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SISLEY by the Thames
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Self-guided walk
Paintings 1 to 8
Paintings 9–11
Extension to the walk
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Paintings 9–11

The boating theme continues with Sisley’s next picture, Regatta at Molesey [9], and to get to the spot simply continue along Barge Walk until the boat club is reached. The area to the left would have been flower-filled meadows in 1874 but now there are expensive riverside houses, and they in turn replaced an open-air swimming pool called The Upper Deck which was opened in the 1930’s and thus continued the tradition of water-related pastimes, but sadly it is no more. There is a small green space just beyond the clubhouse and this may have been where the artist set up his easel to paint the picture which is perhaps the most famous image in the series and which is now part of the collection at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The painting shows the river on regatta day with the hotel on Tagg’s island on the right. The island is now completely different, the hotel has gone and it’s physical appearance has been changed to make it the ‘anchorage’ for numerous floating homes, some of which are very grand indeed and hardly fit the description of ‘houseboat’. Inspite of the transformation this is a good place to stop and consider the artist’s vision with racing boats and their crews from the boat club providing at least some of the elements in the picture, especially on the days of the Molesey Regatta, although the races themselves now take place a little further upstream. The painting is perhaps the most fluid and ‘impressionistic’ of the series and this approach is sympathetic to the scene which is full of activity and movement with fragmented reflections in the river which seem to dance on the surface of the canvas. The green space is now the home of a contemporary sculpture called ‘Eights Tree’ by Ray Smith which is dedicated to R.C. Sherriff the famous playwright who was also a keen oarsman.

The next picture in this progress along the river is The Thames with Hampton Church [10] which shows a view with Tagg’s Island on the right with Garrick’s Temple and Hampton church in the distance. It is no longer possible to achieve exactly the same view because of the growth of trees but both these buildings still stand and can be seen a little further along the towpath. The artist probably positioned himself on the water’s edge just beyond what is now the ground of the East Molesey Cricket Club on the left. Although this club is one of the most historic in the land they have only been on this ground for a mere century or so, but on a hot summer’s afternoon the lazy pleasure of watching the game of willow on leather is timeless. It should be noted that the cricket club offers refreshments at most times of the year.

This stretch of the river has, rather exotically, been referred to as the Thames Riviera and that name still persists in the name of a bus stop on the main road on the opposite bank close to where a bridge crosses to Tagg’s Island. This reputation for sophisticated pleasure originates in the mid-nineteenth century when the island was acquired from the Crown by Francis Kent, a lawyer and property speculator, who was responsible for much of the development of the area, so much so that part of East Molesey is still referred to as Kent Town. He leased part of the island to Thomas Tagg who established a boat-building enterprise and it was his son Tom junior (brother to Harry who ran the Thames Hotel by Hampton Court Bridge previously mentioned) who developed the business to such an extent that within a relatively short time a hotel had been built and the island became a resort popular with all ranks of society from royals to rogues, providing all manner of entertainment. This must have been quite familiar to Sisley who lived close by the Seine with its riverside establishments, such as La Grenouillère, offering bathing, dancing, dining and other distractions. An even grander, hotel and boat club on the Molesey shore followed and these enterprises flourished until the end of the century when Tom died. The businesses continued but not with the same entrepreneurial zeal and by 1911 a financial rescue became necessary and who should step in but Fred Karno, but that’s another story.

A little further along the towpath where the tree-lined avenue gives way to an open grassy area is possibly where Sisley positioned himself to paint The Thames at Molesey, looking east [11] and as the title suggests the view is downstream with Tagg’s Island on the left. Although the distant lock and bridge cannot be identified there is a white building in the middle distance which could be where the present boat club is located. This picture is in a private collection somewhere in the United States and a good quality reproduction is not available.

This concludes the survey of the Hampton Court series of painting by Alfred Sisley. It has not considered all of the pictures as some of them have disappeared into private collections and it is not possible to compare the content with the present day context. However, it is hoped that the coverage has been sufficient to give a good idea of the reality of high-Victorian Molesey and how the artist chose to interpret this. At this point the reader may decide to end the tour and return to Bridge Road near to Hampton Court Station for refreshment or to extend the walk, taking in a ferry crossing and a return along the far bank of the river.

The final image shown here is included as a mysterious footnote. Although undoubtedly part of the Hampton Court series, pinpointing the exact location where Sisley stood to paint the picture is difficult and the identity of the red brick building on the right is open to debate. It could be that the white building in the far distance is the Mitre Hotel with part of Hampton Court Palace just in front. If a walk down the riverside path is taken (starting at Hampton Court Bridge), passing the palace buildings on the left and continuing past the impressive gilded wrought-iron railing enclosing the Privy Garden and on past a long brick-faced terrace with an entrance to Home Park, eventually an impressive residence called the Pavilion will be reached. This was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and was built between 1700 and 1702 as one of four garden pavilions for William III, intended for use as small private banqueting houses by the king’s favourite courtiers, but which mainly served as gaming rooms or discreet meeting places. They later became homes for members of the royal family, but the buildings deteriorated over time and finally three of them were demolished, leaving the present edifice which is now a private home, set back from the river which is at slight variance with Sisley’s painting. To achieve anything like the view in the painting the artist must have been on a boat in mid-stream and indeed a good approximation of this may be achieved by taking one of the pleasure boats from Hampton Court to Kingston. However, there is another possible location. When Sisley was staying at the Castle Inn, it would have been possible to walk along the south riverbank in the direction of Kingston. When the point is reached where there is now the Albany pub and restaurant, there is a view back towards Hampton Court Bridge that accords with many of the details in the picture. As stated before the white building in the distance could be the Mitre Hotel and the red brick edifice on the right could be the Little Banqueting House, part of the palace complex that is adjacent to the footpath. There is a slight incline in the walkway at this point as in the picture but unfortunately the building is now completely obscured by trees, which may not have been there in 1874. The depiction of the building in the painting is far from accurate, but maybe Sisley was working from a sketch back in his Paris studio and, together with a degree of artistic licence, this could explain the picture’s content.