Tag Archives: Chelsea Reach

Water: Bignell’s travels

I seem to have Bignell on my mind at the moment. I assembled a set of pictures for a recent post mostly taken in Wimbledon which I thought were very pleasant and evocative and I didn’t realise they were part of a larger group of pictures. Someone has been doing some Bignell related research at the library and I went looking for negatives only to find that some of the stacks of yellow photograph boxes contained prints, among which was a set Bignell called “Rural London”. He had evidently roamed around looking for parts of London which looked like the countryside, mostly in west London but occasionally going as far as Leytonstone and Wanstead. Actually I think he got sidetracked a bit because some of the pictures look decidedly urban to me. I decided to start by looking at the views featuring the river, or streams and ponds, because I like waterscapes .(See this post).

Some of them link up with some of the individual pictures I’ve used on the blog. Like this one:


I think we saw some of these boys before, playing about on the river, where the houseboats are moored west of Battersea Bridge.


If you look at the south shore you can just see St Mary’s Church. The thing I always remember about it is that William Blake married Catherine Boucher here in 1782.



Here it is at high tide one of the few surviving buildings from this era. A slightly different view below shows all the giant lettering on the Silver Bell Flour Mill. You can see another view of the church and the former surrounding buildings in this Bernard Selwyn post.


If we follow the path further along along the south side of the Thames you come here, another industrial stretch of building at Mortlake gives way to a tree covered path, now part of the Thames Walk.


The path as I recall it from walking part of the Thames Path when my son was younger gets quite narrow as you make your way to Kew.

Let’s take a watery detour south back to the Wimbledon of that recent post. I feel we’ve seen some of these people before.


Engaged in that traditional pastime of messing about at the edge of a body of water on a warm summer day.


In this picture the mother of some of the party attempts to move them for a pleasant stroll, although not everyone is convince that’s a good idea.


In any case for a casual picture Bignell has produced a marvelously evocative picture of that lazy summer day.

While I’m on the subject of detours a quick verbal sidetrack into the question of dating. I said in the Wimbledon post that the pictures were taken in 1970 while Bignell was living in Tedworth Square (he lived there roughly from 1963-1975). Most of the pictures are stamped on the back with that address. But some of them are also stamped with his previous address in Trafalgar Studios in Manresa Road. (He was there until 1962. The purpose built artists’ studios Trafalgar Studios and Wentworth Studios were demolished in the 1960s). So we have quite a long span for the possible dates of these pictures from 1958 to 1975. Some of them look to be on the early side of that, judging by the clothes or the hairstyles. For others it’s difficult to tell.


Barnes Bridge, with a pleasure cruiser, another timeless scene. From this point there are a lot of pleasure craft on the river.

Like here at Richmond.


And here with that other traditional feature, a ferry.


In the next two pictures the hairstyles provide a clue to the date.


Surely the reason why he took two pictures. The woman and the girl  both have striking holiday hairdos.


Any hair experts who could put a date to the picture would be very welcome.

Let’s leave the riverside suburbs for now and get back to what I think is the Serpentine on another summer day.


I’ll come back again to Bignell’s travels on another occasion. If anyone has any thoughts on dates or locations please leave a comment.


The post I was going to write this week is not quite ready as I’m getting some informed input so forgive me for returning to Bignell so soon. However I’m sure you’ve found these pictures interesting as I have, and the post did prompt me to doing some research on Bignell’s various addresses which was long overdue.

Fiction in Kensington and Chelsea 3: Offshore

When I do these posts about fiction set in Kensington and Chelsea I’m normally scrabbling around for pictures to go with the text but this post came about because there were plenty of pictures of the specific location.

Chelsea Reach houseboats 1975 Bignell

A view of the houseboats at Chelsea Reach, with both Battersea and Albert Bridges in the background (even the distant chimneys of Battersea Power Station). A quinessentially Chelsea view from 1975. Chelsea reach was one of the subjects of James Hedderly’s early photography, and the location of the Greaves Boatyard, where the artist Walter Greaves painted and got some mentoring from one of his customers James McNeil Whistler. By the time John Bignell took this photograph the boating on the Reach was all residential.

The writer Penelope Fitzgerald had gone by then  but the experience of living on one of the boats had left its mark and she used the enclave of houseboats as the setting for her Booker-winning novel Offshore.


This is the cover of the first hardback edition, a view which would be quite familiar to readers of this blog as it shows the main landmark looking in the other direction, Lots Road Power Station.

Chelsea Reach 1960s jb334 - Copy

I’ve cropped this Bignell picture to show the whole sweep of the view looking west as the river curves towards Wandsworth. The houseboats are just visible on the right.

In real life Fitzgerald lived in the last boat along which was called Grace, nearest the offices of the Chelsea Boat Company. She lived there with her semi-estranged husband and their two daughters – there was also a son, away at boarding school. He was not surprised apparently to not find himself depicted in the book. The heroine Nenna James lives with her daughters Martha and Tilda in a fictional boat also called Grace – her husband in in Stoke Newington, a far away part of London in the early sixties.

The houseboats would eventually become fashionable and sought after locations but for the author and her fictional alter ego they were quite grim. This was a time in Fitzgeralds’s life when she had very little money.


At low tide, the boats sat on the smelly Thames mud the and residents weren’t supposed to use the toilets. At high tide they were afloat, not always a comfortable position:

At that moment Lord Jim was disturbed from stem to stern by an unmistakeable lurch….she seemed to shake herself gently, and rose. The tide had lifted her.

Cheyne Walk - looking east, riverside 1972

On every barge on the Reach a very faint ominous tap, no louder than the door of a cupboard shutting, would be followed by louder ones from every strake, timber and weatherboard, a fusillade of thunderous creaking, and even groans that seemed human.

Cheyne Walk - looking east, riverside 1972 (2)

These two pictures taken by John Rogers in 1972 depict that sense of being cut off by water. The passing vehicles on Cheyne Walk might have little sense of the little world on the water beside them.

Cheyne Walk - looking west from Riley Street 1970 KS 1946

Fitzgerald depicts a dislocated, melancholy community on the houseboats, shrouded in fog, both literal and metaphoric, which Bignell does justice to in this picture:

Chelsea Reach in fog Bignell 94

For the two girls Martha and Tilda the foreshore at low tide is a kind of playground.

houseboats and goose 1968 jb213

Not wanting to compete with local children from Partisan Street (Dartrey Street) for  coins, medal and lugworms they go on expeditions across the bridge to the other side of the river. On one occasion they go with a handcart to scavenge the wreck of a Thames barge. They look for tiles in the mud.

Tilda lay full length on a baulk of timber…..far beyond the point at which the mud became treacherous..she stood poised on the handlebars of a sunken bicycle.

She retrieves two tiles which turn out to be by de Morgan. They take them to an antique dealer at a shop called Le Bourgeous Gentilhomme where they get three pounds, a decent sum for two young girls in 1961.

Bignell depicts some equally dangerous play on the river.

Chelsea Reach 1960s Bignell 81

Near the end of the novel the small family have a visitor, a teenage boy from Vienna called Heinrich. The girls take him to the King’s Road, up Partisan Street – a rough place..the refuge of crippled and deformed humanity – which Tilda no longer fears, past the Moravian burial ground where they tell him the urban myth about the Moravians being interred in a standing position, “so on Judgement Day they can rise straight upward.” (Not true by the way – every so often I have to deny it). The King’s Road is already like a gypsy encampment, another life compared to their impoverished life on the barge.

Nenna and her daughters eventually go to live with her sister in Canada. In the last chapter a storm hits the river and two of the other characters find their boat slipping its moorings and heading into the river, as good a way to end as any.

I haven’t found a picture of stormy weather on the river but here’s one of Bignell’s elegant views looking east.

Albert Bridge (2)

Fitzgerald turned her experience of comparative poverty into a sucessful book. In 1979 she won the Booker Prize against the odds. (There’s a fascinating account of the TV coverage in Hermione Lee’s excellent 2013 biography of Fitzgerald). So for her at least her life on the houseboats at Chelsea Reach turned out well.

I once saw the actress Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan!) disembarking from one of the houseboats in the more fashionable 1980s. That would be another story.

Battersea Bridge - looking east from Cheyne Walk 1970 KS 1926


The photographs were by John Bignell and John Rogers, both mainstays of the blog. Thanks particularly to John Rogers for his many contributions to the Local Studies collection.

Portrait of the artist as a young dude

I found the picture below in one of those protective sleeves we use for storing photographs and immediately thought I could use it on the blog. There was a contact sheet of pictures from the same photo shoot which were sufficiently large to scan and use as well.Annigoni at Chelsea Reach

It isn’t often I can make a post around a single image but this is one of those pictures. It has the slightly misty background of the river bed, the barges which look like abandoned warships, the mud, the metal detritus in the foreground on which sits the young artist sketching (or pretending to be sketching)  and looking very fifties-Italian in his sharp shoes and coat, a bit like a character in La Dolce Vita or one of those moody art films. Or maybe a little later in the sixties – early Mad Men perhaps.

I can’t claim to know what Bignell was thinking here. I imagine that this was a commission – follow the up and coming artist around and take some atmospheric pictures for a magazine feature. Copy (8) of Contact sheet

Looking east you see the proper houseboats, and the embankment wall, and that the artist wasn’t just pretending to sketch.

Copy (10) of Contact sheet

The background is almost disappearing into the mist and looks a little like the background a photographer would have seen a hundred years before.

Copy (3) of Contact sheet

This is a good shot of the shoes. A shoe historian could probably date the pictures from them. You can imagine the session proceeeding as Bignell tries different angles.

Copy (5) of Contact sheet

Take your coat off, you don’t want to get it muddy.

This was a favourite spot for Bignell, not too far from his studio. He loved pictures of the river especially on the transient zone of the foreshore.

Copy (12) of Contact sheet

Look at me now. Is that a better one, I hear him asking himself.

Copy (9) of Contact sheet

A bit of pose striking here, using the barge as a dramatic place to sit looking visionary. Is it my imagination or does he look a bit cold? Time to go indoors.

We’re back inside now in the artist’s makeshift studio.

Copy (2) of Contact sheet

Empty bottles, sketches on the floor, a telescope, the same misty scene outside  and the reflection in the mirror caught nicely by Bignell.

Copy of Contact sheet

Now just look out of the window. You could probably sequence these pictures the other way round and tell a story with the artist seeing the mist on the river and going out to make a sketch on the foreshore. So that’s the post nearly wrapped up.

Now, here’s the thing. On the back on the first photo is written “Annigonni?” And in the packet were some other pictures of an older man also labelled Annigonni in Bignell’s handwriting.

Here’s one of them. Annigonni is in Douglas Anderson’s studio in Glebe Place, cigarette in hand.

Annigoni in Douglas Andreson's studio Glebe Place 1965 or 1961

So I took it for granted that the pictures on the foreshore were of the young Annigonni. Bignell had evidently known Annigoni quite well and had many pictures and negatives of him.

My knowledge of Pietro Annigoni at that point was simply that he was an Italian artist who was well known for painting portraits, the most famous of which was his 1956 romantic painting of the young Queen Elizabeth wrapped in a dark cloak with a royal insignia on it.

There’s always a bit of fact checking to do when writing a blog. Due diligence you might say. And the more I found out about the life of Annigonni the more I began to wonder about that first photo. The pencilled “Annigonni?” on the back was looking more and more tentative.

According to Annigonni’s autobiography he didn’t come to London till he was 40, in 1950. Is the man in the picture that age, or up to ten years older? Probably not. And the self-portrait of Annigonni done in 1954 doesn’t look much like our artist on the foreshore.

Look again at Annigonni in a picture from the 1960s. Bignell has captured him looking thoughful and shrewd.Annigoni trafalgar studios, manresa stamp

But is this also him?

Copy (6) of Contact sheet

I’m inclined to think not.  Something about the hairline, and the eyes. I showed the pictures around the library and the verdict was unanimous. So the sharp looking young artist has to be reclassified as unknown. He’s in good company. There is a whole box labelled Bignell – Unidentified People downstairs in the archives room (on Bay X appropriately).

I still like the photos enough to write a post about them. Sometimes pictures speak for themselves. Sometimes you’d like them to say a little bit more.


I am of course open to suggestions as to the identity of the unknown artist. Or do you think it is Annigonni? This post was just about written when I began to have doubts and I didn’t want to waste it as next week’s isn’t written yet and I seem to be on a bit of a roll with posts about artists. It seems odd that I now have no idea who the young artist was but that is one of the traps of photography. Because a photographic  image is as near to permanent as we can make it we imagine it’s all we need. And the photographer thinks he won’t ever forget the identity of the person in the picture. But these crucial pieces of information do slip away like the people in an old family album who nobody recognizes now.

Postscript to the postscript- April 2015

We’re now sure that the young dude is Regis de Bouvier de Cachard. (See comments) Reader Bob King has sent this scan of one of his Chelsea pictures:

De Cachard's The Flower Barrow - Copy

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