It’s an archivist’s joke. The watercolour paintings by an unknown artist which were formerly kept in a red portfolio are now stored in a green archive box labelled…the Red Portfolio. The pictures, probably loose sheets by the time they fell into the archivist’s hands were carefully removed from the portfolio and mounted or (later) put into acetate sleeves. On the reverse of the sheets the artist wrote notes, some of them copious. These were later transcribed, not always precisely, as the archivist was sometimes better informed than the artist on certain historical points.
The village of Old Brompton in the late 1820s (“opposite Brompton Heath and Selwood Lane”). A rural spot with a motley collection of houses looking a little like they might be about to collapse. In the house on the left the hindquarters of a horse are visible, and a woman in the window remonstrating with someone. Actually I think it was Sallad Lane, as shown on this map of 1829 by Crutchley.
The map locates Old Brompton fairly precisely. Since then the name has been used to describe a much vaguer area. Nearby was another quiet thoroughfare.
Thistle Grove (now Drayton Gardens, not the modern Thistle Grove). On the right the Jolly Paviours Inn (Paviours were artisans who laid paving stones – though not in this neighbourhood by the looks of it), a favourite of the artist George Morland. He was said to be responsible for painting the inn sign, and for paying his bar bill with a painting for the parlour. They always say that about feckless artists though, don’t they? (Although Morland was more feckless than most.)
I like the house on the left with the stairs leading up to the front door, conveniently situated above the muddy road. Quite a nice house for an artist or a place for a visitor to stay.
We learn a few facts about the painter of these pictures along the way but we never find out a name or a gender. The artist was familiar with the history of the area through local tradition and thorough knowledge of the work of Thomas Faulkner, one of the pioneers of local history in west London to whom he or she sometimes refers in his penciled notes. (The slight evidence of poor handwriting and time spent in taverns made me lean towards a male artist, but the same handwriting and a certain delicacy of touch made my colleague M argue the case that she was a woman. There is no overwhelming proof either way.)
We have to move off the map section above way past the western limit of the territory we can call Brompton to a cluster of buildings near Putney Bridge called Fulham. In the High Street was a tavern called the Golden Lion Inn.
A Golden Lion still exists today, a little altered probably. Down the same street closer to Putney Bridge stands a building which is now a pub called the Temperance, an ironic name for a former temperance hall. I remember it in the 1970s when it was a snooker / billiards hall. When I first went there my friends announced that we were going to a place called “Lards”. It had that name because those were the only remaining letters in the illuminated sign.
Forgive my digression. I brought you down here for a glimpse inside.
The artist gives the measurements of the empty room and reports that it was the residence of Bishop Benson.
This equally vacant space was the servant’s hall.
This is what I wanted to show you. Perhaps it was a habit of painters at this time but this interest in empty rooms is also a feature of the work of that other enigmatic local watercolourist Marianne Rush. (Try the link) There are other shared characteristics.
The extravagant and slightly inaccurate foliage is a Rush trope. So is the over-sized writing on the sign and the figures which don’t quite seem to belong. Florida Gardens, Hogmore Lane was a house which had been converted into a public tea garden by Mr Hyam,”a German gardener“. It was located on the east side of what is now Gloucester Road, opposite the tube station. There are now many establishments on this spot where you can buy burgers or coffee, or change some currency. No gardens to sit in though.
The residence of Monsieur la Touche in Little Chelsea has the same exotic vegetation with some particularly wild trees. I have been unable to find any details about the resident himself. Is that door open? Is there a smudge-like figure standing at it? Mrs Rush used to like details like that.
I’m not suggesting the artist actually is Mrs Rush. There are plenty of differences. To be unkind for a moment it may be that they share a lack of some artistic skills with regard to depicting objects and places but I could also say they share a kind of weird vision which overcomes any objection to technique.
Here is Billing’s Well, in the northernmost of a set of fields called the Three Billings. The artist gives an autobiographical snippet: “I use to go for the purpose of gathering water cresses, being large and good”.
“In 1781 the waters spread from this well over a large piece of ground….the well is resorted to and frequented by visitors..the water said to be good for sore eyes and legs (its qualitys not known by me)”
The avenue of trees on the right conceals a path which would have taken a walker to Holland House.The field is now part of Brompton Cemetery.
Even though we know her name, the unknown artist is perhaps less of a mystery than Mrs Rush. She or he had a liking for pieces of local history and tradition.
This house was “nearly adjoining the Swan Inn” (look back at the map), and had been a pest house (a place where victims of infectious diseases were kept, sometimes forcibly). In the early 1700s it was full of Scottish lodgers so was called the Scotts Barracks or slightly libellously the Beggars Rest. The figure of a one legged man is included to illustrate this.
The Ship Inn (later the Swan) stood, according to the archivist in Swan Lane (later Selwood Terrace) where Queen’s Gate intersects with Old Brompton Road. You can see from the map that this is not quite right as Selwood Terrace (where Dickens stayed briefly before his marriage) was nearer to Fulham Road.
I’m only showing you eleven pictures this week. I’m holding back a few of the Red Portfolio pictures for another day. But the last one is an intriguing one I think.
The Red Lion Tea Gardens, “stood on the high Brompton Road to Earl’s Court“, an unfortunately imprecise description. (There was a tea garden behind the Swan). The sign, surrounded by a ring of ropes, depicts a somewhat eccentric red lion with a word which looks like “snips“. Beneath it hangs an embroidered smock and a bonnet. The artist suggests that these are a prize for the winner of a game played in the grounds. I on the other hand am tempted to imagine some esoteric or ceremonial rural activity involving an effigy and a person. But more than a century of supernatural stories lie between me and the artist so I won’t let my imagination run away with me. I’ll leave it to you to wonder who was going to wear those garments and why. Perhaps if you had been walking by that day you might have shuddered and waked on instead of entering.
We’ll do that ourselves and as the sun goes down we’ll stroll back through the fields and paths back to those upper rooms in Thistle Grove. We could cross the road to the tavern later and look at Morland’s picture. And listen, like the unknown artist, to some of our fellow patrons’ stories of old Brompton.
The unknown artist shares his or her area of interest with our old friend the artist William Cowen who was a rather more skilled painter. But I’m glad to add her or him to the list of artists who have chronicled that rural hinterland between Kensington and Chelsea. I’m sure we’ll be back there again.