Great Works: Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich (1871), Camille Pissarro

Courtauld Insitute, London

Camille Pissarro's modestly named painting Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich occupies a corner site in one of the grandiose rooms at the Courtauld Gallery in London, which used to house the Royal Academy until that institution moved into Burlington House on Piccadilly in the 19th century. On display in this room and the adjacent gallery are some of the greatest works of Impressionism by Cézanne, Renoir, Gauguin, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec and others. Pissarro's painting is also modest in title – it's more of a quick notation than a title – modest in size, and modest in subject matter. It seems aptly sited in this corner. It doesn't want, we feel, to make much of a play of being there.

This question of size is an interesting one in general. Impressionist paintings were quite often almost disappointingly small and less impressionant as physical objects than you would want them to be. (They were so different from, say history painting, which impressed by the sheer acreage of wall space it often demanded in order to tell its world-changing stories, and to show off its world-dominating statesmen.) This is quite understandable from a practical point of view. They were often painted out of doors, amid the full force of the elements, and physically handling a canvas in the open air is no mean feat – as Monet discovered when he tried to paint the cliffs at Etretat. Seldom has a painter been so buffeted about in the cause of art.

Pissarro's painting is a very typical view of south London in 1871. It is, you might say, a painting without much of a subject matter – and this too is typical of the Impressionists. Their concern to capture the effects of light meant that the subject needn't be of much moment – a modest barn or a meadow or a stream would serve much better than a grandiose chateau. Why introduce the distraction of self-important buildings? Nothing much is happening in Pissarro's painting – well, not when weighed in the scale of things. There is no emotional epicentre, nothing which draws the eye to it, and keeps it fixed there. Instead, our eye wanders across and around, back and forth, taking in this and that detail of the scene.

At the painting's dead centre is a small, soot-blackened steam locomotive releasing gouts of trailing, listing smoke, white edging off to smudgy greys, into the upper air. It is a very small train, almost a toy of its kind, and it is pulling a bunch of fairly crudely painted brown carriages behind it, blocked out in brown. The train is not in any way a heroic presence in the landscape. It does not have symbolic value. It is not the kind of train that you would later find in Social Realist painting, a mighty symbol of the onward march of the workers. There are no workers associated with this working train in south London at all. No human beings are to be seen anywhere in this painting. It is merely soodling along, doing its job. And it looks perfectly at home in this environment, amidst this outcrop of suburban houses on the outskirts of London, when the village of Dulwich could still just about make a claim to being in the countryside. And yet everything that this painting says is revolutionary in its own quiet way.

The painting shows us a new kind of modernity. Here is London being mightily transformed by the growth of housing and the ever onward thrust of the railways in the second half of the 19th century. This small, chugging locomotive, with its retinue of dutiful carriages in attendance, is merely a common-or-garden presence now, a part of the inevitable landscape of the present which, just 30 years before this painting was made, had caused such uproar and fury from critics such as the great John Ruskin. The railway, when it first appeared, driving its filthy, noisy path through the eternal peace of the timeless countryside, was an abomination like no other. Ruskin wrote of how life would no longer be able to proceed at a slow pace, that all would descend into infernal noise, hurry and the obliteration of any possibility of the return of the slow, contemplative life.

Pissarro shows us a new modernity, in which the railway, no longer a filthy, disruptive revolutionary threat to the landscape and the morals and the general well-being of the nation, looks perfectly at home moving through this cutting between straggles of newly built houses and gentle, upward-sloping meadow and embankments. The present, quite seamlessly, has replaced the past, and the apocalypse has not happened. Ruskin, that great, prophetic fulminator against the Age of Steam will shortly die in his bed, religion and the contemplative life will have survived, and the railway will have brought its benefits and its catastrophes in unequal measure – as will, later, various other unimaginable technologies.

The painting itself is rooted in its own sense of its ordinariness. No part of it is more important than any other part. It is a masterful act of casual deployment of unmatched skills. It is also a beautifully muted painting tonally, which perfectly seizes a certain kind of slightly melancholy, drizzle-blighted English atmosphere – muffled, slightly dingy, damp-feeling greens give way to rusty browns, greys. Everything feels a little like a part of everything else. It all feels and looks so unshocking, so anti-picturesque in the solidity of its there-ness, you might say. There is no sublimity here, no natural or man-made heroism of any kind, no demonstrativeness, no cranking up of the painterly atmosphere, no soaring hills or plunging chasms, no rushing streams, no man to contemplate the depths of his aloneness from some terrible peak. It feels terribly truthful in the way that the ever onward, undemonstrative drabness of life is truthful, every returning, day in, day out, until it just doesn't any more.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was born in the Dutch East Indies, but he was educated in Paris. He was exhibited in all eight Impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1886. In the 1880s, influenced by Seurat, he began to make paintings in the Divisionist manner.

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