Walking in Their Footsteps: The Pissarro and Isaacson Families in Norwood and Crystal Palace

The view from Gipsy Hill

On 4 November 2021, Patrick Bernard (https://modernnature.productions/) and I took a trip to Norwood and Crystal Palace to walk in the footsteps of Camille Pissarro and his extended family. Patrick and I have done this before, when we walked in the footsteps of the eponymous hero of W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, in which Jewish London features heavily. Following these urban footprints with all their ghosts and echoes brings about an experience which has been termed psychogeography—the intersection of psychology and geography—where the exploration of urban environments is done with an emphasis on interpersonal connections to places. Much can be learned by walking these streets in person, discovering perspectives that can’t be seen on maps or photographs. Like so many parts of modern London, the Victorian footprint is still clearly evident in Norwood and Crystal Palace despite the many changes and it is possible to get a strong feel for the neighbourhoods, routes, patterns and distances of the 1870s.

It is well known that Pissarro, his wife Julie, and their children Lucien and Minette, aged 8 and 6, fled the Paris suburb of Louveciennes during the Franco-Prussian War and spent 7 months living in London. They arrived in December 1870 and left in June or July 1871. Prior to their arrival, other family members had already escaped France for London: Camille’s older brother Alfred Pissarro, with his wife Marie and their toddler son Frédéric had arrived in October and his mother Rachel Pizzarro, in her 70s, followed in November. Camille and Julie couldn’t leave France until December because their infant daughter Adèle Emma had died on 5 November, an already distressing period for the family.

The Isaacson and Pissarro family residences in 1870/71

What seems to be less known is why the Pissarro family settled in Norwood. It is because Camille Pissarro’s brother-in-law Phineas Isaacson was already living in Norwood with his 5 children. The bi-lingual Isaacsons were able to help the Pissarro family with translation, with finding accommodation and generally help them find their feet after a fraught escape from the violence erupting in Paris. All the family settled within walking distance of one another, making visits easy; this must have been comforting during the upheaval of this year of exile. And in an age before telephones, it was reassuring to be in easy reach of their elderly mother Rachel.

Phineas Isaacson was the husband of Camille Pissarro’s half-sister Emma. Camille and Emma were very close—they were raised together in the town of Charlotte Amalie on the island of St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands). Phineas Isaacson was originally from London. When he became a merchant [an ‘India Trader’] he did business in Charlotte Amalie where he met and married Emma and began working with the Pissarro family. Phineas and Emma had 3 children, and then in 1855, they and the extended Pissarro family relocated to Paris, where Emma and Phineas had 2 more children.

In 1865, the Isaacsons moved from Paris to London, settling first in the Strand area. Rachel Pizzarro was very close to her Isaacson grandchildren and felt the loss deeply, so after the move to London Emma would occasionally travel to Paris with the children to spend time with Rachel. Tragically, Emma died of a stroke on 19 January 1868 when she was only 47.  Camille, too, had been part of the lives of his Isaacson nieces and nephews, even after the Isaacsons moved to London in 1865. When he came to London for Emma’s funeral, he wrote a letter to Julie in which he said there was some discussion of bringing the Isaacson children back with him to Paris to live with Rachel—this did not happen. Phineas managed on his own or perhaps with the help of his London family.

Sometime between Emma’s death in 1868 and the arrival of the Pissarros in 1870, the Isaacson family moved from the Strand in central London to Norwood in southeast London. The ages of the 5 Isaacson children in 1870/71 were: Rodolphe (the eldest, age unknown), Amélie (20), Alice (16), Esther (13) and Alfred (10).  The children were fully bi-lingual, though the older children were more comfortable with French and the younger two were more comfortable with English. The younger boy, Alfred, attended prestigious Dulwich College, which perhaps explains why his Uncle Camille painted a picture of the school during his time in Norwood.

Dulwich College, 2021

The Isaacson family were Jewish, and as I discuss in my article on Esther Isaacson (who would later marry her cousin Georges Pissarro), it was somewhat surprising that a Jewish family would choose Norwood as a home since it didn’t have an established Jewish community or a synagogue. But the Jewish Orphanage in Norwood, established in 1866, did have a little synagogue for the children and perhaps it opened its doors to local Jewish residents. And in discussions I’ve had with Jewish friends, I’ve learned that a synagogue is not a required element for Jewish religious practice. Only men were expected to attend services regularly and these could be performed in someone’s home if there were 10 men present—what is called a Minyan. So, a community of Jews would be necessary. The Isaacsons were close friends with another Jewish family who had settled in that region, the Bensusans. Mr Bensusan was also a city merchant and I wonder if perhaps Phineas Isaacson had become acquainted with the Bensusans through business and decided to move his family near them for support after Emma’s death. In the years to follow, the Bensusan and Isaacson children became an important part of one another’s lives, and indeed Esther Isaacson introduced one of the Bensusan children—also named Esther—to her cousin Lucien Pissarro, and the pair would marry. Rachel Pizzarro was a practicing Jew, as was, I believe, her son Alfred. Camille Pissarro, although raised in the Jewish faith, had become an atheist when he reached adulthood.

When we began our walk around Norwood, something Patrick and I noticed right away is that there is a reason that so many roads in the area feature the word “hill”: Knight’s Hill, Auckland Hill, Westow Hill, Gipsy Hill, Sydenham Hill, etc.; having walked throughout the region, it’s impossible to avoid hills, and some of them are quite steep. Since Camille Pissarro was carrying his easel, canvasses and paints to work in that area, all the hills would have added difficulty to his journey.

At the heart of the Norwood and Sydenham region was the Crystal Palace, which had been built in Hyde Park for the very first International Exhibition. After the Exhibition closed, it was dismantled and re-erected in Sydenham, re-opening in 1853. The impact of the relocation of Crystal Palace to Sydenham was enormous. Norwood and Sydenham turned from a sleepy rural region into a commuter belt because of the introduction of the rail-line between Victoria and the new Crystal Palace Station created to serve the masses of visitors. There were also stops at West Norwood and Gipsy Hill.

Historic photos of Norwood show how Crystal Palace absolutely dominated the landscape from many angles—some of the images look as though they come from the future or from a science fiction film—such is the contrast between the monumental glass and steel structure and the Victorian homes and shops. It was similar in effect to the Eiffel Tower, which is set within a low-rise Parisian neighbourhood and can be seen for miles around. But the Eiffel Tower was not erected until 1889. Sadly, Crystal Palace burnt down in 1936, a real tragedy since it was an astounding piece of architecture which people would still enjoy. Today, the footings of the buildings remain, which gives some idea of the enormous scale of the structures. Also remaining are some of the massive sculptures and the surprising dinosaur exhibit, which feels as fresh today as it did 150 years ago.     

During our day’s travels, Patrick and I went to the site of 5 different residences, as well as Crystal Palace Park and what remains of the Jewish Orphanage. Sadly, none of the residences are still standing. All have been lost due to a mixture of damage from the Second World War and the sweeping redevelopments which took place after the war, though 2 of the properties were demolished and replaced before 1900. But in most cases, there are existing Victorian properties nearby that give an idea of what had been there.

Camille and Julie’s first residence was at Canham’s Dairy in a property next door to the Westow House pub (formerly The White Swan). Canham’s Dairy was at the intersection of 4 roads: Westow Hill Road, Anerley Road, Church Road, and Crystal Palace Parade. Today, an estate agent occupies the site of the Canham’s Dairy and it bears a blue plaque honouring the association with Pissarro. This address is in the bustling centre of Norwood and there are many shops in Westow Hill Road still inhabiting Victorian buildings. The Pissarros would have found it easy to find necessary provisions, though perhaps not the French foods which they were accustomed to, and Julie did not know English at all, so might have struggled to communicate with shopkeepers. Among the family, Camille and Julie lived closest to Crystal Palace which was just across the Crystal Palace Parade, where there is an entrance to the park. They would most certainly have seen the palace daily and I can image it making quite an impression on their children.

Their second residence was only a stone’s throw away in Palace Road, just off Anerley Road. Palace Road was opposite another of the park’s entrances, and directly opposite the Crystal Palace train station. The biggest difference for Camille and Julie would have been climbing the steep hill from Palace Road up to the shops in Westow Hill Road. At least they would have been going downhill after they’d done their shopping. From his little corner of Norwood, Camille was about 3 km from both his brother and his mother, about a half hour’s walk. Or he could take the train from Crystal Palace station to West Norwood Station and be a minute from his brother and 10 minutes’ walk to his mother’s.

The approach to the park and to Crystal Palace Station from Anerley Road.

Alfred Pissarro, his wife Marie and their son Frédéric lived at 13 Knight’s Hill. What’s at that site now is the Free Public Library, a handsome Victorian building constructed in the 1880s. Judging by the nearby buildings, 13 Knight’s Hill was probably within a terraced row, and would have had a shop on the ground floor level and dwellings above. This is right in the centre of West Norwood and would have been very convenient for the West Norwood train station and for the Jewish Orphanage, if Alfred wished to attend synagogue. It was also very convenient for visiting his mother Rachel, who was only about 10 minutes away.

Rachel lived at what was called 85 Park House, which was 100 Rosendale Road. Again, that property no longer exists, having been replaced by a block of flats. What one notices when visiting Rosendale Road is how wide the tree-lined avenue is, and the larger scale of some of the remaining Victorian homes. This was an elegant neighbourhood. Across the street from what would have been Rachel’s house is a row of Victorian-era shops, which would have made it convenient for Rachel to obtain some basic necessities, though she would have needed to visit West Norwood for a greater range of shops.  

Rachel Pizzarro’s residence was on the site now occupied by the block of flats on the right. But the Victorian property on the left might give an idea of her home.
The shops opposite the Rachel Pizzarro residence, which probably existed during her stay. One can see how wide and leafy Rosendale Road remains.

By coincidence 1871 was a Census year in Britain, and Alfred Pissarro and Rachel Pizzarro were included in it. Camille and family were not—perhaps they’d already returned to France when the Census was taken. One of the puzzles arising from the Census is that 4 of the Isaacson children are listed as living with Rachel at 85 Park House. All of them except the eldest, Rodolphe. Where were Phineas and Rodolphe Isaacson living? In the electoral registers from 1874-1877, Phineas Isaacson’s address was 12 Auckland Hill Road, Norwood. I have not yet been able to see the electoral registers from 1870 to 1873. My theory is that the Isaacsons were already living at 12 Auckland Hill Road and that the younger children went to live with Rachel during her year in exile to keep her company, and to free Phineas to focus on his work. Rodolphe, who would have been in his early 20s, was too old to go live with his grandmother and had probably started working. I will be visiting the London Metropolitan Archives in order to see earlier London electoral registers. Phineas and Camille might not appear in the 1871 Census because digitization is imperfect and things like incorrect spellings can interfere with searches.

The intersection of Auckland Hill Road and St Louis Road, near the site of #12.
Historic photo of Auckland Hill Road with Knight’s Hill and the Jewish Orphanage in the background

Patrick and I visited 12 Auckland Hill Road, but the Victorian dwelling has been replaced by a modern house. The neighbourhood is full of substantial Victorian homes which give a clue to the kind of family home which the Isaacsons might have occupied. Auckland Hill Road was just being developed in the 1870s and still had rural vestiges. It ran parallel to the railway and had Gipsy Road at one end, and Knight’s Hill at the other end. The Isaacson’s home was near the junction with Gipsy Road and to get to the town centre they would have had to walk the length of Auckland Hill Road—mainly uphill all the way, where they would have been near Alfred Pissarro’s residence. There at the top of the hill, there was also the West Norwood train station, convenient for getting to central London, and the entrance to the Jewish Orphanage.

Junction with Auckland Hill Road and Knight’s Hill, which gives an idea of how close the Isaacsons were to the Alfred Pissarro family.

The Jewish Orphanage, which has also been demolished, was a magnificent Victorian building occupying a large plot. From the street, one entered through impressive large gates. I’ve found pictures of the building and of the small synagogue, but all that remains now is the porter’s lodge. It has an illustrious history and it’s so sad that the building wasn’t preserved. On the site now is a leisure centre and children’s playground.

We did not visit the residence of the Bensusan family, 11 Mowbray Road, we simply ran out of time. I know that it is in the vicinity of the Palace Road home where Camille and Julie spent part of their year in London, in easy walking distance to Crystal Palace. Esther Bensusan was born in 1870, and would eventually attend the Crystal Palace School of Art.

What is clear from our day spent walking in the footsteps of the Isaacsons and Pissarros is that they all lived within walking distance from one another, enabling easy visits. The Isaacson and Pissarro children would have enjoyed spending time together during this year. One can imagine them walking in Crystal Palace Park, taking in all the marvels. Camille Pissarro’s letters from this time are few and far between, sadly, it would be interesting to read his observations on life in Norwood and what he thought of Crystal Palace. When he and his sons returned to London, they didn’t stay in Norwood; they followed the Isaacsons first to Islington and then to Bayswater. The Isaacsons always served as a base for their visits and their painting.

The pictures that Camille painted during his stay in Norwood are well known, and they are important, in part because they mark a particular moment when Norwood was in its transition from rural village to London commuter town. Some of his paintings capture things that no longer exist, such as Crystal Palace in its heyday; Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich; and the wide-open field seen in Near Sydenham Hill (Looking Toward Lower Norwood). Some paintings look remarkably similar to the present day, such as Dulwich College. Others are somewhere in between—they are recognisable, but modern changes—especially the car—force us to use our imagination to capture the gentility of the late 19th century: Fox Hill; The Avenue, Sydenham; All Saints’ Church, Upper Norwood; St Stephen’s Church. I’m intrigued by his painting Upper Norwood Under Snow, and would like to return to Norwood to see if I can locate his vantage point especially since, in one letter, he mentions having done a painting that captured the Jewish Orphanage. Could it be one of the large buildings on the horizon? This will certainly be an article that I amend as I find further information.

The view from a rail bridge between Dulwich College and Norwood. Bears similarities to the view in Pissarro’s painting of Lordship Lane Station.
Camille Pissarro, Upper Norwood Under Snow, 1871

Published by londonbelletrist

Writer, scholar and artist

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