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

The first of Sisley’s paintings to be considered is Bridge at Hampton Court [1], and this was undoubtedly painted from the terrace at the Castle Hotel. The new bridge is a more massive construction and, with its slightly different position, it is not possible to get the exact view that Sisley would have had. However, the Mitre Hotel and other buildings on the far bank and the trees around the entrance to Hampton Court Palace are largely unchanged, although the flagpole is no more. By standing slightly to the right of the steps that lead down to the water’s edge an approximation of the view is possible. In the artist’s picture there is rowing activity on the river and summertime strollers taking the air,  and those are enduring features of the scene.

The steps descend to a landing stage where boats operated by Parr’s depart to Kingston during the summer months and it from here that the subject of the next painting, Regatta at Hampton Court [2] can be seen. The bridge is now out of the frame to the left and the view is directly across the river towards the towpath and outbuildings of the Palace. The gabled building in the painting is no longer there but in essence the tree-lined walkway with brick buildings beyond is the same. Where there is a small fleet of rowing boats drawn up onto the bank-side in the painting there is now a jetty from which pleasure boats operated by Turk Launches depart for Kingston and Richmond from April until October. There is still plenty of rowing action during the summer with regattas taking place at Thames Ditton Skiff and Punting Club slightly down-river.

Attention is now turned to Under the Bridge at Hampton Court [3] and although the old bridge has long since gone it is still possible to stand more or less where Sisley would have stood because the original brick abutments are still there on both sides of the river. To get to this position it is necessary to cross the busy road and take the footpath down to the water’s edge and the best way to do this is to walk back towards the station and cross the main road by the pedestrian crossing. Go to the end of Creek Road passing some modest buildings on the left, which would have been there in 1874 and one of which is now a ‘greasy-spoon’ cafe. There is a newly-built bar and restaurant with apartments above at the end of the road and turn left here to come to Bridge Road. This is the original approach road to the old bridge and it has an attractive collection of, mainly, nineteenth century buildings with some interesting shops, galleries and eating establishments, including two public houses. Turn right and walk to the end of the road passing Zizzi’s restaurant on the left and a traffic island, where once stood the Castle Hotel, on the right. Cross the road where the brick and stone remains of the old bridge are obvious and then descend to the water’s edge by the footpath and turn right to find yourself in the exact spot where Sisley set up his easel. Looking across the river now the most notable feature is a rotunda-type building projecting over the water which houses two restaurants and is part of the Mitre Hotel. This establishment has its origins in the late seventeenth century when it supposedly housed the ‘lady-friends’ of courtiers to Charles II from the palace across the road. In Sisley’s picture the hotel is almost obscured by trees which would have been growing on Wren Island. This was located at the end of the garden of a house once occupied by the great architect, and is a feature that was dredged away when the new bridge was built.

Turning to face up-stream and just before Martin’s boat hire cabin must be where Sisley stood to paint The Road from Hampton Court to Molesey [4]. According to the sign, they would have been hiring out rowing boats when the artist was here and judging from photographs of the time, business would have been much busier in those days. The lock and weir have been re-built several times and the distinctive keeper’s house has been replaced (there is still an example of this style of building at Sunbury). The broad riverside track and open country to the left has been changed to a narrow footpath and a busy road lined with Victorian villas. There is a little more development on the right bank and the gleaming white vessels moored at the Thames Motor Yacht Club would certainly not have been recognised by the artist. Inspite of all these changes, the constant element is the river itself and the essential atmosphere of the scene remains.

A few steps up the slope towards the main road and looking back towards the bridge will bring the next picture into view. This is Inn at East Molesey with Hampton Court Bridge [5] and most of the subject matter of this painting has been swept away by more recent developments. The ‘Inn’ in question is the Castle Hotel and where that once stood is now open space. As previously observed the brick-built approach to the old bridge remains and the verdant landscape beyond the bridge is still in evidence. The line of trees on the right has gone and the unmade track is now the busy Hurst Road. The complex of buildings which now houses the Italian restaurant on the ground floor and apartments above was previously a public house and before that was Tagg’s Thames Hotel built in the 1880’s, therefore after Sisley’s visit. Mr Harry Tagg was a local businessman and entrepreneur from a well-know local family with historic ties to the river and, together with his brother, he was at the forefront of exploiting the new interest in leisure activities. And so it was that he built the hotel and associated boat house (the present white painted building) which catered for every need of the boating set and provided all manner of riverside entertainments, including musical afternoons drawing on the talents of the Molesey Band. This is all a far cry from the scene now, dominated by the sight and sound of ever-present motor traffic and it is perhaps where the present-day reality is most at odds with the picture painted by Sisley.

Return to the footpath and walk up to the lock which, during the summer months, is always busy with pleasure boat traffic. The lock was originally built in 1815 to improve river navigability for commercial traffic and although the physical appearance has changed over the past two centuries and the gates are now operated by electricity rather than muscle-power, the function of the place is exactly the same, albeit to service leisure craft rather than working barges. Sisley’s painting, Molesey Lock [6], shows the structure as it was first built and at a very quiet moment, which was not usual, especially on sunny week-ends, when the lock would be constantly in use and crammed with water-born pleasure seekers, all dressed in boating finery. Add to this the many toll-path strollers and it is clear that the artist would have had to tolerate the attention of countless passers-by. His visit was only a few years before Jerome K. Jerome wrote: “I have stood and watched it sometimes when you could not see any water at all, but only a brilliant tangle of bright blazers and gay caps, and saucy hats, and many-coloured parasols, and silken rugs and cloaks and streaming ribbons…”. Jumping on this ‘band-wagon’ Fred Westcott (later Fred Karno) performed his music hall routines to the captive audience in the lock. He was to become a very well-known local character but his reputation for slapstick humour was to spread far beyond Molesey and Fred Karno’s Army became synonymous with a particular brand of knockabout comedy and was a great influence on many other entertainers. This is all in stark contrast to the tranquil atmosphere of Sisley’s picture and in many ways the scene today will correspond more closely with the artist’s view.

The management of the river means that a weir is also necessary to control the flow of water and this is located just upstream from the lock and was constructed at the same time. This again has been rebuilt several times and the structure now carries a walkway giving access to Ash Island in mid-stream, but this development was not evident in 1874 when Sisley portrayed the scene in Molesey Weir [7]. He probably positioned himself on the upstream side of the lock on the small islet connected to the lock just before the spillway. Although the black and white timber posts have been superceded by metal and concrete, the torrents of racing water remain the same. The artist shows bathers preparing for a dip and river bathing became popular in the Victorian era. Officially, men were allowed to bathe before eight in the morning and after eight at night but continual infringements of this rule and the
offence it caused to ladies of genteel sensibility led to the establishment of a bathing station on Ash Island. The chances of seeing anyone entering the water these days is very remote, although hardy souls do still venture into the water on hot summer days a little further upstream.

Return to the riverside path, called Barge Walk, and proceed a few steps upstream with the distinctive new office buildings on the left and this brings you to the position where Sisley painted The Barge Walk at Molesey [8] (sometimes called Road from Hampton Court). On the far right of the picture the end of the islet connected to the lock, from where Sisley painted the last picture, is evident with two of the posts warning of the approach of the weir. Ash Island with a covering of green trees is situated in the middle of the image with Tagg’s Island and its distinctive hotel building and flagpole beyond that. The low level structure on the right in the middle distance is likely to be stables on the bankside associated with the hotel. This is now the approximate location of the Molesey Boat Club which is housed in an attractive building dating from 1902. There is plenty of boating activity in the picture and that tradition is still very much part of this stretch of the river with rowers of all abilities from novices and school children to Olympic champions based at the club. From almost the same spot the artist painted The Thames at Hampton Court: first days of October (not reproduced here).