The One That Got Away
Yesterday I made my first and only foray into the world of highbrow auctions, bidding on a lot at Christies. It turned out to be useless, of course. I sat there watching online, finger poised over the button but didn’t even make First Base. Two (or perhaps three; you only see the auctioneer on the online service) people in the room went mad bidding against each other and, reluctantly accepting that Christies generally prefer Coin of the Realm to eye teeth, I admitted defeat.
But before I totally chalk this one up to experience and before it disappears forever (unless, by some chance it was someone who intends to put it on display somewhere) I’d really like to talk about it.
You can still find it listed here and though the image quality is poor, you can still make out enough to see why I like this painting so much.
A Bustling Street Before St Alfege’s Church is not by anyone famous – being from ‘the circle of’ (i.e. not ‘by’) James Pollard (an artist whose finest hour, the Wikipedia biog seems to claim, was creating the background to horse racing pictures so a more famous painter could do the horses) If I’m brutally honest, there are issues with perspective here too (there’s a VERY tiny small child playing with a horse that’s about half the size of another one next to it whilst the flag at the top of the church could probably wrap both of them up with fabric to spare for the gentleman on the extreme left) and there’s something to be desired in the composition – but for me, that all adds to its immense charm.
It’s the energy and the history this painting has that made me want it more than I’ve wanted pretty much anything else for some time. The East end of St Alfege’s is much the same as it ever was, though the cherubs’ faces; are clearer (and slightly demonic) here. Joseph Kay’s Nelson Road is finished and looks splendid, but that’s where anything else we might be familiar with nowadays stops.
Look at the rest of the market, for example. It’s just not there yet (which places this painting in the very early 1830s) That brown lump where Turnpin Lane ends is a large, thatched cottage. And the street (unless it has a few more perspective problems, which wouldn’t really surprise me) seems to go right across, making Greenwich Church Street much narrower down to the beach than we might expect.
These are all buildings we don’t know any more. The ones at the back would have been demolished to build the market, the ones closest to us were mainly lost in the war. The rather lovely Burton’s building, the one with the elephants, is now on the corner where the end of Kay’s Nelson Road was, though with a Tex-Mex restaurant in it rather than a gentlemen’s outfitters.
I particularly love the two shops closest to the viewer. I can’t remember the name of the micro-paned shop closest to us (Harriet – I did look and it doesn’t seem to say Richardson’s, though of course he would have been setting up shop round about that time) but the one next door is brilliant. It’s called The Yellow Boot (presumably it’s a cordwainer’s) and, just so that no one misses it, the yellow shape on the roof next to the chimney is indeed a giant yellow boot. Wonder whatever happened to that…
It wasn’t just the buildings that caught my attention though. I loved the life in this. The coaches, especially the one in the foreground, are great. The driver has totally mad eyes – white dots that make him look quite sinister. I don’t know if the carriage in the centre is supposed to be the one that used to go to Dover, on its way to stop at the Spread Eagle, but it looks like it should be.
The people are quite crude, but each one is interesting in his or her own way – a child playing in the dirt; a woman in a flash of red skirt. I particularly liked the Greenwich pensioner, remarkable for retaining both legs, which is unusual in artistic depictions of the old sea dogs (though he retains the customary crutch.) I’m cursing myself for not making notes at the time when I went to view the painting, but if memory serves, there’s some kind of sailor in there too.
This is a painting of Greenwich, and of the people of Greenwich. I wish whoever finally won it as much entertainment enjoying it as I would have had.