This is the time of year when you see troops of school children on their end of term summer outings, to parks and zoos and museums. Charles Dickens gives an account of a Infant school visit to the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, to see the 1851 Great Exhibition, much of which still rings true today.
…"the school was composed of a hundred 'infants', who got among the horses' legs in crossing the main entrance to Kensington Gate, and came reeling out from between the wheels of coaches undisturbed in mind. They were clinging to horses, I am told, all over the park. When they were collected and added up by frantic monitors, they were all right. They were then regaled with cake, etc., and went tottering and staring all over the place; the greater part wetting their forefingers and drawing a wavy pattern on every accessible object. One infant strayed. He was not missed. Ninety and nine were taken home, supposed to be the whole collection, but this particular infant went to Hammersmith. He was found by the police at night, going round and round the turnpike, which he still supposed to be a part of the Exhibition. He had the same opinion of the police, also of Hammersmith workhouse, where he passed the night. When his mother came for him in the morning, he asked when it would be over? It was a great Exhibition, he said, but he thought it long."
This summer I plan to revisit Leighton House (after a long gap) to see the Alma-Tadema exhibition. Like Lord Leighton, Dutch-born Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was also known for his unique "artist's house" in Grove Road, St John's Wood, but his was amazingly and exotically splendid.
One of the more intimate of his paintings is this painted screen in the British Galleries at the V&A Museum, showing the family of his second wife, Laura Epps. As his dealer, Ernest Gambert wrote to Holman Hunt in 1869: "Tadema went last Boxing Day to a dance at [Ford] Madox-Brown's, fell in love at first sight with Miss Epps, a surgeon's daughter, is going to marry her as soon as she names the day. It plays havoc with his painting; he cannot turn to work since."
Recently widowed, Alma-Tadema moved to London in 1870 and undertook to teach Laura Epps to paint (she had been taking lessons from Madox Brown); his method was to paint six large oil panels with portraits of Laura's parents, who were not keen on the proposed marriage, along with Laura's sisters and brother with their spouses and children dining.. Laura is on the right in a green, aesthetic style dress (as they were an artistic family) and Alma-Tadema himself is in the doorway. Laura made additions to the panels, but the screen remained unfinished after their marriage in July 1871.
Although Laura later modelled for some of Alma-Tadema's historical paintings, work on the screen had served its real purpose, to bring the lovers together.
At 6 I met James at Kings Bench Walk and we tubed to East Aldgate. We walked down the Commercial Road to the river. God, the squalor, the desolation and the dreariness of the East End! We passed one beautiful church, burnt out, which I said must be by Vanbrugh. J. identified it from his pocket guide-book as St. George's-in-the-East, by Hawksmoor. The pinnacled square towers like those of All Souls gave the clue. "
St. George's-in-the-East, 1714-26, by Nicholas Hawksmoor (successor to Wren and Vanbrugh)
The church interior was destroyed by an incendiary bomb in the Blitz (and remodelled in the 1960s) but Hawksmoor's 160-foot tower and turrets survived. This was one of his six landmark London churches; here at St George's he used his rejected designs for the tower of St. Alfege-with-St. Peter which had been turned down by the Church Commissioners.
"We were smartly dressed underneath, but wore over our suits dirty old burberries buttoned up to the chin.. We went into a pub for a drink, and a robot [V1 or doodlebug] came over, nearer and nearer, exploding a few yards away. The pub keeper turned us out and shut the door, saying he had had enough for one day. We wished him good luck. 'All the best,' he said.
We wandered through Wapping, to Wapping Old Stairs where Judge Jeffreys was captured trying to escape to France dressed as a sailor. Then to the Prospect of Whitby on the water, with its rickety galleries built over the river on piles."
"We found Philip Toynbee there with a pretty little girl, a Communist. We sat together on the gallery drinking beer and eating sandwiches, watching large boats struggle up the river, pirouette in front of us and retreat into the docks. From here Jamesey saw his first robot . It scurried through the clouds at a great rate and seemed to be circling and not going straight. By 9.30 the inn was full, and a piano and a clarinet were playing hot music. Women sang into a harsh microphone, sailors stamped, and peroxide blondes and the worst characters of London danced like dervishes. It was a strange, gay, operatic scene. ...
Slept in John Fowler's Anderson shelter on the top bunk, which was very luxurious, although there were as many as five of us in the shelter. A noisy night, but quieter at dawn. Incessant jokes and hoots of laughter non-stop. In fact we laughed ourselves to sleep. Nobody woke before 10.15."
Prophesying Peace James Lees-Milne 1944
The Prospect of Whitby is one of London's oldest riverside pubs, frequented by Pepys, as well as Judge Jeffreys who lived nearby, and Thackeray, Turner, Dickens and Whistler among many. Built in 1520, it was known as the Devil's Tavern for the smugglers and thieves it attracted. In 1777 it was renamed The Prospect, after a Whitby collier of that name which was moored nearby.
Its rebuilt street facade, No. 57 Wapping Wall, E1. The flagstone floor is its oldest part.
It would be appropriate if those hanging baskets contained fuchsias, for the story is that in the Prospect a sailor sold an unknown plant to a nurseryman, and so the fuchsia was introduced to England.
It was Frenchman Charles Plumier who discovered the fuchsia in the Caribbean c. 1703, and named it after the 16th century botanist Leonhart Fuchs (this helps with the spelling as the English pronounciation has softened the 'k' sound). Various versions mention a Captain Firth of Hammersmith and a plantsman, Mr Lee; what is confirmed is that in 1788 Kew Gardens acquired a fuchsia plant from a Captain Firth, and the Prospect of Whitby was always a meltingpot of classes and occupations, where a sailor might have met a nurseryman, and was a source of exchanges of all kinds, for centuries here on the Thameside.