Stanley Picker

The Hogsmill River flows at the end of its six mile course into the Thames at Kingston. It is classified as a chalkstream, a globally rare habitat with only two hundred remaining worldwide. Chalk streams give rise to a unique set of species that depend heavily on the clean, chalk purified water and are consequently very sensitive to any decline in water quality. It begins in Ewell, at the lake beside Bourne Hall, where several springs are fed by the rainfall which filters through the chalk downs and seeps out at the junction with the London Clay. The water from the lake flows into the Horse Pond outside Bourne Hall, from there underneath the road to the old millpond of the Upper Mill opposite, and then it becomes a river.

In past centuries, the Hogsmill flowed strongly enough to provide power for many mills; some were corn mills and some made gunpowder. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, wind or a strong river provided essential sources of power to turn millstones.

John Hog, whose mill gave its name to the river from 1768, was an important figure in Kingston upon Thames in the 12th Century. In 1086, the Domesday Book records two sets of millstones working for the manor of Ewell (probably at the site of the Upper Mill). Another two pairs of stones at the Lower Mill belonged to Epsom; that manor had no river of its own on which to grind corn. This mill was still grinding corn at the beginning of the 18th Century, but was later converted for making paper.

The Upper Mill, rebuilt over the centuries, continued to grind corn until it closed in the 1950s. By the 20th Century there was less water in the river and only one pair of millstones could be used at a time, with a rest in the middle of the day to let the mill pond fill up again from the springs. The mill was last worked in 1953.

Gunpowder was made in Surrey from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who granted exclusive rights to some local families to be Makers of Gunpowder. A gunpowder mill licensed in 1589 at Worcester Park, on the Hogsmill, was one of the first in England. Gunpowder continued to be made along the Hogsmill until 1875, when production ceased following multiple explosions and worker deaths.

At one time there had been twelve mill buildings along the stream. A new mill was built at Worcester Park in the 18th Century by William Taylor, and another near Ewell Court by Alexander Bridges. These were separated from each other by ponds, with the intention that if one mill blew up, the blast would be absorbed by the water and not set light to the other mills. Gunpowder from Ewell was used in the American Civil War (1861-5), and then in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Some blamed the French defeat on the quality of the gunpowder.

Just before entering the Thames, the Hogsmill flows under the 12th Century Clattern (from the clattering of hooves) Bridge, one of the oldest in Britain.

In 1851 three famous pictures were painted beside the Hogsmill River, by William Holman Hunt and his friend John Millais. The Pre Raphaelite artists travelled to Ewell by train and rented lodgings in a nearby farmhouse. Holman Hunt’s aunt and uncle lived in Church Street, and Millais had good friends nearby. In preparation for his painting, “Ophelia”, Millais sought out a spot to match Shakespeare’s lines:

“There is a willow grows aslant a brook

That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream…”.

For “The Hireling Shepherd”, Holman Hunt chose a field near Ewell Court Farm. For his first version of “The Light of the World “, Holman Hunt painted outside at night during the winter months. The doorway in the painting was the doorway of a disused hut which had been used by workers at one of the gunpowder mills: “On the riverside was a door locked up and overgrown with tendrils of ivy, its step choked with weeds.”.

I’ve dropped in at the Stanley Picker Gallery, at the end of Mill Street, which shares a little island in the Hogsmill with the Middle Mill hall of residence of Kingston University. It was established in 1997, with the support of the Stanley Picker Trust and the vision of Professor Bruce Russell, to provide Kingston University with its first purpose built space for the creation and public presentation of contemporary arts practice.

Stanley Picker was born in New York in 1913, of Russian-Jewish heritage. After studying at Harvard Business School, he sailed to England in 1935 to take over the cosmetics business established by his father, Myram Picker. The beauty brands developed by the company included the Gala Cosmetics Group (of which Stanley became the Chairman and Managing Director in 1938), Miner’s, Mary Quant, and Outdoor Girl, and the wealth they created permitted Stanley to indulge his greatest love, the arts. In 1968 he had a late modernist house in a cul de sac on Kingston Hill designed for him by Kenneth Wood, RIBA. Stanley retired in 1976, when he built a gallery in the garden of his house for his growing collection of 20th Century paintings and sculptures, and established the Stanley Picker Trust in 1977 to support the education and careers of young arts practitioners. When he died in 1982, his legacy included the House, the Trust, and his collection.

“Pulvis et umbra sumus.” (“We are but dust and shadow.”)

Horace: “The Odes of Horace”.

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