Camille Pissarro’s Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich
Dr Edwin Coomasaru
Painted in 1871, Camille Pissarro’s Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich tells us some complex stories about migration, travel, the industrial revolution, empire, and even climate change. We can learn a lot about our world by looking at the oil on canvas – but I also chose it for personal reasons. I grew up nearby the former Lordship Lane station, which was opened in 1865 and permanently closed in 1954.
The line and the station itself was reclaimed as Dulwich Wood and returned to nature.
You can still stand on the bridge overlooking the same view depicted in Pissarro’s painting: but all around everything is overgrown and utterly transformed.
Let’s start with the painting itself. The scene is centred on the railway tracks, which run down the hill to the station in the middle of the composition. A train has just departed: its steam a white and grey plume as it begins to hurtle up the hill towards the viewer.
Green grassy banks stretch out from either side of the track, trees framing one side, the small South London village stretching out in the distance. The brushstrokes are loose: thick daubs of pigment creating an impression of movement – as though the very landscape itself had a material quality somewhat akin to liquid or smoke, on the cusp of dissolving or vanishing. What might this image tell us about the times and society it was made in?
British entrepreneurs and scientists had pioneered the development of trains and railways in the nineteenth century.
This period of British history is known as the Enlightenment, and it involved advances in knowledge alongside the Industrial Revolution. Both were funded by, and indelibly interconnected with, European colonialism – the profits of the East India Company and the Atlantic slave trade flowed into the UK: its political system, its architecture and cities, its manufacturing industries, its universities and museums.
In turn, propagandists for empire created the myth that Britain was ‘modern’ and ‘advanced’ unlike the parts of the world it violently oppressed and plundered: supposedly these places were ‘barbaric’ and ‘primitive’ – and this was meant to justify the mass murder and theft unleashed by those who claimed to be spreading ‘civilisation’ through imperialism.
Trains themselves transformed society: the movement of commodities and patterns of labour were radically reshaped – huge populations moved from living in rural parts of the country farming the land, to industrial cities. These historical changes were not only pivotal in the development of capitalism (an economic system which had begun with the Atlantic slave trade), but also marked the beginnings of climate change. The greenhouse effect was first predicted in 1824, and by 1896 chemists worked out that industrial carbon emissions would lead to global warming.
British society was violently and profoundly transforming: while many were exploited – with little social security, a small group grew rich off their labour – movements also developed demanding a different world: the suffragettes and suffragists fighting for women’s rights to get the vote, and Chartists campaigning for working-class men to also get access to the democratic system.
Others, like Luddites, smashed industrial machinery in protest against the way automation was affecting their livelihoods.
By the time trains were put into use, they sparked fears that moving so fast would induce mass madness among the public – much like our current concern about social media or selfies being solely responsible for all sort of real or imagined social ills that are the product of larger, more complex and interconnected social forces (like changes to the economy, or the impact of war). We have long projected our fears and fantasies onto technology, but it has also long reshaped our world – often in ways beyond our control.
So what can Pissarro’s painting Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich – tell us about British society in 1871? The artist was born in 1830 in the Danish West Indies (now the US Virgin Islands) and died in 1903 in Paris. He had fled to the UK after the outbreak of the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War, moving his family to Norwood – then a small village on the edge of London. At the time, Pissarro and a number of other artists began to develop an artistic style which would later be known as Impressionism.
Many upper class cultural artefacts of the day tended to take their subject matter from Ancient Greek and Roman art and literature – a kind of insider knowledge provided by a classical education was required to unpick and understand what these artworks meant. But capitalism had a profound effect on European class structures, and this in turn also impacted the kind of art and visual culture that was made.
Impressionism, as an artistic movement, was not only made up of people from an emerging middle class – they also formed its patrons, as a new group of middle class collectors sought contemporary art they felt spoke to their experiences, perhaps in ways some of them felt the Old Masters did not.
Impressionism emerged as movement in the 1870s and 1880s. Many of its most famous works were collected by Samuel Courtauld – the man who gave his name to this institution. The Courtaulds were industrialists – by the early twentieth century their business had become a major international textile company, having developed and marketed rayon (an artificial fibre and inexpensive silk substitute). Samuel Courtauld was in charge of the company from 1908 as general manager, and chairman from 1921 to 1946 (the Institute was set up in 1932).
The money accumulated to fund the collection of Impressionist art came (largely) from manufacturing and industry. Yet, it is rarely a subject matter you can find in the Courtauld Gallery collection. There is an interesting tension here – between the source of the wealth used to amass the collection, and the scenes Courtauld himself chose to purchase. What kind of thinking might have shaped his decisions?
The Industrial Revolution led to the swelling of cities, as populations exploded in sprawling urban centres (villages like Dulwich became – via the new railways – extensions of London). Many people were separated from nature in rural landscapes as they had once known it: previously a considerable population would have worked directly on the land in agriculture – now the ways in which they acquired food would be shaped in forms that are more familiar for us today. Natural resources (like coal, which powered steam trains) were also extracted and exploited on phenomenal scales.
Even Samuel Courtauld must have felt that an idea of nature as a rural idyll, a retreat, a safe haven, a place of leisure – was so important to him that he had to began collecting paintings of it to hang around his home. An escape from the very factories that made nature – in some senses – feel more distant and hard to reach.
I chose to talk about Pissarro’s painting of Lordship Lane station today, because it’s a way to discuss these larger issues. As far as I can tell, it is the only painting in the collection that depicts industrial technology: a train on a (now extinct) railway. Lordship Lane station was opened in 1865: we can see how the development of the railways came in tandem with Impressionism as an artistic movement. It allowed goods to flow to new and wider markets, and for artists to travel.
They were also able to paint en plein air – outdoors – because of the development of standard paint colours packaged and sold in small portable tubes, allowing them to venture out of the studio. Painting outside with these stock hues fed into the strong colours and quick, impressionistic style.
What’s also interesting in Pissarro’s painting is the steam. Industrial factories produced a huge amount of smoke, and at the time London was famously covered in a heavy blanket of smog – as painted by Monet when he visited in the 1870s.
There is almost something in the style of Impressionism: the out-of-focus, hazy, smoky, dream-like quality that almost appears like a world seen through fog. There are many reasons why they chose this style. There is one that they could not have known at the time. But art history is not about artists’ intentions, but the way culture tells history.
Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution marked the beginning of and the fundamental forces behind climate change. In the long run, it fundamentally altered our relationship with the natural world. Where once people could live off common land in their village, much of it was enclosed. Giant farms and factories produced food on a massive scale to be sold through shops to a growing consumer public in cities. Certain kinds of food and commodities (like sugar, tea, coffee) were shipped across the globe, through networks of empire and the Atlantic slave trade. We are still living in the aftermath of these social and structural changes.
Climate change is a real, pressing concern for all of us today. And in the smoky, smog-like brushstrokes of Pissarro’s painting Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich is the beginnings of that history: in seeing the world through or as fleeting impressions and plumes of smoke we can also come to understand how fragile it is – on the cusp of its own disappearance.
Much like the actual Lordship Lane station, which did disappear – and has now been reclaimed, merely a series of ruins amongst an overgrown wood. By looking at Pissarro’s painting we can trace a much longer history, to make sense of both our own time and his – to help us see our world in new ways, and imagine alterative visions of the future.