D uring the lockdown, Crystal Palace Park in South East London was one of the places that I took my evening exercise, a short walk from my home. The terraces of verdant lawns, wooded areas and the lakes inhabited by the famous concrete dinosaurs, were a welcome escape after a day in front of a laptop and video meetings. Ever since its creation almost a century and a half ago, the park has been the focus for the residents of South London and those who travelled from far and wide to the two cavernous stations that served it – one of which still survives, its vast proportions now incongruous for a suburban station.
Years ago I was engrossed by a story told to me by a friend of my parents whose mother had seen rivers of molten glass flowing down the street as the palace was engulfed by flames during the cold night of 30 November 1936 – a fire that 89 fire-engines and over 400 firemen could not extinguish, leading Winston Churchill to comment ‘This is the end of an age’. I’ve lived within walking distance of Crystal Palace Park for the last twenty years and been fascinated by the thought that the site of one the most impressive buildings ever constructed is now hardly discernable. Last year I queued to be admitted to visit the beautiful but partly derelict vaulted subway that once led to the long-since demolished station that stood beside the front entrance. The shadow of the great place is still there – the ivy-clad subway, the crumbling dinosaurs and the Sphinxes that once stood guard on the terraces and the decrepit vast stone steps from those terraces.
Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace was one of the greatest modern wonders of architecture, the largest glass structure constructed to date. The attendance of the exhibition it housed when it was constructed in Hyde Park was phenomenal. Even the vast task of moving it piece by piece to a new site at Sydenham was one of the most ambitious ever attempted (at a cost equivalent to £135million), a task that could only be overcome by a man who also dammed the great Nile, Sir John Aird, pictures from whose superb art collection I am proud to say that Sotheby’s have sold (including Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s The Finding of Moses sold by my colleagues in New York in 2010 for £35 million).
When Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot painted this unique view of Crystal Palace Park, one of only two know works painted by the artist in London, it was situated in Sydenham, facing one way to London and the other way over the Sussex plains to the coast and beyond to Corot’s homeland. It would have been full of day-trippers and families enjoying the pleasure-gardens, fun-fairs, zoological and botanical attractions, entertainments of all sorts. But Corot did not paint the crowds or celebrate the grandeur of the building as his fellow Frenchman Pissarro did in the early 1870s. For Corot, the park was a place to be painted as a timeless verdant utopia rather than a modern pleasure-garden for a palace of glass and glory.
His landscape, like many of his paintings, has a mythic grandeur and solemnity where the trees tower like sylvan gods, almost blocking our view of the palace. It was painted from the path leading to the north-east exit of the park past the huge reservoir that supplied water to the terrace fountains. We see the arched foundations of brick which held up the Upper Terrace of the palace’s formal garden. These remain in a state of disrepair, among the only surviving architectural elements of the original structure. A few weeks ago, I stood on top of one of those terraces for the first time, looking out across the park. I was not aware then that Corot had painted the exact spot where I was standing but it was as deserted and peaceful as he had painted it and like Corot I was impressed by the grandeur of the trees, descendants perhaps of the same trees that he had painted.