Idle days in southern Kensington: William Cowen country

Through the trees you can see a domed building. We’re not truly in the country but this isn’t the city. It’s the suburbia of the 1840s. Not many miles from this spot there are wide roads, grand houses, public buildings, slums and rookeries, courts and prisons, open sewers and dirty rivers. But here there are leafy lanes and walled nursery gardens with occasional cottages and inns.

(Click on the image to see the details)

Here are some houses in the little village of Earls Court. A woman hangs out washing to dry in the clean air.

Here is Walnut Tree Walk or Redcliffe Gardens as we’d call it today which takes you south from Earls Court Road to Fulham Road.

In the distance you can glimpse some large buildings. The big places always seem to be in the distance, as in this picture of Cromwell Road, or Row:

Not the Cromwell Road we know of course. That wouldn’t come into being until the 1850s. If the angle is right the distant tower is Holy Trinity, Brompton before the Oratory got in the way. The view below has another church, St Luke’s in the background behind the newly built Brompton Hospital. (Or The Diseased Chest Hospital as it is called on the parish map of 1846.)

But the focus of the picture is the pair of young men and their reluctant looking horse. Things look more relaxed in Gore Lane:

Outside Ivy Cottage are two women, a child, a dog and a couple of odd looking birds. Chickens? Or guinea fowl maybe. Guinea fowl are strange looking creatures, I think. I once came upon a crowd of them at a farm (or is that a flock?). They moved away from me slowly in unison, their iridescent tail faeathers trailing behind. The sight has stayed with me through the years since that encounter.

Meanwhile at Mr Attwood’s house it’s all quiet.

Mr Attwood owned one of the many local nurseries and lived here with his wife, seven children and two servants. He is still remembered in gardening circles.

My favourite picture from the collection is this one:

Another young woman with a dog and the suggestion of a ruin, but the best touch is that Narnian lamppost. This is the avenue to Cresswell Lodge. At this time Cresswell Lodge was a private boarding school for young ladies, which sounds like an ideal place to go walking through a wardrobe.

This one has the same fantasy quality:

It’s Rose Lane, which leads to Kensington by a scenic route. The two women talking in the shade of the high wall appear to be in no hurry to go anywhere. Through the open gate is a still more private garden. The  sun casts long shadows.

No-one is sure where Rose Lane was exactly but may have been just west of Gloucester Road perhaps near the present Rosary Gardens.

William Cowen the Yorkshire-born landscape artist and author of Six Weeks in Corsica came to live at Gibraltar Cottage, Thistle Grove in 1843. Not the same Thistle Grove as today’s. The wide still somewhat picturesque alley we know today, which also has a Narnian style lamppost took its name from Drayton Gardens which didn’t need it anymore. Cowen lived there until his death in 1860. The indigo wash water colour paintings featured here are part of a set of 31 which seem to have come from the same sketchbook. They all have the same dreamlike quality, the same calm feeling of unhurried summer days in an idyllic rural landscape.

Back to the beginning, here again is Cowen’s most recognizable subject. The domed building is revealed as the chapel of Brompton Cemetery, another kind of walled garden at the end of Brompton Lane, by the side of the short lived Kensington Canal.

This is also the end of Cowen country. You can imagine visiting these landscapes but you’d need more than a time machine to get into the country of his imagination.


4 responses to “Idle days in southern Kensington: William Cowen country

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