Dorset’s French Impressionist

I reveal how an area of west Dorset became the painterly landscape of Lucien Pissarro
Willows, Fishpond Bottom 1916
When Sir Frederick Treves published his book, Highways and Byways in Dorset, in 1906 he wrote ‘The county of Dorset is small, but is yet so varied in its configuration as to present an epitome of the scenery of southern England. It is a land of moods and changes that knows no monotony, as indeed so full of hills and dales that there is scarcely a level road within its confines, save by the banks of streams’.

This variety of mood and landscape has been Dorset’s attraction to many writers and artists and indeed continues to be so. William and Dorothy Wordsworth were fascinated by its charms and wrote poetically of the landscape and J. M.W. Turner was a frequent visitor to capture its light on canvas.

Other artists have also been attracted to the area and to many it comes as quite a surprise to know that one French artist whose father was one of the more famous impressionists decided on Dorset as a place to live and paint. Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944) was the son of renowned French artist Camille Pissarro and Lucien was drawn to the area around Fishpond, Hewood and Thorncombe, just inland from Charmouth, West Bay and Lyme Regis on the Dorset/Devon coast. He spent the last years of his life in this area and died at Thorncombe in 1944 just a few days after D Day.

Lucien was brought up in France surrounded by his father’s friends and fellow artists. Cézanne, Renoir, Manet and Monet were all familiar to him and with their encouragement together with the watchful eye of his father, Lucien became an accomplished painter in oils and watercolours. He also discovered engraving and after meeting with Van Gogh, Seurat and Signac experimented in other forms of painting including pointillism.

He came to London in 1870 to escape the political upheaval in France and in 1894 with his wife Esther established the Eragny Press which became a leading publishing house. During his time in London Lucien became an ambassador for the impressionists in England. As an artist, he exhibited at the last of the impressionist exhibitions in 1886 and 1893. Lucien and Esther also became the proud parents of their only daughter Orovida, who later also became a prominent artist and engraver.

After the closure of Eragny Press in 1914 Lucien returned to landscape painting and having previously enjoyed the Dorset landscape where they had frequently rented properties on the Dorset/Devon border it seemed a natural progression for them to move to this area at the outbreak of war. There is something of an amusing story in that Lucien would not paint in London during the First World War for fear of breaking the law and being considered as a foreign spy. During this period he also focused on landscape painting in several regions around the country but always seemed to be drawn back to the rural landscape of Dorset. In 1916 Lucien became a naturalised British subject.

Fishpond appears to be the first place where the Pissarro family settled. It is a small village on the edge of a hill looking south towards the sea at Charmouth, three miles away. The scene here provides artists with a typical west Dorset scene, with folds in the landscape offering light and shade across the patchwork of fields; even the distant hills have a blueness of the sea as they reach towards the sky.

It appears that the cottage in Fishpond was not entirely to their liking, requiring considerable renovation so they were later offered a cottage to rent at nearby Hewood where they were joined by their daughter Orovida. It is believed that she came to assist her mother with the care of Lucien who had become increasingly frail, having suffered a stroke in earlier years.

The cottage they rented in Hewood was owned by a Miss Langdon who it was said was rather unhappy that her pictures on the wall of the cottage were removed when the Pissarro family moved in and replaced with paintings by Camille Pissarro.

Lucien certainly appreciated the landscape surrounding Hewood and could be seen painting on the village green in all weathers. One of his paintings ‘Above the Valley, Hewood (1941)’ which is currently in the Government Art Collection, once hung in the office of William Waldegrave MP when Chief Secretary to the Treasury during the time of the Thatcher government.

During their time at Hewood the Pissarro family owned a car that was driven by Esther. Despite being described as a lovely person the villagers took great care to avoid her when they heard the car coming. The rather elderly vehicle would frequently be seen charging through the narrow lanes with signs of contact with nature and the hedgerows visible along the sides, no doubt due to Esther's diminutive size which prevented her from seeing properly over the steering wheel.

We can only assume that Esther drove Lucien to a number of the locations in Dorset where he chose to paint including Shaftesbury where his view of the hilltop town can be seen adorned with thatched cottages in the foreground. However, I think it will be his paintings of Fishpond and Hewood that will forever be Lucien Pissarro’s legacy to Dorset.

Lucien Pissarro died at Hewood in July 1944 and shortly afterward Esther relinquished the tenancy and returned to their London home. It is said that he was always remembered by the locals as the old man with the long white beard.

© Roger Lane March 2020

I am sincerely grateful to Heather Roughton and Thorncombe Village Trust for use of their research into past resident’s recollections of Lucien Pissarro. Visit to read more of the history of Thorncombe and the surrounding area.

James Boliver Manson, Lucien Pissarro Reading, 1913
James Boliver Manson, Lucien Pissarro Reading, 1913

Fishpond Bottom, Lucien Pissarro 1928
Fishpond Bottom, Lucien Pissarro 1928

Lucien Pissarro, Charmouth
Lucien Pissarro, Charmouth

Lucien Pissarro, Shaftesbury
Lucien Pissarro, Shaftesbury