One of the things I’m trying to do when I visit London is to see more than just the usual tourist areas. Having lived there for over ten years (though not all in one go) I feel I know the city pretty well and I know that there’s plenty to see and do outside of the West End. I also know that there are still lots of areas well worth exploring that I’ve yet to visit.
Over New Year I visited friends in Kent and made two day trips into London, both of which were to areas new to me. For the first trip I visited Walthamstow and you can read about that here. For my second trip I had a day in the south eastern suburb of Dulwich.
Dulwich has two train stations and so is pretty easy to get to from London. However, as I was coming from Kent it was easier and quicker for me to drive. A pleasant surprise was that there was plenty of free street parking including just inside the park. If you know anything at all about London, you’ll know how unusual this is!
Dulwich is mostly known for two things – its art gallery and the posh private school, Dulwich College.
I parked on the road just near Dulwich Picture Gallery. The Gallery was one of the reasons I wanted to go to Dulwich as I’ve always considered it a bit of a personal cultural oversight that I’ve spent years living so close and yet have never visited such a well-known and historic gallery. It’s actually the world’s first purpose-built art gallery.
Here’s a bit of history.
I’ve taken this directly from the Dulwich Picture Gallery website, but I’ve condensed some parts of it.
- In 1605 Edward Alleyn (1566-1626), Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite actor buys the manor of Dulwich from Sir Francis Calton for £5,000.
- In 1619 Alleyn obtains the Royal patent for the creation of the Corporation of God’s Gift College, now known as Dulwich College.
- In 1626 Edward Alleyn dies and is buried in the College Chapel. He leaves ‘hangings and pictures’, mainly of kings and queens, sibyls and emperors to the College. Twenty-six of them remain in the Permanent Collection today.
- In 1686 the College received a second bequest. This was made by the actor and collector William Cartwright (1606 -1686). The bequest included 239 pictures of which 77 are known to remain in the Collection today.
- In 1790 Swiss painter, Sir Francis Bourgeois, and French collector, Noel Desanfans, were commissioned to form a collection for the King of Poland. They worked on this project for five years.
- In 1795 Poland ceased to be an independent state and the King abdicated. Bourgeois and Desanfans were left with a large amount of artworks. They tried to persuade the Tsar of Russia to buy them, but he declined.
- In 1799 Desanfans tried to persuade the British Government to establish a national collection and promised to contribute to it. Parliament refused.
- In 1807 Desanfans died leaving Bourgeois as the sole owner of the paintings.
- In 1810 Bourgeois died leaving the collection to Desanfans’ widow, Margaret. Bourgeois had left £2,000 in his will for the purpose of refurbishing the gallery that already existed in the College. He had asked that his friend, the architect Sir John Soane, take on the task of the refurbishment.
- In 1811 the building of a new gallery began, with Margaret Desanfans donating £4,000 of her own money towards the cost.
- In 1814 the paintings finally went on display. At first they were only available to Royal Academicians and students.
- In 1817 the Gallery opened to the general public.
- Over the years there were further bequests and the Gallery was expanded.
- In 1994 the Gallery separated from the College and became an independent charitable trust.
There are over 600 paintings in the Gallery including works by Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Canaletto and Poussin. The size of the Gallery is tiny when compared to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, but is huge when you remember that it is a suburban gallery that was formerly a college gallery. I can’t think of anywhere else outside of a city that has a gallery of this size and a collection of this stature.
Apart from the permanent collection, the Gallery also hosts special exhibitions. I was fortunate to see one on the works of Tove Jansson. The Finnish artist is mostly known for her creation of the Moomin cartoons. What I didn’t know about her however, was that she was a serious artist who felt that the work she considered to be her ‘real’ work was dwarfed by the success of the Moomins. Her brother eventually took over the drawing of the Moomin cartoons for newspapers leaving her time for her other painting. Her work was often political and included a depiction of Hitler as a crying baby in a nappy, surrounded by European leaders such as Neville Chamberlain who were trying to appease the baby with slices of cake.
Leaving the Gallery I walked through Dulwich Park. The gates are just opposite the Gallery. It was a nice afternoon and the park was full of joggers, dog-walkers, cyclists, kids kicking footballs and people like myself, just out for a stroll.
The 76 acres house a cafe, playground, sports facilities, a cycle hire place with tandems and recumbent bikes as well as the usual sort, a boating lake and lots and lots of trees.
There’s also an American Garden, a drought tolerant garden, a winter garden and a route of boardwalks over the lake.
It was getting on into the afternoon by the time I left the park and headed towards the village. If I hadn’t already realised Dulwich is posh I couldn’t avoid realising it now.
Not only were there some huge houses with large gardens, but the high street was full of independent shops and cafes. Many high streets now are so filled with chain shops that it’s hard to distinguish one place from another.
Amongst the shops in Dulwich village I spotted a bookshop, a toy shop, a florist, an artisan bakers and several vintners. There was also a nice looking pub and quite a few cafes.
I mentioned how much I liked all the independent shops to a friend who often stays in Dulwich. She told me that the village has lost some of its community feel in recent years and many of the shops have changed hands. She put this down to the rents charged by Dulwich College who apparently own a lot of the properties. She told me how her daughter, who still lives there, recently remarked that although you can buy a loaf of artisan bread or a bottle of good wine in the village, you can’t buy basic necessities such as a pint of milk anymore.
I popped into one of the cafes for a coffee and a slice of cake. By the time I came out the light was fading and I just had time for a quick look round the chapel and the part of the college attached to the back of the Gallery. The chapel was locked so I only got to see it from the outside.
Dulwich College is a posh private school. Ernest Shackleton was a former pupil and his boat, the ‘James Caird’, is now on display there. This is the 23 foot open whaler that he sailed in from Elephant Island (800km south of Cape Horn) to South Georgia during the Antarctic winter of 1916. It’s possible to make an appointment to see it at certain times of the year and this is something I might do if I go back to Dulwich.
Have you been to Dulwich? Would you like to? Can you suggest any other interesting London suburbs? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Pin it for later
If you like this you might like some of these other posts in the ‘Exploring London’s suburbs’ series.