Clare Wadd goes in pursuit of a south London scene, 146 years after it was captured by the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro.
In the National Gallery one grey Saturday afternoon, I find myself drawn to quite a small, unassuming painting. A winter’s scene. I’ve not been aware of it before and I don’t know who it’s by or where it’s of. I look more closely. It’s a steep hill, with snow on the road, and which kinks to the left, houses on both sides, a large tree on the right, and three figures in the foreground, small and barely noticeable at first glance. Almost half of the picture is sky, pale blue and cloudy, mixing with the smoke from one of the chimneys. Camille Pissarro. ‘Fox Hill, Upper Norwood’. Which seems odd, because why would Pissarro be painting the south London suburbs? I buy the postcard, stick it on the fridge, and glance at it now and then.
In 2013, I spent a strange few months working in Crystal Palace. I took lunchbreaks in Westow Park, in the garden centre, and poking round the quirky shops on the triangle. I strolled round the area, which I’d barely known previously, enjoying the view down Gipsy Hill every evening as I headed back to the station and home. I joined – and then led – evening strolls on the Capital Ring for the Metropolitan Walkers walking group, one in each direction, ending in pubs at Streatham Common and Beckenham Junction. And in the May, I walked the 15 miles to work from Kingston through a glowing misty dawn Richmond Park, and then Wimbledon Common, Tooting and Streatham, setting off at 5.30 and arriving at 10.30, and planning to make up the time, but finding myself exhausted.
I had no idea where Fox Hill was. I looked it up on the map and thought I might, perhaps, have wandered up it while exploring. And then again, I might not. So, finally, armed with my postcard of the painting and an A-Z on my phone, I went to see if I could match Pissarro’s picture from 1870 with the street of 2016.
It’s only a few minutes’ walk from Crystal Palace station, and has a little square of green at the bottom, with trees and a path across it, forming what might be a roundabout on a less backwater street. And it’s steep – really steep, steeper than it looks in the painting – but then it levels off, so that the road in the distance is hidden, instead of the gradual incline Pissarro painted. I try and match real-life leafy summer trees to painted winter branches. I try and match tall chimneys and open spaces that are still open with the many more from 150 years ago. I take photos to study alongside my postcard – maybe here on this bend, could those chimneys be, maybe…or here, where the road steepens?
But ultimately it’s frustratingly hard to tell. The National Gallery website tells me that ‘the general character of this view and the distinctive bend still correspond with Pissarro’s painting’ and whilst the former is true, I’m not so sure about the latter. Should I try again in winter? Maybe I should go to The Avenue in Sydenham, described as barely changed since he painted it, instead?
So I walk on, huffing and puffing to the top, then drop down through a gloriously overgrown Westow Park, though the Saturday market and then up again on Haynes Lane, then back down to Crystal Palace, and into the park. If this was a led walk I’d be calling it “strenuous”.
Clare Wadd has lived in London for 20 years, where she is an active rambler, and a regular contributor to South East Walker magazine. Prior to moving to London, from 1987-1995, she co-ran Sarah Records, recently the subject of a book and an award-winning film. She was also a contributor to Matt Haynes and Jude Rogers’ Smoke magazine.