• London On The Ground

Down Pentonville Road towards St Pancras: 1884 and today

The view towards St Pancras station down Pentonville Road looking west was painted by Irish painter John O'Connor in 1884.

From Pentonville Road Looking West towards St Pancras, Evening by John O'Connor 1884
Down Pentonville Road towards St Pancras, Evening, 1884. By John O'Connor. Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14739093

The painting's most striking features are its portrayal of the neo-Gothic towers and spires of St Pancras and the softly dramatic glow of the evening sky. Judging by the budding leaves on the trees and the height of the sun, O'Connor probably painted the scene in early spring.

 

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From a vantage point that appears to be on a first floor roof terrace, the artist captures the traffic on Pentonville Road, including the horse-drawn trams that had only started to operate along this thoroughfare in 1883.


Pentonville Road was laid out in 1756, through what was mainly fields, as the final stretch of the New Road, a bypass system avoiding central London (the New Road included today's Marylebone Road, Euston Road and Pentonville Road). The area was intended to be pleasantly suburban, but soon became industrialised and turned downmarket.


In the foreground, O'Connor shows us a haphazard collection of boxes and baskets just in front of him at bottom right (perhaps belonging to what might be a shop or warehouse on the ground floor below). Also on the right of the picture is the church of St James, Pentonville, which allows us to pinpoint exactly where John O'Connor set his easel.


Founded in 1778 as Pentonville Chapel and used as a chapel of ease to St James, Clerkenwell, it became a separate parish church in 1854. It stood on the north side of Pentonville Road a short distance to the west of the junction with Rodney Street.


The church closed after 200 years in 1978 and was demolished in the 1980s. However, where the church once stood, there is now an office building designed as a pastiche of the church. The former churchyard is called Joseph Grimaldi Park, after the famous clown of the 18th and 19th centuries, whose grave is still here.


Using the faux chapel office building (Joseph Grimaldi House) as a reference point, I took a photograph of the evening view down Pentonville Road towards St Pancras earlier this year.

Down Pentonville Road towards St Pancras, 2022
Down Pentonville Road towards St Pancras, Evening, 2022

My photo was taken towards the end of the winter, when there were no leaves on the trees and the sky was not as glorious as in the 1884 painting. It was not possible to achieve the same first floor vista as John O'Connor, but this is otherwise the same view as in the painting. Pentonville Road continues to exude a sense of transit to somewhere else, rather than a location in its own right.


The road is still very busy, although horse trams have been replaced by double decker motor buses. The row of shops that stood on the south side of the road (on the left of the painting) has been replaced by a large housing estate and there are more trees lining the road than in 1884.


One tree, the upper branches of which were painted by O'Connor on the right of his picture, might even still be there today. Standing in the same place and clearly visible in my photograph is a large lime tree (a species that can live for hundreds of years).


We will never know if John O'Connor used artistic licence in his dramatic portrayal of the evening sky.


However, the scale he gives to the towers above St Pancras station at the end of Pentonville Road is a very clear example of artistic licence (some might call it taking liberties with reality). The clock tower of the Midland Grand Hotel designed by George Gilbert Scott and opened in 1873 (five years after St Pancras railway station opened) dominates the composition.

Down Pentonville Road towards St Pancras, Evening, 1884 & 2022.  John O'Cpnnor painting Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14739093
Down Pentonville Road towards St Pancras, Evening, 1884 & 2022

The clock tower is still clearly visible from here, but the artist has exaggerated its size by several times. An observer would need to stand at the bottom of Pentonville Road for the tower to appear as large as O'Connor makes it.

Looking down Pentonville Road from Rodney Street 1884 (top) and at the bottom of Pentonville Road 2022

Perhaps the artist's experience as a theatrical scene painter gave him an instinct for accentuating the recognisable landmarks.


His career included painting scenery at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, at the Haymarket Theatre and for Richard D'Oyly Carte's production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance and Patience. He went on to exhibit paintings regularly at the Royal Academy of Arts and to produce drawings of Court events for the Royal family.


In spite of - or maybe because of - his artistic choices in his Pentonville Road painting, John O'Connor's work is a successful and captivating depiction of a Victorian London scene that has both disappeared and yet is very familiar to us today.

 

John O'Connor painted a number of other London scenes, including The Embankment looking towards St Paul's, the York Watergate from the Thames, a view of Trafalgar Square and St Paul's from Ludgate Hill. These can be seen at this link.

 

Walks available for booking

For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground guided walks, please click here.

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