BENJAMIN WHITAKER, ‘Site of Lordship Lane Station (after Camille Pissarro 1830-1903)’, 2021, acrylic on paper, 40 x 30.5cm
My painting is after Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich by Danish-French Impressionist Camille Pissarro, now in the collection of the Courtauld Gallery in London. It was painted in 1871 whilst Pissarro was living in Norwood with his fiancé in exile from the Franco-Prussian War. It was his split nationality that saved him from fighting in this war. I came to know this painting, mainly in reproductions, from working in the gift shop at the Courtauld.
The painting shows what initially appears to be a semi-rural scene with a steam train approaching from the centre of the picture. This was apparently painted from the footbridge south of the station and the houses along the centre are the first suburban developments along Lordship Lane as Dulwich reaches what is now Forest Hill. The railway line connected Londoners to the popular Crystal Palace attraction, relocated to Sydenham, South London in the 1850s after the Great Exhibition. And the railway also connected the local middle class population with work in the city. For anyone familiar with that part of South London, just to the right of the view is where the Horniman Museum now stands. The railway line ran along the western edge of Horniman Gardens, through Brockley and Nunhead before joining the mainline into London in Peckham. South of this view the line goes into what is now the wilderness of Sydenham Hill Woods and there you can see the entrance to the tunnel where the line runs under the hill to the site of the Crystal Palace. After the Palace burnt down in 1936, the line was demolished in 1954 and much of the route has now been built upon.
We might assume from our modern, urban perspective this view to be a bucolic scene like many of his later impressionistic works – and originally Pissarro included a standing farm labourer in the field to the right of the picture – but actually we are witness to rapidly encroaching modernity. The power of the steam age with its demonic red eyes is heading towards us, carrying day-trippers to this engineering masterpiece full of the latest entertainments from around the world; meanwhile the city blooms and expands into suburbia.
With the aid of online mapping I have attempted to find the approximate present-day location of the station. In my painting I have adopted a similar colour palette and loose style. Instead of a train there is a parked truck with its staring lights. Instead of train tracks and a signal box, the view is divided by lampposts and parking lines. This view could not be considered a pastoral idyll, nor a burgeoning modern utopia, just the contemporary reality of the capital. There is even a red bus and a White Van Man to establish it as modern London.