What were the skies like when you were young? – William Ascroft

They’re just sketches in pastel by William Ascroft. Coloured lines on paper. Some of them are recognizable as riverside Chelsea. Others just suggest the familiar landmarks of the Old Church or the Old Swan Inn. But in all of them the skies are just as important as anything else in the picture. Sometimes  the setting sun bores through the image right at you.

The sky remains bright as the gloom envelopes the far shore. I get a sense of motion in the water, of the barges bobbing up and down.

In this picture the sky seems alight. Can you still see skies like this over London?

Here is a high tide, the river swollen. Pre-embankment Chelsea, Battersea Bridge just visible on the left.

It’s harder to see Chelsea in this one unless that’s St Luke’s on the right. It doesn’t matter so much. The subject of the picture is the light in the sky reflected on the surface of the river. Just as in the one below.

It doesn’t quite look like Chelsea.

I think this is further west – Putney or Chiswick. Ascroft roamed up and down the river banks. Not always at dusk.

This is in the morning at low tide near the Old Swan.

A closer view of the same scene. It looks a little like the point where Royal Hospital road diverges from Cheyne Walk. (You can see a photograph in the Hedderly post Tales of the Riverbank) Somewhere behind those buildings is the Physic Garden. Here’s the river gate of the Garden:

There’s that cedar tree you’ve already seen in the post on William Walter Burgess. Boatmen are working or possibly even playing a ball game by the gate and the Old Swan. There are many views of the Old Swan and hardly any of its successor the new Swan which must have been far less picturesque.

William Ascroft was a talented professional painter who exhibited at the Royal Academy but if he’s remembered at all today it’s for a particular job.

In 1883 the island of Krakatoa exploded. They heard the explosion thousands of miles away. The loudest sound in modern history it is said. Volcanic ash was flung high into the atmosphere and drifted around the world. Weather patterns did not return to normal for about five years. The Royal Society commissioned William Ascroft to paint the skies, particularly the vivid sunsets. A few of his pictures are in the official report.

The pictures in this post show Ascroft’s skills as a painter. He’s my favourite of all the artists in our collection. You can see how good he was at painting the sky. But If you look closely some of these pictures are dated 1872. They show “normal” sunsets, years before the Krakatoa explosion. I wanted to show you those first because I think the Royal Society picked their man well. I think Ascroft already had the right kind of vision, the right kind of obsession with sunlight at the end of the day.

The fire in the sky was already in him.

The sunset sketches are like this one – hurried, violent almost abstract. Have I whetted your appetite for more? I may do more of them next week.


One response to “What were the skies like when you were young? – William Ascroft

  • Michael Gall

    Well done with this one

    I have years of photographs of Chelsea skies mostly Worlds End sunrises and of course Lots Road Power Station sunrises. From my usual vantage point all my sunsets are Fulham skies and perhaps a wee bit of Stamford Bridge frozen forever in digital space.

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