I recently bought a blue and white pearlware Staffordshire dish of c.1823 (fig. 1). Inside a border of roses and pierced basket-ware, the oval ‘transfer print’ shows three buildings, apparently adjacent: Dulwich College Picture Gallery, the Chapel and a wing of the Old College; the three different architectural styles form a backdrop to the view through trees and across a field where hay-makers are loading a wain. To recognise just where the artist of the scene on the dish was looking when he drew the scene, imagine entering Dulwich Park, by the main gates on College Road, walking for, say, three minutes on the pavement, when you stop and turn round: presto - you blink your eyes, and as if by magic you are snap-shot by this Old Dulwich view illustrated below, a vision of what you would have seen on that spot two hundred years ago; you are wearing, of course, a pair of blue-tinted supernatural spectacles. On the left you see a section of the east front of the Gallery as it was originally, not represented by the artist as well as it deserved. Five (of twelve) arched bays of Soane’s austere blind arcade that flanked the entrance can be discerned; of brick, they were a sort of apology for the loggia he proposed and the College said they could not afford. Above these arches is the ‘attic’ (rendered in stone), with its recessed rectangular panels that the eye might misread as windows; above that is Soane’s long octagonal skylight (a structure rather like a greenhouse) for top lighting. This was just how this elevation looked, the original outer wall of Soane’s original Gallery when it had only the one magnificent enfilade of rooms for showing the pictures; on this east front the present Entrance Lobby and Galleries X-XIII were added later.
Next follow the Chapel and Tower, without Charles Barry Jr.’s mansard roof of 1866, and the Almshouses (rebuilt 1738-9) in the College’s east wing. The latter presents splendid casements, Italianate pilasters and entablature that originally matched the College courtyard behind it (as seen in eighteenth-century engravings and drawings). Perhaps the architect was in fact Inigo Jones (as was claimed in the eighteenth century): he signed as a witness the Foundation Document, a former colleague of Alleyn’s in court entertainments such as masques; there is documentary evidence that Alleyn employed Jones’s builder, John Benson. The College courtyard was embellished with the same giant Ionic pilasters topped by stone balls that Jones added a few years later to the side walls of Old St. Paul’s. Moreover, Sir Francis Bourgeois told Launcelot Baugh Allen, then the Warden of the College, that ‘your chapel is built by Inigo Jones and [Soane] is one of his most enthusiastic admirers.’ The almshouse East Wing as we know it today was yet to be remodelled, ‘modernised’ (ironically, in ‘retro’ style) in rather dull Tudor Gothic livery by Charles Barry Sr., Surveyor and Architect to the College and the Estate from 1831 to 1858, and then by Charles Barry Jr., who took over until 1900. He added the fanciful terra cotta chimneys, marking the date of his own remodelling, 1866, inside a cartouche on the façade.
The Staffordshire dish is an example of the familiar cheap wares printed with blue ‘transfer’ scenes. These included the famous Willow Pattern (a term which originally could include other chinoiserie designs). Many earthenware manufacturers at about this time issued series picturing the ‘Beauties of Britain’; the views they chose were shamelessly pirated from illustrations engraved on copper found in the many topographical books of the period. They sometimes made minor additions or variations, presumably to avoid being sued over copyright. Thus the plagiarist who made the copy of the original print from which this scene was taken added to the foreground of the engraving from which it was taken (fig. 2) a Dulwich Villager sitting with his dog. He appears to be looking at an open book. This may have been intended as a gentleman with literary pretensions who liked to read with the odour in his nostrils of the new-mown hay. We know from a contemporary source how this particular pervasive sweetness greeted visitors to those summer fields at that time in the vale of Dulwich, as they descended from Herne Hill (unlike today’s petrol fumes and foul sub- urban chemical barbecues smells). The idle figure with the dog may of course have been meant to be taken, because of the book, for a Fellow of Dulwich College with its (very dubious) claims to learning. Mostly these ceramic picturesque British scenes were of country mansions in parkland, to be revealed with the left-overs on the plates of less privileged folk, highly popular at home and in America (where they were exported en masse), rather like Downton Abbey. This view of Dulwich College was copied from a copperplate illustration, dated 1819, made from a watercolour by Henry Gastineau (1791-1876) (fig. 2); they found it in Longman’s Excursions in the County of Surrey: comprising brief Historical and Topographical Delineations, &c, published in 1821. The anonymous author of this book was Thomas Cromwell Kitson, F.S.A. (1792-1870), who was on the publisher’s staff; what he wrote about Dulwich is of little interest. Gastineau, a friend of Turner, and famous especially for the wonderful Welsh views engraved from his watercolours, was a local artist, brought up and living much of his life in Cold Harbour Lane.
Early British ceramics were hand-painted, but transfer printing, from about 1750, enabled mass-production of cheaper wares and greater profits. The pirated original topographical prints were re-engraved on copper or (later) on steel. The incised plate or roller (see fig. 3) was inked in cobalt blue, then the surface of the plate was wiped clean, leaving the ink in the cut lines - the process, the opposite way of making a lino-cut or a wood-cut, is called intaglio engraving. The reversed image that resulted from printing on transfer paper was then impressed face down on the ceramic surface, finally presenting the image the right way round, as shown in fig. 3. The paper was either soaked off or burnt during the firing, and finally the piece was fired again with the pearlware or clear glaze over the print. The maker’s stamp on the back of this Dulwich dish is a circular impressed mark, ‘A. Stevenson Warranted Staffordshire’ around a crown emblem. Andrew Stevenson (1780-1855) of the Cobridge Works in Staffordshire (active from 1816-28), was a prolific member of a family of pottery makers. He became very active in the transatlantic trade, actually moving to New York in 1823, and settling there with a shop on Broadway, where Wall Street is now, and he died in the States.
Hay-makers in the same Dulwich fields as on the dish were also seen and mentioned by Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), essayist, poet and friend of Hazlitt, Lamb, Byron and Shelley and of Dickens, who immortalised him as Skimpole in Bleak House. Hunt was the editor of The Companion magazine, in which, on 25 June, 1828, he published his own essay, entitled ‘A Walk from Dulwich to Brockham. In a Letter to a Friend.’ He described taking the Dulwich stage-coach from Fleet Street to the Greyhound inn:
We felt as if we had newly got into the country, and ate a hearty supper accordingly. This was a thing not unusual with us; but then everybody eats “in the country” -there is “the air;” and besides, we had eaten little dinner, and were merrier, and “remote.”
On looking out of our chamber window in the morning, we remarked that the situation of the inn was beautiful, even towards the road, the place is so rich with trees; and returning to the room in which we had supped, we found with pleasure that we had a window there, presenting us with a peep into rich meadows, where the haymakers were at work in their white shirts. … We know not whether it was the sultriness of the day, with occasional heavy cloud but we thought the air of Dulwich too warm, and pronounced it a place of sleepy luxuriance. So it appeared to us that morning; beautiful, however, and “remote” and the thought of old Allen, Shakespeare’s playmate, made it still more so.
Hunt and his companion much regretted they did not stop this time to see the Gallery - he tells us about the Claude, Cuyp and Rembrandt to be seen there ¬- but he set down a boyhood memory of how he saw Sir Francis Bourgeois in company with Benjamin West (1738-1820), the second P.R.A., in the latter’s gallery in Newman-street:
He was in buckskins [skinny pale buff breeches, in something like chamois leather] and boots, dandy dress of that time, and appeared a lively, good-natured man, with a pleasing countenance, probably because he said something pleasant of myself; he confirmed it with an oath, which startled but did not alter this opinion. Ever afterwards I had an inclination to like his pictures, which I believe were not very good; and unfortunately with whatever gravity he might paint, his oath and his buckskins would never allow me to consider him a serious person; so that it somewhat surprised me to hear that M. Desenfans had bequeathed him his gallery out of pure regard; and still more that Sir Francis, when he died, had ordered his own remains to be gathered to those of his own benefactor and Madame Desenfans, and all three buried in the society of the pictures they had loved… If there was vanity in the bequest, as some have thought, it was at least a vanity accompanied with touching circumstances and an appearance of a very social taste; and as most people have their vanities, it might be as well for them to think what sort of accompaniments exalt or degrade theirs, or render them purely dull and selfish. As to the Gallery’s being “out of the way” especially for students, I am of a different opinion, and for two reasons: first, that no gallery, whether in or out of the way, can ever produce great artists, nature, and perhaps the very want of a gallery, always settling that matter before galleries are thought of, and second because in going to see the pictures in a beautiful country village, people get out of their town
commonplaces, and are better prepared for the perception of other beauties, and of the nature that makes them all. Besides there is probably something to pay on a jaunt of this kind and yet of a different sort from payments at a door. There is no illiberal demand at Dulwich for a liberal pleasure; then “the inn” is inviting, and the warmth which dinner and a glass diffuses, helps them to rejoice doubly in the warmth of the sunshine and the pictures, and in the fame of the great and generous.
What Leigh Hunt says about the Gallery and his defence of its being so far out of town reminds us that it was specifically founded to open without charge to the public and to inspire young painters. He seems to be suggesting in this passage that learning how to paint by copying Old Masters, as intended by Bourgeois in the Gallery, is obsolete, and that Nature might be the best teacher. ‘Going to Nature’ was something that Ruskin called for in Modern Painters (1843, seq.) He had formed his youthful doctrines walking so often down to the Gallery from Herne Hill to study the Dutch and other Old Master pictures - in reaction to them. Though young Holman Hunt (1827-1910) made copies of several paintings at the Gallery, Pre-Raphaelites did paint from nature over the next twenty years.
Leigh Hunt then left Dulwich the same day for Norwood, “where we rejoiced to hear that some of our old friends the Gipsies were still extant.”