As a footnote to my recent piece on the Babbs I am returning to Peckham. Both the Babbs—John Staines and his sister Charlotte Elizabeth—were born in this area of South London. John painted two delightful oils of weatherboarded houses in the High Street, just yards from the grandly named Basing Manor. I have already touched on the history of the manor house—at least in the time of Sir Thomas Gardyner—but I would like to take another look.
As it happens, John Staines Babb was not the only nineteenth-century artist who was attracted to this subject, and three further images have come to light in the course of my research. Two of these were painted by John Crowther, who will take centre stage later on, and one by Charles Dowley, who makes his entrance now.
I AM AN ARTIST
Charles Dowley was born in 1808 in Peckham Rye. His father, James Dowley, was a prosperous corn dealer, and his mother, Harriett Nicholson, was the daughter of a wealthy timber merchant. Whether there was pressure on Charles to aspire to a mercantile career is not clear, but when he married Catherine Taylor, the daughter of a plumber, he gave his occupation as surveyor. That was in 1840, and a year later, in the census, he described himself as an artist. We do not know what genre or genres Dowley specialised in, but it is at least possible that his work as a surveyor gave him a professional or personal reason to paint Basing Manor.
What we do know is that he practised as a professor of drawing, with school premises in Hill Street, which issued into the north side of the High Street at a point not far from the manor. Here in 1851 he rented out rooms, which rather remarkably involved him in an unedifying spat with a Congregational minister by the name of Joshua Rhodes Balme. Less intransigent individuals might have resolved the problem peacefully, but Dowley and Balme were made of sterner stuff, and in the end the matter went before the Lambeth magistrate, George Chapple Norton.
NO ROOM TO SHARE
The problem started when Balmes rented the rooms for his evening meetings. He was being charged twenty pounds per annum, and he duly installed a piano and various items of furniture. But on asking Dowley to provide hot water for a tea party he was told that he would have to stump up an extra five shillings. Balme countered with a remark about a double booking—he had seen a notice advertising a teetotal meeting in “his” rooms—which put his landlord in breach of contract. When the disgruntled minister began to remove his property, starting, of course, with the piano, Dowley confiscated a box and a cushion and twelve trestles as security for rent.
In court Dowley’s defence faltered when Norton pointed out that no rent had been owing to him at the time of the confiscation. And when Dowley refuted the double booking, arguing that the two meetings were to run consecutively, he was reminded that the contract did not bind Balme to any such arrangement. Inevitably he was ordered to return the items he had unlawfully retained.
One suspects that Dowley had no head for business, and it is perhaps not surprising that he found himself filing for bankruptcy early in 1853. Possibly he was let down by a limited artistic talent, but it is hard to judge, as very little of his output survives. Other than his view of Basing Manor, and a portrait in oils of an elderly businessman by the name of James Constable, there are only references to works exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists. Two of these have such intriguing titles—“The Swing” of 1850 and “Welsh Children at the Spring” of 1851—that one can only regret their disappearance.
SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL
At about this time Basing Manor underwent an unexpected transformation. In January 1850 a professor of languages by the name of Alfred Elwes opened the building as a school, advertising a curriculum founded on his “close acquaintance” with methods of education that were then in fashion not only in England but also on the Continent. Elwes was quite young—thirty years old—and he and his wife Louisa already had four children. But his credentials were convincing enough, for, although he had been raised in Woolwich, he had spent time abroad. He had studied at Leiden, and had taught English in Leghorn. His first two children were born in Italy, and he and Louisa seem to have had connections with France as well.
Elwes did not stay at Manor House School for any length of time, though, and the reason was that he was developing a highly successful career as a writer. While in Italy he had already published an English grammar, and he produced philological works on Romance languages right up to his death in 1888. His oeuvre was varied, and covered history and travel and animal stories for children. He was particularly recognised for his translation of an Arthurian romance written in Occitan—a language spoken in parts of southern Europe—which was illustrated with an extraordinary series of fantasy engravings by Gustave Doré.
Later the school was run by Mary Tattershall. Her pupils were girls, and we may infer that the establishment was fairly exclusive from the fact that it appears in lists of private schools in directories. Certainly one very wealthy gentleman, John George Maud of Croydon, considered it suitable for his daughter, whose name was Lavinia. Lavinia went there in about 1856, when she was in her late twenties, to train as a governess, but by the summer of 1857 she had been dismissed. Mrs Tattershall’s complaint was that the young woman was generally incompetent, and took too much time off to visit her friends, all of which came to light a few months later when Lavinia went to court to contest a codicil in which her dying father had disinherited her. The story was sad and not a little tawdry—Lavinia’s choice of male company had disappointed her overbearing parents—and it did not exactly fit the image of the school. But Mrs Tattershall kept a firm hand on the tiller, and only relinquished her charge of Manor House when age finally caught up with her.
BEFORE YOU GO
But before that happened a history of “Ye Parish of Cam̃erwell” was published in 1875 by William Harnett Blanch, a man of antiquarian pretensions, who noted that Basing Manor still had over two acres of land at the disposal of its pupils for recreational purposes. Harnett was given a gracious reception by Mrs Tattershall, who took him round the school, proudly pointing out the beautiful oak panelling and original carvings. The house did indeed have a long history, and the two views, front and back, painted by John Crowther in 1884 conveyed a strong sense of what it was for a building, then in its sunset years, to have very deep roots in the past.
Crowther, the son of a shoemaker, was born in 1837 in Pudsey in West Yorkshire. But he lived much of his adult life in London, where he achieved considerable success as an artist, exhibiting his watercolours at a number of prestigious venues. In 1879 he was commissioned by Charles Chadwyck-Healey, a distinguished barrister, to produce a series of architectural paintings and drawings, which reveal a remarkable ability to capture what we might call the “personality” of a building.
The purpose of the commission was to record old buildings threatened by the expansion and modernisation that were rapidly changing the face of the nineteenth-century capital. Chadwyck-Healey would naturally have attached special importance to Crowther’s paintings of the Inns of Court, and these, together with interiors of the Livery Company halls, certainly have historical importance. But Crowther also had a marked affinity with a type of vernacular architecture—above all picturesque coaching inns and old manor houses—which suburbanisation was sweeping away.
GONE ALL GONE
In the end Basing Manor, like Mrs Mary Tattershall, succumbed to the inevitable. For a time it continued as Collyer School—named after a prominent Nonconformist, William Bengo’ Collyer, who left his mark on Peckham—but by the middle of the twentieth century it had gone for good. At one point it was an employment exchange: now it is just parking space behind high street retail premises. Gone are the mullioned windows. Gone the red roof tiles and the tall chimney stack. Gone Mrs Tattershall. And gone the dusty school books.
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