Historian John’s opus tells the tales of 2,500 Hampstead artists

Author John Walde with his book on the artistic history of Hampstead

Author John Walde with his book on the artistic history of Hampstead - Credit: Harry Taylor

Hampstead has been well-known for its artistic background and bohemian culture for centuries. The area famously played host to John Constable, and painted the Heath on numerous occasions.

The front cover of 'Hampstead, a nest of gentle giants'

The front cover of 'Hampstead, a nest of gentle giants' - Credit: Harry Taylor

But John Walde has delved into Hampstead’s past to produce biographies of a staggering 2,500 of the artists who called the village home.

The 450-page manuscript details their lives, where they lived, and a bit of gossip about them too.

The Swede came up with the idea when he and his wife lived for a year in Compayne Gardens, in South Hampstead, in the 1970s. He quickly made note of the area’s history.

“I fell in love with Hampstead when I came here,” he said.

Ham&High Cartoonist Ken Pyne features in John's book

Ham&High Cartoonist Ken Pyne features in John's book - Credit: Ken Pyne

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“When I was walking around, I started noticing these plaques that were up all around the place.

“I bought a notebook to start writing them down.

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“I then moved to Sydney, got home and put the book in a drawer and forgot about it.”

But eventually John, who worked in television as an editor, then dug out his old notebook and started to research.

John Constable, who lived in Hampstead, painted a host of pictures, includingThe Quarters behind Alr

John Constable, who lived in Hampstead, painted a host of pictures, includingThe Quarters behind Alresford Hall. Picture: National Gallery of Victoria Melbourne / Wikimedia Commons - Credit: National Gallery of Victoria Melbourne / Wikimedia Commons

He started looking at census information and births, marriages and deaths certificates, and also trawled local newspaper archives.

What he found quickly started to disprove biographies that had previously been written.

“You never copy things because they aren’t as reliable,” he said. “The people writing it never bother to check.

“It becomes a lot easier to find the people after the 1851 census, when they started asking people a lot more information, including their occupation.”

Among those included in his book is William Henry Pyne, a famed illustrator and writer around the turn of the 19th century.

His descendant, Ken Pyne, is a similarly well-known cartoonist, and has had his cartoons regularly featured in the Ham&High for the past 25 years. He too features.

So does the life of Edward Craig, a scene designer for theatre.

While married to Helen Gibson, he eloped with his neighbour’s daughter Elena Meo and had three children.

Elizabeth Siddall lived in the area with her husband, pre-Raphelite artist Dante Gabriel Rosetti.

Siddall, best known for being the model for John Millais’ Ophelia, died in 1862.

Rossetti was so grief-stricken he buried some of his manuscripts and unpublished poems with her.

Yet, seven years later, he had her body dug up so he could retrieve the work. It was published in his 1870 anthology of poetry.

Another Hampstead resident, Mary Harrison, became the first British female artist to be allowed to copy in the iconic Louvre gallery in Paris.

John also discovered tales of sorrow and destitution.

“It was really sad,” he said. “There were a lot of refugees who came over to Britain because of war, especially from Germany and Austria.

“There were also a lot of people who ended up in poverty.

“William Henry Pyne did. Charles Sims committed suicide by drowning himself in the River Tweed in Scotland.”

After his 12 years of work on the manuscript, he’s a little miffed not to have been able to get it into print.

Despite the in-depth research into an area that’s never previously been covered in such detail, he says publishers are reluctant to pick it up.

According to the responses he has had, they don’t believe they will make enough money from the venture.

“It’s a sad reflection on the British publishing companies that they are only interested in a profit, rather than the posterity of our past,” he explained.

Despite the disappointment, he sees the work as a way of repaying a debt he feels he owes to Hampstead.

“They are fascinating, but the most fabulous years of my life were in 1976 to 1977 when I lived in Hampstead,” he said.

“This is my thank-you to the area.”

He’ll be carrying on the research, and is currently looking at the 1939 War Register to find more forgotten artists in Hampstead.

He quotes the historian who inspired him, A L Rowse: “There is no end to research.

“One is always finding something later that might, perhaps should, be in the book.”

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