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Emile Zola in Norwood

Price: £7.95

Writer and reporter Emile Zola escaped from France to England after the sensational Dreyfus case and stayed at The Queen’s Hotel, Church Road, Upper Norwood, for about eleven months from 1898-1899. It was while he was there that he photographed local street scenes. The book published by the Norwood Society courtesy of the Zola family, has selected about eighty prints out of this collection.

Victorian London has had its commentators and has been illustrated by professional photographers but the suburbs have only been covered by picture books compiled from picture postcards and photographs drawn from various sources. Good as these books are, this book is unique in that it is a view of a well-to-do suburb of London with all its idiosyncrasies seen through the eyes and lens of the camera of a well-known writer.

In fact in those days Upper Norwood was not a Greater London suburb but a district divided into the parishes of Lambeth, Croydon, Bromley (ancient Penge), Camberwell (now Southwark), making it a very complex administrative area. It is not easy to convey its history in a few short sentences.

The captions have to do this, but also have to be readily understood in the idiom of both French and English readers. The captions have been carefully researched and have been translated by Chantal Morel of the French Institute.

It is possible that Zola used the wooden box type camera set on a tripod with a cloth thrown over the camera and the viewer’s head. If this is the case then it is remarkable how he has managed to take pictures of moving objects, such as cyclists, without any blurring, and often also in close-up. (Also remarkable is how the women cyclists managed to propel themselves along without getting those long skirts tangled up in the spokes of the wheel!).

He has captured scenes of horses and cars patiently waiting, loading or unloading, or plodding along the streets, some in appealing close-ups. The little donkey-cart and the flower seller, the stuffed donkey standing in the road, have all been ‘snapped’. Imagine the difficulty of photographing pedestrians, flocks of farm animals in a still semi-rural locality, and other animals in a constant state of change, with such a camera.

Then he has covered the ‘still’ photographs of stately Victorian houses, humble cottages, and buildings in new developments in the hills and dales of Norwood around the Crystal Palace, which he must have visited many times. These pictures, even when taken in difficult lighting conditions, have a beautiful quality. It is a commentary on Victorian Upper Norwood life, a gentle stroll with Zola on hot sunny days and cold winter ones.

The publicity the site attracts highlights the huge scale of the original Crystal Palace building that occupied the upper terrace at Crystal Palace Park. The magnitude of the structure is clearly shown in a fascinating collection of photographs of the building taken by the famous French novelist, Emile Zola. These fascinating views were taken during his period of exile in Britain in 1898-1899 when he was staying at the nearby Queen’s Hotel in Church Road, Upper Norwood.

These magnificent Victorian views provide an intriguing glimpse of the huge glass structure that dominated the Sydenham skyline from its opening in 1854 through to 1936 when the building was destroyed by fire. A photograph of the main entrance to the Crystal palace clearly shows the large prefabricated cast-iron glazed sections from which the main building was constructed. It was the simple modular design of these sections by Joseph Paxton that enabled the Palace to be reconstructed so easily at Sydenham, following the success of the Great Exhibition which was housed in the original building in Hyde Park in 1851.

Towering either side of the Palace building were two huge, glass, water towers, which fed the large fountains that were located in the adjoining park. These vast towers were prominent local landmarks in their own right and can be clearly seen dominating the skyline in Zola’s photographs of nearby Westow Hill. It is interesting to note that many of Zola’s photographs feature young ladies riding their cycles along the Norwood streets. It is obvious that he found the ladies of Norwood very attractive as he wrote “They are very elegant, they are charming on a bicycle…” That he was captivated by the female cyclists of the neighbourhood is clear to see as so many of his photographs taken around the Crystal Palace feature them, either riding along the almost deserted roads, or pushing their bikes up the hills leading to the Palace.

Printed in English and French

70 pages 96 illustrations