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Time Travel Through London with an Impressionist Painter

In the early 1870s, an émigré painter watched from a railway bridge as a steam engine left a station on the edge of suburban London. His name was Camille Pissarro, and he developed a style of outdoor painting that would soon be called “Impressionism.”

Pissarro and a fellow émigré, Claude Monet, stayed 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 runs until July 14 at the Musée d’Orsay and opens on September 8 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

But London was one of their early 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 replaced woodland and farmland.

I have a particular interest in Pissarro’s train painting because it shows the neighborhood where my wife grew up – in a Victorian house depicted as a “blot” on the Impressionist’s canvas, as my father-in-law says.

The track, which was closed in the 1950s, is now a nature trail where our children pick blackberries when they visit their 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 Britain’s Victorian past. I learned that his brushstrokes captured a moment of dramatic urban transformation whose impact on the layout of the city is still visible today.

My Pissarro project involved long winter walks, trips to museums, a ride on a vintage locomotive and a touch of investigative journalism around a mysterious mystery. My main guide was my father-in-law, a former ‘trainspotter’ with a huge interest in railway history.

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

Pissarro, a Danish citizen who fled from 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 Jewish parents of French descent and moved to Paris in 1855 after a few years in Caracas.

But he was not completely isolated when he arrived in London in December 1870 with his partner, Julie Vellay, and their two young children. They stayed with relatives in the southeastern suburb of Norwood, and he mixed with Monet and other émigré artists in a central café 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 sounds.”

London wasn’t all bad for them, though. It’s where Pissarro and Vellay were married; where he met Paul Durand-Ruel, an art dealer who would sell his work 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 charming suburb, studied the effects of mist, snow and spring.”

Pissarro lived near the Crystal Palace, a glass-domed exhibition space that epitomized Victorian-era modern British style and had moved from Hyde Park to southeast London in the 1850s. But the painter, who worked outdoors in clogs, was more interested in suburban scenes just around the corner.

One of Pissarro’s early London paintings: ‘Fox Hill, Upper Norwoodshows figures walking along a snow-covered residential street. When my father-in-law, Alec, drove me there on a windy December morning, we noticed that many of the same houses were still standing.

The winter sky was the same mottled gray that Pissarro loved to paint (and that Cat, my long-time emigrated wife, hates so much). I was amazed at how well his muted canvas still captured the rolling hills and reflected sunlight of the area.

Then we saw two people walking down the street with a print of the same painting. What were the chances of that? They also turned out to be Pissarro groupies, searching the present for clues to the past.

“It’s like time travel,” one of them, Libby Watson, told me. “It’s about the closest you can get — right? — to looking at the old buildings and imagining you were there.”

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

In 1866 or 1867 my parents-in-law’s house was built along the line, on a street that used to be a footpath through fields near the village of Dulwich, the name of which is derived from an Old English term for ‘the meadow where dill grows’. The street was in Forest Hill, a fairly new suburb that, like Norwood, took its name from the Great North Forestan ancient forest that was largely cleared as London moved south in the 19th century.

Not everyone liked the pace of change. Victorian art critic and social philosopher John Ruskin, who lived near Dulwich, complained that fields near his home had been cleared for building purposes or cut off by the ‘wild crossings and concurrencies’ of railways.

“No existing term of language known to me is adequate to describe the forms of filth and forms of ruin,” wrote Ruskin, who left London in 1872 for England’s Lake District.

London’s 19th-century expansion was not well-organized, but “jerky,” as my father-in-law says, and fueled by railway rivalry. The line Pissarro painted was run by a company that was fighting for passengers with a neighboring company. Both were run by “warlike characters” who built unnecessary tracks to compete, according to railway historian Christian Wolmar.

The competition “resulted in a complex and underinvested network that continues to cause problems for commuters today,” Mr Wolmar wrote in “Fire and Steam,” his 2007 history of Britain’s railways. And as any south-east Londoner will tell you, train service in the area remains notoriously patchy.

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

Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich,” Pissarro’s 1871 train painting, depicts a black locomotive belching smoke as it approaches the viewer on tracks running through empty fields. A railroad signal — a metal or wooden device whose placement indicated whether an operator should stop or proceed — floats overhead in a horizontal position.

Today the scene is almost unrecognizable. The railway was closed in 1954, almost 18 years after the Crystal Palace burned downLordship Lane Station was later demolished and a local bus route was extended onto the former railway line.

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

The piece of land where tracks once ran past my in-laws’ house has turned into a nature path.

As for the canvas, it now hangs in the Courtauld Gallery in central London. When we visited in December, I was so busy trying to keep our toddlers from destroying precious artwork that I didn’t get much chance to study it.

But we did get a taste of Britain’s railway heritage at other points of our journey. One day we took our locomotive-obsessed boys on a steam train ride along the Bluebell Railroad, a heritage line outside London. Those tracks were once owned by a railway company which subsequently financed the Crystal Palace’s move to South East London the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The children also played on the trains at the London Transport Museum, where an exhibition told us that ‘unstructured’ 19th century growth had transformed the city.

“Lordship Lane” underscores the drama of that transition because Pissarro’s railroad tracks separate a still-rural stretch of land from a recently suburbanized one, Karen Serres, the Courtauld’s chief curator of paintings, told me when I called for an interview.

And unlike many of Pissarro’s other works, Lordship Lane does not feature people. When Courtauld’s staff x-rayed the canvas in 2007, they discovered that a human figure had been painted into a corner of an early version, then painted over.

So the train is the main subject. And you can’t avoid it, because it’s coming straight at you.

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

I don’t have a strong opinion about that. But in London I was very interested in settling another, even more obscure, historical debate.

I am told specifically that ‘Lordship Lane’ is the painting about which the Courtauld receives the most complaints. Critics claim, among other things, that Pissarro’s Victorian railway signal should have been vertical for ‘go’, not horizontal for ‘stop’.

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

But she had never known what to make of the suggestions that the signal should be vertical for ‘go’, because the train appears to be standing still at the station. Her own impression was that the train was ‘just past’ the platform and had already been given the signal to proceed. On the other hand, other details in the painting, including the station and the train smoke, did not seem particularly accurate.

“It’s very difficult to know how complete these things are, and indeed that wasn’t his point,” she said. “It was to make a beautiful composition.”

My father-in-law said he was inclined to think the signal was correct because the train seemed to have already passed the station. But he wasn’t quite sure.

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

“The train is long past the signal, so it will have returned to its default setting, which is horizontal,” he wrote.

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