Thursday, 13 April 2017

Postcard of the Day No. 88 - Cox’s Walk, Sydenham Hill Wood

Back in 2012 we posted about a footbridge in Merton – this is another South London footbridge with a story attached. In 1870-71 Camille Pissarro lived in the Norwood/Crystal Palace area to escape the horrors of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. Pissarro found plenty of subjects for painting within a few miles of his temporary home and his easel was set up on this footbridge on Cox’s Walk for the painting of Lordship Lane Station in the collection of the Courtauld Institute. The Courtauld painting is misleadingly titled Penge Station, Upper Norwood and dated 1871. Given that Pissarro returned to Paris in June 1871 we can assume the painting was done in the Spring of that year. Railway subjects were attractive to Pissarro, who, like his colleague Monet, had an interest in reflecting contemporary life in his work. It was the Crystal Palace and South London Junction railway, opened in 1865 that ran through Cox’s Woods. Known as the high-level railway to Crystal Palace, it closed in 1954.

A few miles away on Denmark Hill, John Ruskin was preoccupied with his doomed and protracted courtship of Rose La Touche and the plans for the Ruskin School of Drawing shortly to open in Oxford. Ruskin professed undying hatred of the modern world and placed railways near the top of his long list of most-abominated. From his study he wrote wistfully of the pleasing woodland vistas and pastoral strolls forever ruined by the intrusion of the London to Folkestone railway line. It was his misfortune to live through the decades when the Great North Woods that once stretched from Deptford to Selhurst largely disappeared under suburban sprawl. Sydenham Hill Wood is the largest remaining area of this lost woodland. But even Ruskin was not entirely unmoved by the power of engineering technology and once confessed the “amazed awe and crushed humility” he experienced at the sight of a locomotive “taking its breath at a railway station”.

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