch at Southampton Street, and took lodgings at 87 Hackford Road.
He was successful at work, and at 20 was earning more than his father. But he soon became angry at art being sold as a commodity and was dismissed in 1876. His work is not in the exhibition.
Other artists in the show include Alphonse Legros, who had come to London in 1863 with some reputation as a realist painter, portraitist and etcher.
He was often the first port of call for French exiles. Later he became an influential teacher at the Slade School of Fine Art.
James Tissot’s work is more familiar from greetings cards and paperback covers of classic novels. He had supported the Paris Commune, but was soon painting portraits of the English well-to-do. Critic John Ruskin dismissed his work as “coloured photographs of vulgar society”.
Renoir came to St James’s in May 1882, went to the museums, to the Derby at Epsom in terrible rain, visited friendly collectors and Whistler but failed to find models to paint.
André Derain, also in the show even though he is obviously a Fauvist, visited from 1906-07 and painted the Thames from the South Bank as red, then green or sparkling in gold below a pink sky.
The avant garde had moved on from trying to capture the natural, open air light of the day.
Impressionists in London, French Artists in Exile (1870–1904) is at Tate Britain until May.
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