Towards the end of 1870 Pissarro and his family took refuge in England from the Franco-Prussian war. He stayed in Upper Norwood, London until June 1871, and painted several views of Norwood and Sydenham including 'The Avenue, Sydenham'. Many of the houses in this street have been rebuilt but the general character of this view and the distinctive bend still correspond with Pissarro's painting.
Miranda Hinkley: Knowing Jon Hall’s penchant for outdoor painting, we invited him to try his hand at an updated version of ‘Fox Hill’. I visited him as he worked at his easel on the leafy south London street.
Miranda Hinkley (on location): We’re standing on Fox Hill in Upper Norwood in roughly the same place where Pissarro must have completed his famous work in 1870, and Jon, you’ve been here since very, very early this morning with your easel painting. How’s it going? How have people been reacting to you?
Jon Hall: Very, very positively.
Miranda Hinkley: What was it about Pissarro’s painting that you found so inspiring?
Jon Hall: When I first saw it, in the gallery, I reacted emotionally to it. I was a teenager and I looked at the picture and I read the little snippet next to it which says he painted it from life and I just thought: ‘good god, it’s snowing… The image that came across was of a very cold scene. I’ve actually painted in blizzards where you can’t see, like, six foot in front of you. But I thought of Pissarro standing here, with maybe just two pairs of socks on and a pair of old boots and freezing.
Miranda Hinkley: And so looking at your sketches Jon, you can see that the tree, in fact the same one that was in Pissarro’s original picture is still there.
Jon Hall: Yes, yes, that’s perhaps the most interesting part of this subject for me, the fact that that tree is still there. And it was just a tender young sort of sapling, perhaps about 15 years old when he painted it and now, it’s what – at least 145 years old and the ash cart hit it this morning and it’s going to be knocked down very soon.
Miranda Hinkley: Landscape painting and painting from life is obviously very important to you and in fact you entered into a contract recently to paint every day of the year, no matter what the weather, a particular stretch of Durham coastline up near where you live. What is it about landscape painting and painting from life that appeals to you so much?
Jon Hall: Well, I originally designed the contract to motivate myself to get out and paint from life every day, because I was just going out preferably when it was sunny, and I thought ‘this is not on, I’ll have to go out and suffer these extremes that the… you know, like the likes of Pissarro did here at Fox Hill in the snow’.
Miranda Hinkley: And rather like Pissarro in that picture, you’re not a fair weather painter, so you come out in all kinds of weather conditions. How has that been? Particularly when you were on the coast painting in often very exposed conditions?
Jon Hall: Oh, it’s been an amazing experience. During one blizzard it felt as if I was on the front of a speedboat because the wind and rain were coming horizontal; in fact, the rain was going up my nose and I suffered for my picture… and then it blew out to sea, so I had to do another one… Other days, it was so hot the paint dried almost immediately, so I had to spray it. And then when it rained I had to have the paint brush in one hand and the blow torch in the other hand and actually dry the paint as it was raining, because it would just wash off…
Miranda Hinkley: But not like today… today’s been fairly good weather.
Jon Hall: No, today’s been… it’s been freezing and I’ve got my old all in one romper suit on, so it hasn’t been too cold, but it is very cold when you’re just standing still. So if anybody’s thinking of going out, and I encourage you to do so, but be prepared for it… even when you think it’s warm, you do get cold.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Artist Jon Hall braving the cold and the streets of south London in the name of art.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Five, March 2007