25 March 2024

The Terraces and Textures of Thamesmead

Last month I ventured to Abbey Wood where I attended a guided walk in Thamesmead looking at the architecture and topography of this vast residential area as well as its use as a location for many films and TV dramas. 

It was a grey day. I took a these snaps and made a mental note to return and investigate on a warmer day.

I was saddened to discover that there's nothing left of the lakeside area once trodden by The Droogs which would have been to the left of the orange signage in the pic bottom right, above. And I was amazed/confused that there seemed to be no pubs or cafés or corner shops anywhere, meaning everyone, children, old ladies etc, has to hike all the way to the shops near Abbey Wood station or use one of the mega stores that surround this zone, each one larger than an average sports hall. Mind you, considering the amount of properties here, we hardly saw any other humans at all, except for few dog walkers. I considered that everyone might be at work, but no, it was a Saturday. Perhaps the were all that the mega malls and leisure centres, or simply indoors watching TV or playing computer games?

A few weeks later I went to the Affordable Art Fair in Battersea Park. I was some admiring some paintings and prints of brutalist architecture (ooh the patterns, ooh the grids and lines and geometrics) and began talking to the lady next to one of the pieces only to discover that she was the artist! It's hard to fathom how I'd never discovered Mandy Payne or her work before. To cut a long story short, we got chatting and discovered that we have lots of common interests. We swopped Instagram accounts and within a few days we'd arranged to go to Thamesmead together on Monday 25th March.

Mandy had also been to this part of Thamesmead before but she hadn't seen or known about some of the places that she'd admired in my photos taken in February which I had posted on my Instagram @janeslondon account. She was enthused and clearly enthralled when we reached the raised walkways. As I'd expected, she took hundreds of photos. I took little more than the three above and the ones shown below which are mostly of some retaining walls near the lake that Mandy was also keen to see. They have an amazing crackle-glaze effect, caused where modern paint applied over un-prepped surfaces has shrivelled and peeled to create marvellous textural patterns. 

However, we are concerned that this accidental abstract art won't be visible for much longer. It looks like Bexley Council is planning to paint these walls a boring shade of mid grey, evidenced by a few test squares here and there, as shown below. This shade of grey is light absorbing rather than light reflecting and I've written before about the overuse of this ubiquitous shade of dull here

We also noticed that paint peeling from handrails and metalwork revealed colours of past decades, starting with peach and then blue and green, most recently overpainted in black, Black. BLACK! What's this obsession with monotone? But, on the plus side, the subtle pastel effect created by what I think is different shades white paint is lovely, especially when contrasted with the vibrant natural greens of the healthy moss and lichen that is growing in the cracks and along the tops of the walls.

And then Mandy took me to see something that I'd somehow missed when I had visited the first time. A raised terrace above the convenience store has seating and what I guess could have originally been constructed as structures for basketball hoops. One of them is painted a gorgeous vibrant red (much more exhilarating than black or grey) and the metal seats show a palimpsest of colours throughout the decades

My last two pics, are of some windows above one of the many rows of garages there, designed for cars that were much smaller back in the 1960s and 70s. I was thinking, as I watched the pigeons walk along the roof, that these buildings resembled bird lofts. And then I noticed my initials JP on the glass!
Back to London central on the Elizabeth Line. I returned to Islington and Mandy went to do something in Paddington. As I write this she is on another train heading back to her home and studio in Sheffield. Thanks Mandy, and see you again soon for another brutalist appreciation session!

24 March 2024

The historic topography of Royal Hill, Greenwich – repurposed railway lines and ghostsigns

I was wandering the lovely back streets of Greenwich last week, past the theatre and the fan museum (both marvellous, and I found myself in Royal Hill. I looked to see if the building that used to be home to a cheese shop run by a lovely guy I met on a plane coming back from Zakynthos in the late 1980s, was still there. The terrace of shops hasn't changed much, In my mind's eye I recalled that his shop was within the terrace, possibly next to the butcher. But when I got home and started doing a bit of research I discovered that The Cheese Board is at No.26 (corner of Circus Street) and Michael is still there, known locally as Mr Cheese! Had the shop been evident and open I'd obviously have popped in and asked if he has any Cornish Blue (yummy!). Perhaps it was early closing day. 

I continued up the street, admiring all the lovely houses, and stopped to look at the fab tiles on the Barley Mow pub at the corner of Point Hill, now a restaurant. 

Barley Mow pub, Royal Hill greengrocer, Royal Circus tea merchant

Realising that I was supposed to be meeting a friend in the Oxford Street in thirty minutes, I started making my way down the hill via Prior Street towards the station. I looked to the right and noticed that there appeared to be quite a wide angular gap between the houses here behind this tree, and I looked back and forth at that and at the twentieth century flats behind me, considering that there must have been a railway line here.

A couple walking their small friendly dog saw my quizzical face and asked if I was lost. I explained my thought process to them. Well, what a delightful interlude it turned out to be. John said yes, that he had wondered that too, but he hadn't been able to find out any info. The conversation progressed and I said I'd look into the things we discussed. I cave him my card and asked him to keep in touch. But I have decided to write it up here. Just shows how one bit of 'perhapsing' can evolve into a half a day of sleuthing! I do hope John is reading this. And I hope I have remembered his name correctly as I tend to forget what you'd call 'normal' names. His wife, who has lovely eyes, is called Della. Nice people. 

Here's the Google view of the area today – I was standing were the word Vina [Launderette] is:

As you can see, there are allotments here which are often a hint at old railway lines or sidings, indeed that's what John thought, that this was sidings. I thought it was more likely to be a connecting line from/to Lewisham, which was confirmed when I found this 1890's OS map available on Layers of London – many of the road names have changed and this isn't exactly the same proportion and crop as the pic above, but it's easy to make the comparison:

I had assumed the railway line then fed into into the eastbound service towards Maze Hill but, no, it ended at 'Greenwich Terminus' on Stockwell Street, site of the Ibis Hotel today. 

John also mentioned that he was intrigued by an old sign near the old Old Barley Mow pub which he wondered might have been a coal merchant. Ooh I thought... lets go and have a look! By this time I realised I was going to be even later for my appointment in central London but, luckily, I was meeting a friend who is as fascinated by these things as I am, so he'd understand! 

I turned to look back past the pub where there is a hand-painted ghostsign on a building that looks to be No.1 Point Hill, but is actually constructed in the back garden of No.1 King George Street. I took a few  photos:

There are multiple layers on this sign. Looking my the phone screen we found it was easy to make out CORN & COAL MERCHANTS through the middle but the names were hard to decipher. For instance, there's a name in a curve at the top that looks to begin 'J. S. PE..' and another name in a straight line over/under that. The last word at bottom right could be RAIL, perhaps making use of the adjacent railway line. 

Having googled, I'm surprised to discover that other ghostsigns fans haven't snapped any photos of this, especially as it has been clearly visible since at least 2008 when I first noticed it myself, although I must admit that I didn't photograph it back then. And I am pretty sure I noticed it back in the '90s when my friend had that cheese shop. All I can find is this listing on eBay
A quick look at the old directories leaves me struggling to find a reference to coal. The earliest reference I have to hand is South London Suburbs 1896 which shows Mr Samuel James Perren listed at 1-3 King George Street as a corn merchant. This correlates with the with what we can see here. This street links through to Croom's Hill, the other main road in this area, and it's interesting to read how many other traders and merchants were here in the 1890s, including a baker, an undertaker, a builder, music teacher, a decorator and a few dressmakers.
By 1911 Mr Walter Gibbins is at this address, also trading in corn. But barely anything is listed along the whole street during WW1 or the pre-WW2 years.
Until further information becomes available, I am going to conclude that either a coal merchant was here pre- the 1890s, or that the word we are seeing as 'coal' (middle left on the sign) is actually something else. Though it could simply be that it was usual for a corn merchant to also sell coal back then.
Any further info is most welcome via jane@janeslondon.com

For more of my ghostsigns observations, simply use the search box or click here.

7 March 2024

Gabriel von Max and Rene Magritte – 'Jesus Christus' on my wall and at Christie's London

A couple of weeks ago I bought this old framed print “Jesus Christus” from a local second hand shop. It's behind glass and hard to photograph. Even though I’m an atheist, I'm a sucker for a beautiful religious piece, and I was drawn to this dark brooding version of Christ. I immediately hung it the wall when I got home that day. 

Ten days later, yesterday, walking down Duke Street, St James's, heading to Christie’s to see the latest auction (wow! fab). This street offers a view into some of the sale rooms. I stopped in my tracks when I saw what I assumed to be the original painting of my new Jesus acquisition! We whizzed inside and discovered the painting is by Rene Magritte, completed in 1918 when he was only 20 years old, long before he was seduced by surrealism (theres's a lot of that stuff in the other rooms).

It’s a beautiful painting, signed clearly by the Magritte at top right. Hmm, I thought, I don’t recall seeing that sig on my print. And then I noticed other things about that didn’t seem ‘right’ as I was sure my print was of a painting that was more delicate/fine. I took some photos and decided to delve further at a later date.

When I got home, I studied my print and discovered it’s not the same work. A bit of quick online research makes it clear that Magritte's work is a copy of an 1885 painting by Gabriel von Max, his version of The Veil of Veronica

Indeed, I looked at my snap of the Christie's info card at the side of the Magritte work and noticed that it does indeed show 'After Gab Max' on it – that hadn't meant anything to me at the time.

Max's art was popular during his lifetime and his image of Jesus quickly became available as lithographic prints, such as mine. He appears to have been a rather interesting man – amongst other things, he kept a ‘herd of monkeys’ in his garden house!

As these comparisons show (not taken at the exact same angle), Max's 1885 painting (L) and Magritte's 1918 painting (R) differ in many places: 

Magritte’s version is more about the paint, which I love. Well, I love them both. Although Magritte has taken pains to copy some of Max's delicate red marks, he loses subtlety in the face especially around the eyes (which can be viewed as open or closed). Magritte has also enhanced the edges of the cloth (a fabrication by Max) and altered the position of the title at the bottom (see the framed versions above). And the signature – on close inspection, I can see on my print that there is a hint of a signature at top left (not visible here) that Magritte has chosen to replace with his own.  

It's all a lovely coincidence, seeing as I had no idea about this image until ten days ago and would have been entranced by the Magritte version had I never see the Max one. I am now buzzing with questions: 

Why did Magritte paint a copy of another man’s painting? Was it simply a training piece? 

Where was Max's painting hanging at that time? Is that where Magritte made the copy? Or did he copy one of the many lithographic copies?

What other paintings did Magritte copy at this time?

Would Magritte's painting be worth Christie's estimated auction price of £70-100K had not later become famous for gravity-defying apples and pipes? 

In comparison, how much is Max’s painting today? And where is it? 

Christie’s sale rooms are always worth visiting. Ditto all other auction rooms. They are free to view and often it’s the only way to see beautiful works that will end up in private collections.