Tag Archives: William Ascroft

River Man – William Ascroft

William Ascroft (don’t call him Ashcroft) is another of the great Chelsea artists in our collection. (The others, for the record  are Greaves, Burgess, Griffen and Marianne Rush, although those are just the ones where we have a decent amount of their work. There are plenty of others where we just have a few works.) I did a couple of posts about Ascroft in the early days of the blog back in 2012 (here and here ) and while I wouldn’t say I didn’t do him justice, I still feel I haven’t done enough. Ascroft was a successful artist in his day. He was a Royal Academician, and is probably best known now for being commissioned by the Royal Society to paint views of the sky over London after the explosion at Krakatoa in 1883.

The truth is I just wanted to do another Ascroft post. I really like his work and have a strong urge to tell people about it. I’ve been re-arranging some of our pictures and one of the Ascroft related tasks was to remove some of his small pastel sketches from some large  cardboard mounts to which they had been glued many years ago. (Rather barbarously in my opinion but I’m not a conservator so it could be argued that my opinion isn’t worth that much.) It all gave me a good reason to do some more scans of the images.



This is one of several sketches he did of the Old Swan Inn (a favourite of many Chelsea artists – the old Old Swan of course, there are not nearly so many images of the new or later Old Swan.) I’ve made some efforts not to use the same images as I have in the earlier posts, but some of the pictures just look similar.

The Old Swan is in this one too.



But you won’t mistake this one for any of his others.



The Thames at Cremorne, 1866. I haven’t cropped the edges so you can see that these sketches now look a bit rough and ragged. But they show Ascroft on the move, catching impressions at different times of day.

Some are very sketchy, like this one of the Old Church from the south side of the river.



Or this one, the point of which is the colour in the sky.



Some are barely started.



It’s nicely done. Perhaps more detail could have sprung up around the Old Church.

But even the rough ones capture the sense place. This shows the steps up to Albert Bridge.



While this one shows the gate houses on the north side of Battersea Bridge, almost looking up Beaufort Street.



I think this is before the Embankment. The story of the Ascroft sketches as told to me was that when Ascroft died, the Librarian at Chelsea Library went to his studio and bought whatever was there. Having written that sentence I thought that this was the sort of story that could be told about many of our artists. You imagine the Librarian as a kind of Lovejoy figure, haunting the galleries and studios of Chelsea. I would have liked that job. But I couldn’t believe it was quite that simple. In the spirit of fact checking I went to the Accessions Register, a ledger older than any of our libraries and found the truth. A large number of pictures by Ascroft were purchased at Pope’s Auction Rooms in Hammersmith in 1937 for the sum of £6 and 30 shillings. A pretty good investment by the perfectly respectable Librarian. No scruffy antique (or book) dealers were involved, but it’s fun to imagine the scene.

So, anyway, we do have a large number of these small pastel sketches. Back in the 20th century I once put on an exhibition of Ascroft’s work. We had a pretty good colour photocopier in those days  and I used it to make enlargements of the sketches, so I didn’t have to worry about security. That seems a bit barbarous on my part now, but it was a very good photocopier. (Although it was never the same after being assaulted by a member of staff who I will not name – she knows who she is.)

This little picture shows Lindsey Row looking east, although I think it must be unfinished by the lack of a bridge.



The picture below shows Mr Radnor’s House.



On the rear of the paper, Ascroft left copious notes. I know some readers enjoy this sort of thing so it was worthwhile adding this picture.



Some pictures leave a distinctive impression half deliberately, half by chance. I couldn’t leave this one out.



But finally, some of Ascroft’s more conventional views.

The riverside, with the Old Swan again.



A look over the rooftops, perhaps from the tower of the Old Church at the river.



And one of a church, not necessarily the one we’re most familiar with, but any church, surrounded by trees.



Waiting for a story.  Not for me to supply this time.

I’ll leave William Ascroft for now. But you’ll see him again one day.



I’ve just heard of the sad death of Emma Wood (obituary), Photographer, researcher and campaigner. I had dealings with her a few years ago relating to the archive of Mike Braybrook. Her energy and determination was significant in the preservation of the archive. As a librarian I’m always impressed by a dedication to the preservation of ephemera. I saw her from time to time in the library when she was researching other matters and she was always friendly and patient. My sympathies to her family and friends. It was nice to see in the Guardian obituary a photograph of a younger Emma.

In the gallery

Local Studies and Archives collections often contain paintings and prints connected with the area they cover, particularly if like Kensington and Chelsea the area is or has been one where artists lived or worked. But that doesn’t mean, of course, that our collection contains dozens of Turners or works by other famous artists. A Local Studies collection is far more likely to have works by lesser known professionals like William Ascroft or William Walter Burgess, or William Cowen, obscure figures like Francis Griffen, amateurs like Walter Greaves (or were he and his brother Henry semi-professionals?),  illustrators like Herbert Railton, unknowns like Marianne Rush and annonymous figures like the artist of the Red Portfolio.

But this is how we like it. It’s nice to loan out one of our small number of Whistler etchings to an exhibition as we recently did but there is far more pleasure in having a much larger number of sketches by Railton or Ascroft or possibly the entire oeuvre of Rush which can be shown to interested parties or blogged about.

This post is an  almost random selection of pictures I have shown to visitors or come across in the course of enquiries or have had at the back of my mind for years.



The river entrance gate to Cremorne Gardens, by Walter Greaves. The gardens were just a short step down the road from the Greaves boat yard where he and his brother worked in the family business. During the course of business they struck up a relationship with Whistler who liked to make sketches from their boats. Walter and Henry became close enough to the great artist to get some lessons from him, although it all turned sour in the end as Whistler’s friendships seemed to do. Walter inserted the figure of Whistler into many of his pictures, but the man in this picture could just as easily have been Greaves himself who modeled his personal style on that of the master. Neither of them are in this picture.



Lindsey Wharf, looking east I think.  The pub is the Queen’s Arms, a different pub from the King’s Arms, which was also in that vicinity. Chelsea enthusiasts may like to try to reconcile this view with photographs of the area. Forgive me if I  don’t do that today. Normally I like the minutiae of locations but we could be here all day.

[Added 18 September – at the prompting of Chris Pain, Chelsea history expert – see his comments below – I have reverse this image to make things clearer]

I’ve done a couple of posts of Ascroft in the early days of the blog, but cannot resist putting in one of his pastel sketches showing a country lane, probably in the Putney area, with one of his characteristic skies.



Horace Van Ruitl, on the other hand was an unfamiliar name to me until a few weeks ago when a researcher working on hid biography asked to see what we had. Scattered in the Chelsea general sequence were several pictures mostly of the interior of Chelsea Old Church. Once I had gathered them together I was quite impressed. This is a detail from one of the larger pictures which I chose because of the two women who add a burst of colour to the subdued scene.



Van Ruitl was like Ascroft a well known professional name in his day, and not completely forgotten.

This artist, Juliet Williams, is probably an amateur but an artist who was absolutely obsessed with the gates of Cheyne House. Here they are in winter:



And here in summer:



We also have an autumn and a spring, but also eight other versions, smaller and larger, sketches and completed pictures. I could practically fill a whole post with them. But I won’t. (Although that’s an idea for Christmas).

Chelsea is full of picturesque locations for painters. But the Kensington amateurs produced plenty of pictures too.



This is a pen and ink sketch by Frank Emanuel. We’ve seen his work before here, a picture of Tower Cressey, but this a a simple street scene showing Silver Street, which was the former name of the northern section of Kensington Church Street, leading up to Notting Hill Gate. The figure of the woman is what makes this one special I think. I wish he’s done more pictures of people.

Elizabeth Gladstone was an amateur watercolourist who was featured in the same post as Emanuel. This picture looks down Derry Street / King Street towards Kensington Square.



If you study the 6th image in this post on the development of the Barker’s building, you will recognize one of the buildings.

in contrast to Gladstone’s mostly late 19th century work, Joan Bloxham painted and drew in the 1930s.



Victoria Grove, still quite recognizable.



Another view I’m familiar with, Holland Street, a few minutes walk from the Library, showing the house of Walter Crane. He’s a famous artist we do have some work by, which we may look at one of these days.

Like many amateur artists, Elizabeth Gladstone’s pictures are usually simply views of street and buildings but occasionally she includes a curious detail as in this one.



York House, also in Kensington Church Street in the 1890s, featuring a sinister hooded figure, or is it simply a harmless monk? There were many religious establishments in Kensington in that period.

Finally, another Greaves for the road, signed by Henry, the less prolific of the two brothers, although they both often added to each other’s picture.



Chelsea riverside east of the Old Church, before the Embankment. Not an unfamiliar view for regular readers but we can always have one more.

This post is a bit of a trailer for others I might do this autumn about artists I haven’t covered in any detail so far so pardon me if it looks like a bit of a filler between Chelsea stories. I do need time between those.


I feel that I tempted fate last week by noting the death of another musician from the golden age of popular music. I was saddened to read that even as I was writing last week’s post, another bass guitar player from one of the great bands of the 1970s had died. The name Holger Czukay may not be as familiar as Walter Becker, but for me he was an even greater name. He played bass and other instruments and electronics for the German avant garde rockers Can. I saw Can play live in several London venues  – the Lyceum, the Roundhouse, Hammersmith Palais, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane – all of which are no longer used as music venues . They practiced “spontaneous composition” rather than merely improvisation and seldom played the same material without some massive variations, according to the weather, their mood, or the audience’s mood (I once saw them suddenly turn on an audience whose attention was wavering and shock them into submission). Czukay also made a number of remarkable solo albums. He was one of the first to use samples in his recordings. I’d better stop with that before I get maudlin. Can’s drummer Jaki Lieberzeit also died this year, leaving only their two vocalists and founder member Irmin Schmidt.

The sky’s on fire – William Ascroft

Last week you saw some of William Acroft’s Chelsea pictures, some finished pieces and some sketches. I told you how the Royal Society commissioned him to record the skies over London after the Krakatoa explosion. Before the distant apocalypse this is what he saw.

A bend in the river west of Chelsea, deep into the suburbs, by moonlight and below a view of Putney by day.

In 1880 a shooting star provides an omen of future events.

In 1883 the greatest explosion in modern times occurred. Although it was thousands of miles away the effects were global. World temperatures dropped by 1.2 degrees C. Ash and sulphur dioxide gas were flung up into the upper atmosphere to drift down across the world. Effects on weather and temperature lasted until 1888. Before colour photography the effects could only be recorded by an artist frantically scratching on paper catching what he saw before it disappeared.

A sunset in June. Imagine William Ascroft who would have been fifty in 1883 stumbling through fields  and country lanes carrying sketch pads and paints, working by moonlight to catch those fleeting colours in the sky.

“Riverside walk number 3” according to Ascroft’s notes.

“Later. Sunset after a rainy day. No wind.”

August 23rd “Sky study”

Sky study 24

“Mortlake. Walk up riverside.”  Mortlake was some way out of London in the 1880s almost as isolated as it was when John Dee lived there.

This sky study is from 1886. It must have seemed like the sky would go on burning forever. A Victorian apocalypse.

A gloomy sunrise. But in contrast to that, and the shooting star before the explosion a rainbow.

In time the weather returned to normal and the skies became calmer. Ascroft still walked along the river, now nearer sixty than fifty.

The sky studies were the unexpected culmination of his artistic career, and his main claim to a place in  the wider history of art and geography. But I think that all his work is worth remembering.

Author’s message

Just like a genuine blogger I am guest blogging this week at the London City Read blog on the marriage of Charles Dickens and Catherine Hogarth. Here is the link:


or the actual URL:


Kensington and Chelsea’s Dickens celebrations begin in April and I’ll be writing about Victorian topics for the whole month. You can expect the Library Time Machine to go back to Cremorne Gardens and Brompton Cemetery and a couple of other destinations.

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.

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