Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. WA1951.225.4 Camille Pissarro, Bath Road, London
The Society’s Annual Betjeman Lecture: The Pissarros in Bedford Park, 1897 – 1944 took place on Wednesday 13 June and was a sell-out.
Held in the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation Theatre at the Arts Educational Schools in Bath Road, W4 , the lecturer was Colin Harrison, Senior Curator of European Art in the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford.
Summary of the talk
The artist Lucien Pissarro (1864-1944), the eldest son of the Impressionist painter, Camille Pissarro, moved from France to London in 1890, living first in Epping, but moving then to the area of Bedford Park in 1892, the same year of his marriage to Esther Bensousan. They would remain in Bedford Park until their deaths over half a century later.
The move to Chiswick reflected Lucien’s artistic interests and activities. The artist Charles Ricketts told Lucien that ‘The elect of the art world’ were living in Bedford Park. The move was particularly significant for Lucien’s growing interest in the production of fine books, as several important presses were active locally. Morris established his Kelmscott Press in Hammersmith in 1891. Lucien and Morris had a strong bond, Lucien translating a number of Morris’ texts into French. Their views on artistic practice were similar and they shared radical – if somewhat different – political views. Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon established the Vale Press in Chelsea in 1895 and this much larger and better financed business became an important ally for Lucien’s Eragny Press, distributing most of the books that the press would produce.
In 1897 Lucien had a stroke, an event which had important consequences for his career. He would have difficulty in painting in the following years and would turn increasingly to the production of fine books. In 1897 Camille found the 500 francs which would enable Lucien to buy a demi-sized Albion printing press ,which was installed in the studio, initially at 62 Bath Road and then at Stamford Brook house to which they moved in 1901.
The Eragny Press
Over the following years, Lucien, together with Esther who participated fully in all aspects of the work of Eragny Press, would dedicate themselves to the production of books. Small, fitting perfectly in the hand and extremely beautiful they were –as Lucien intended – complete works of art. The editions were small, typically around 250. Lucien, together with Esther, did everything except for the binding. They designed, set and printed the books in their studio. As they made little money from this activity, Camille continued to provide them with finance until his death in 1903. They principally published children’s stories, fables, and poetry in both English and French.
Another consequence of Lucien’s 1897 stroke was that his father Camille would spend several weeks at the house in Bath Road and during thistime he painted several works ,which would provide an important visual record of early Bedford Park. A photograph of Camille at 62 Bath road shows him working on one of seven paintings that he produced at the time – several of them looking east across Stamford Brook Common. This includes what must be the only painting of a cricket match by a leading French Impressionist artist. He also made the small sketch of Bath Road, evoking early Bedford Park with its newly planted trees including Lucien’s and Esther’s daughter – with probably her nursemaid – in the garden.
Move to the Brook
In 1902 Lucien and Esther rented ‘The Brook’, which they bought in 1919. The house, originally built in around 1760, was in an extremely dilapidated state when they took up residence. Lucien and Esther devoted great energy to what Tyrone Guthrie would described 40 years later as ‘The prettiest house in London’ – a comment made to Alec Guinness who was lodging there during the war. When they moved to the house it was still largely surrounded by market gardens – but gradually the area around would become developed –leaving the house as something of an oasis.
A visitor, Dr Jean-Francois van Royen, a Dutch amateur printer, wrote an evocative description of the place and its inhabitants after a visit in 1914:
‘…low, small with four deep windows in which are all kinds of flowers. On the walls are paintings by Camille Pissarro, Lucien Pissarro and others. The dining room is even smaller. When you sit down there is no room left. On the walls old Japanese woodcuts, engravings by Durer, Ricketts and Pissarro. Above the fire-place are shelves of well-read books – apparently quite extraordinary books to judge by the titles.… Madam is very sweet, yet very cultured. Pissarro, hidden behind his beard and thick eyebrows sat there enjoying everything so heartily and yet so quietly. He is an extremely sympathetic man. Refined, yet very clever. Everything he says is well-considered and exact and yet at the same time so simple and modest’
With the outbreak of World War I, Lucien close dthe press as materials had become unobtainable. He would not return to printing books, working from that time mainly as an artist. Lucien as a painter had an important role in bringing the practice of Impressionism to Britain, and would be a leading member of a succession of groups, firstly the New English Art Club, and then of the Camden Town Group, and a friend in particular of both Sickert and Robert Bevan.
Lucien Pisarro died in 1944 and Esther in 1950. ‘The Brook’ was inherited by members of the Pisarro family who lived there until very recently.