MELTON FISHER, R.A., 1856-1939
Your article about Samuel Melton Fisher (Summer 2020) implies that Dulwich College is neither aware nor cares about this Old Alleynian artist. It is true that, as you say, he is not currently mentioned 'on its extensive alumni sites' online, but not that he has 'completely fallen off Dulwich College's own radar'.
Dulwich pupils interested in the past can see Fisher's name and achievements on those splendid Honours Boards in the Great Hall, in letters of gold. In my own days at the College - I retired in 2007 - they might have been curious about his name once a year at Prize-giving, from the Melton Fisher Art Prizes which he endowed (for many years choosing the winners himself), but I gather these have since lapsed. The boys won't know about the debt the school owes Fisher for his devoted advice and his constant interest in the Art School at the College (involving at times his sharp criticism), nor will they know about his zealous work as RA representative on the Dulwich College Picture Gallery Committee. But the boys now at the College could point you to something important about Fisher and Dulwich: you might have suggested villagers look at the moving set of portraits in the Lower Hall that Fisher painted of the College's five Victoria Cross holders (four of them posthumous). Fisher charged the College 'a much reduced rate' for these oil-paintings and exhibited them all at the RA in 1924. These have recently been researched and promoted by Calista Lucy, the Keeper of Archives, and Dr. Nick Black, World War One Historian and the Head of Middle School. Once upon a time, until the Barry Buildings were refurbished, Sixth Formers climbing the stairs of the North Block were overlooked by a photographic portrait gallery of Dulwich old boys famous in the Arts to inspire them: poets, writers, a film-maker, a stage-designer, a jazz musician, academics - and the prominent row of artists naturally included Fisher. In 1981 Barry Viney's exhibition Dulwich College. A School and its Art at the South London Art Gallery and its catalogue had drawn attention to Fisher's work.
I worked as teacher and Keeper of the Archives at the College, privileged over several decades to have had access to its astonishing records. The school has published three history books under my name. Dulwich College, A Brief History and Guide to the Buildings (1990; now out of print) cites Fisher as among the successful pupils Sparkes taught when Canon Carver was Master, one of his men who had 'done more in Art than those of any public school.' Dulwich College publications currently on sale from the Commissariat at the College are surely some 'radar' of its awareness: one can find in them more about Fisher, his two (less worldly) brothers who were also professional artists, and about John Sparkes's teaching methods in my (heavy, but detailed) Dulwich College, a History, 1616-2008. I record that Stef Fisher, his son whom you mentioned, in fact was the Principal Art Master for 25 years at the College. Dulwich 400, the abbreviated, updated College history (so well illustrated, a Quatercentenary gift from the College to all the boys last year) makes three references to Fisher.
Fisher was one of the three Dulwich RAs from the golden age of Sparkes's teaching. Obviously I can't speak for the College on his merits as an artist. Tastes differ: my view is that his commercial success and the fact that many paintings of his were reproduced as prints, together with the variety of subjects by him you illustrate, all suggest he would have been better off sticking to portraits of rich and famous gentlemen and society ladies, such as were always noticed in the College magazine, The Alleynian, in the annual reports of works by Old Alleynian artists at the Royal Academy exhibition. Fisher was not as interesting a painter as the two other RA OAs of that period, H. H. La Thangue and Stanhope Forbes, nor indeed (as artist) the architect and designer C. F. A. Voysey. On the other hand, Melton Fisher's portrait of A. H. Gilkes (RA 1909) in the Board Room, superior to the one of Canon Carver (1882) used to illustrate your article, I much admire: it is full of insight into character, and of very accomplished technique.
Gilkes, by the way, had strong suspicions about Art on moral grounds, in line with his superb refusal to allow any lawn tennis or drama productions at the College out of genuine belief that they were harmful for schoolboys' character development. This of course had a very bad effect on the teaching of art in his day; by contrast, Carver's favouritism towards the subject, and for Sparkes personally, produced the well-known artists. When Gilkes accepted Fisher's portrait of himself from the Alleyn Club (who had paid for it), the two things he said about it in his speech were disarmingly philistine and in character: he was surprised to observe that Fisher had found four oil-colours necessary to portray his famous beard, and he had decided at last to buy a new black academic gown on seeing the one in the picture looking so shamefully old.
Dr Jan Piggott, FSA
Having spent the majority of my life in Dulwich, I suspect I'm not alone in being deeply disappointed that the Dulwich Society has stated that it is supportive of the so-called 'experimental' closure of the Dulwich Village / Court Lane / Calton Avenue junction, even with caveats around further evaluation.
Traffic and pollution has been a lively issue here for decades, particularly back in the 1980s when most cars ran on leaded petrol, Gilkes Place had busy fuel pumps and the traffic outside Dulwich Prep was legendary. It has no easy solution other than London-wide measures around road pricing, transition to small electric vehicles and a massive investment in public transport.
As many predicted, this unilateral action by Southwark Council, supported by the Society, is causing traffic chaos and increased pollution in the very centre of Dulwich Village and elsewhere. Matters will get substantially worse when the schools return in September. Closing roads and pushing traffic and pollution to less affluent neighbours in East Dulwich Grove, Lordship Lane etc. while some try to create a bucolic semi-rural idyll is shameful. We do not live in a sleepy corner of the Home Counties, but are an integral part of a highly connected, global city. Many of the vehicles that use that junction, often in our name (e.g. supermarket deliveries, couriers, builders, utility providers, careworkers, emergency vehicles, the elderly etc.) simply have to use vehicles to get around and we are forcing them to sit in long traffic jams or make wide detours around this area. Adding more road closures, which some are touting as the solution to this predictable chaos, will only make matters worse.
Moreover, the idea that we desperately need to prioritise a 'Village Square' is deeply lacking self-awareness, given by the standards of most of London we already have an embarrassing number of areas to relax and watch the world go by (e.g. Dulwich Park, Belair, the Gallery garden, the Village orchard, Lovers Walk etc.) and, in much of the Village, wide tree-lined pavements.
The Dulwich Society is also providing tacit support for a Council which, in many people's eyes, appears to be playing fast-and-loose with its obligation to good governance, particularly in relation to the use of Covid-19 as a thinly-veiled excuse to impose this closure and its breathtakingly biased online feedback tool.
If, as a community, we want to have a fair and balanced debate about timed restrictions and/or truly 'permeable' access for essential vehicles and perhaps some residents, that's fine. But at present you're on the record as supporting a blanket closure of this junction, which is indefensible and creating many unintended - but entirely predictable - negative consequences. Moreover, I don't
recall any attempt being made to canvas the Society's membership before arriving at this stance, which is deeply disappointing. I would urge the Dulwich Society to reconsider.
I am delighted to see the measures Southwark council are implementing to address Dulwich's serious through traffic problem. The first step, closure of the Village junction has reduced commuter traffic and improved the quality of life for many residents, pedestrians and cyclists.
Of recent years, areas like Dulwich, have suffered from traffic flow being drastically altered by the big tech companies. App-based sat navs e.g. Waze have had a detrimental effect on residential neighbourhoods. Car sat navs did not direct traffic through residential roads, apps calculate the shortest route, hence our streets are badly affected. As a result, during a period of little economic growth, the amount of traffic in our neighbourhood has risen significantly. I see this every day in Court Lane. Ten years ago, it was rare to see a queue turning into Lordship Lane. Lately, and before Southwark's interventions, the queue often reached several hundred feet back.
Since the junction closure, it is a pleasure to walk to the Village and enjoy the traffic-free square. The two separated ends of the Village are re-united, shoppers no longer have to cross a polluted, dangerous junction. This helps footfall, much needed in these challenging times. The square will be an exciting community space, which could host a farmer's market for example, and further enhance footfall. You only need to look at the successful scheme completed in Herne Hill to see how the area around the station has thrived. Another significant benefit is the improved access to Dulwich Park at the Court Lane gate, now a much easier and safer place to cross. The same applies for children accessing the Village schools via the former junction and also Calton Avenue. From my perspective, for the first time in years, I no longer need to use asthma medication due to better air quality.
The scheme provides an exciting opportunity to discourage some local car journeys, thus decreasing the net number of trips. Consider this: In the area, bordered by Court Lane, Lordship Lane and Calton Avenue, I would guess there must be in excess of six-hundred households. If each of these takes one fewer car journey a week, the immediate effect on traffic is enormous. I have already spoken to neighbours who will be making more trips on foot and bike.
I am very aware of the issue of traffic displacement, so moving forward, it is essential further measures are urgently taken across the wider Dulwich area, in order to mitigate against rat-runners seeking new routes. Other streets in Dulwich should benefit from restrictions to improve air quality and road safety, and I look forward to the phase two proposals.
Finally, Southwark's measures are the best way to achieve the desired outcome of restricting through traffic, and enabling traffic evaporation, whilst maintaining reasonable access for residents, every house is still accessible by car. Some journeys will take a little longer, but I believe this is a small price to pay when balanced against the environmental benefits.