Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament Sunlight Effect (Le Parlement effet de soleil), 1903
Tate Britain's new exhibition, Impressionists in London, has been criticised as misleading, including non-Impressionist French artists who were working in England at the same time. Jonathan Jones called it 'a desiccated seminar in third-rate history', 'the worst show about the impressionists I have ever seen.' Suitably forewarned, I nonetheless came away from this show feeling it was well worth a visit. There are four whole rooms devoted to impressionist landscape paintings of London and its suburbs, including Monet's marvellous Thames Series. And Londoners at least will find the scenes painted by Tissot and 'the mediocrities Alphonse Legros and Jules Dalou' of at least passing interest for what they show of the city and its history. Jones concludes his review grudgingly admitting it is worth buying a ticket, if only to see the 'artist who does shine through this pea souper', Camille Pissarro. Whilst it seems perverse not to consider the Monets the highlight of the show (Leicester Square at Night is astonishing), the works of Pissarro on display are indeed fascinating. Here I'll focus briefly on one of them, Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich.
Camille Pissarro, Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich, 1871
I discussed Pissarro here only recently, referring to his early landscape paintings in the Dutch West Indies and Venezuela. Perhaps it's the name, but Dulwich sounds a lot less exotic. It is very familiar to me from all the train trips I've made down to the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Pissarro also painted views nearby, around Norwood and Sydenham, south London suburbs that had only recently been Surrey villages. Many of these locations have barely changed since - the huge wave of late nineteenth century housebuilding left London with the streets we live in today. My own home, where I'm writing this, is part of a terrace built in 1871-3, so would have been under construction when Pissarro was in England. There are still train stations in Dulwich but not this one: Lordship Lane Station closed in 1954 (it had been heavily damaged in the Blitz). In this painting it is only six years old and the railway looks freshly cut into green countryside. The train heads towards us like the black engine in Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844), its smoke polluting the pale sky. But it looks rather insignificant and unthreatening, as if what had seemed extraordinary to Turner was now merely commonplace.
A few years ago Michael Glover wrote an article in The Independent's 'Great Works' series devoted to this painting. Here is how he sums up the appeal of this modest but moving landscape.
'The painting itself is rooted in its own sense of its ordinariness. No part of it is more important than any other part. It is a masterful act of casual deployment of unmatched skills. It is also a beautifully muted painting tonally, which perfectly seizes a certain kind of slightly melancholy, drizzle-blighted English atmosphere – muffled, slightly dingy, damp-feeling greens give way to rusty browns, greys. Everything feels a little like a part of everything else. It all feels and looks so unshocking, so anti-picturesque in the solidity of its there-ness, you might say ... It feels terribly truthful in the way that the ever onward, undemonstrative drabness of life is truthful.'