interviewed by Louise Brodie
It was 1946 when Charlotte Halliday came to live in Acacia Road, number 42. She had spent the war years living in Derbyshire and Bedfordshire and was frankly horrified to be moving to London, which she imagined as being all bricks and mortar. Secondly she didn’t want to go to a girls only day school after the co-ed and boarding schools she had previously attended.
“But Acacia Road was just lovely, very, very quiet, hardly anyone had cars, so it wasn’t a racetrack. Everyone knew everyone else, children played in each others gardens, so it was a really good start to living in London again.” (She had been born in London.) “I adored the garden, there was a crab apple tree which I climbed. I was very much a tomboy and I was forever with my friends climbing and walking along the garden walls. That was a great joy.” Roger Quilter and the future Duke of Bedford and Bernard Miles all lived around them. The couple who helped in their house lived in a prefab in Henstridge Place.
Charlotte ’s father Edward was a portrait painter. He had to start again after the war, having been a mural painter in the 1920s, for which he won a Rome scholarship. Then, he turned to portraits, and also to broadcasting, giving talks on art through the 1930s. He was the first voice of the TV newsreel and had to go up to Alexandra Palace: he would do his portrait painting in the mornings and then go to make the broadcasts in the afternoon. He enjoyed being in a team. He was commissioned to paint Princess Elizabeth for the Drapers’ Company in about 1949, but she didn’t come to his studio in the Acacia Road house, he was lent another studio for that.
Francis Holland School, Clarence Gate
Francis Holland school in Baker Street was where Charlotte attended. “Mostly my father would walk me to school, with others. Down Ordnance Hill, the High Street and Park Road. My mother would tend to fetch me at the end of the day, on the bus. Her bus fare for a long time was a penny ha’penny and mine a penny. I don’t go on the bus very much now, I am not used to there not being a conductor! I cycle everywhere now.”
The school had been much the same for years when Charlotte went there, just after the war in the period of austerity, perhaps it was not very imaginative. Now the playground has been built over, there is a swimming pool underneath and they have taken in the pub on the corner of Ivor Place and Gloucester Place.
Shops and Deliveries
“Much has changed in St John’s Wood particularly in the High Street. It had greengrocers, drapers, traditional haberdashers, two spinster ladies and their brother, and the shoe menders. And Modern Arts. I remember this rather dreary man. Whatever you asked for he said ‘Oh no I haven’t got that’ ‘Well isn’t that it, over there?’ ‘Well yes maybe’ or he might say ‘ You don’t want those, they are very badly made!’ Father wanted some really strong string. The man had a massive ball of it and father bought the whole thing, just to spite the man who said he hadn’t got it. It lasted us for years and years and years.”
Many shops delivered, including Browns on the corner of Charlbert Street. Everybody loved their delivery man. You could hear him whistling in the distance as he came. He was always cheerful. The United Dairies in Acacia Road delivered too. Charlotte liked to give their horse the crab apples from the garden, in spite of the milkman’s displeasure. There was a story that, during the War, the dairy was fire-bombed. The manager’s daughter raced about in her nightdress letting all the horses out of their stables to get them to safety, but in the morning there were no horses to be seen. Each one had gone on its normal round!
When the King visited the local horse artillery barracks, Charlotte went with her mother, peering through the railings to see the inspection. This was the occasion on which he gave them the name the King’s Troop.
“We had a sort of Sunday ritual. We caught the 187 bus up Ordnance Hill through to Hampstead, where we walked across the Heath to Kenwood. We would have some rather nasty coffee and then catch a bus to the Zoo. My mother was a Fellow. We could have lunch in the Fellow’s Restaurant, the general public could not get in till Sunday afternoon, unimaginable now. We had the place to ourselves. Dame Laura Knight and her husband were often there, and David Strang the distinguished printer of etchings. He had adopted a monkey and Dame Laura a hippo and they would collect food from the restaurant, all the scraps, whatever was left over from everyone’s lunch. Then Dame Laura would deliver this extraordinary sandwich and the hippo would sort of bow at the knees in gratitude!
“On one of those occasions I remember being taken to the reptile house and having a snake put round my neck. Everyone was saying they are not cold and slimy, but I have an absolute horror of them. I managed to say, ‘please take it off I’ve got my best coat on’ (with a velvet collar) That was my excuse for getting rid of it. I always disliked seeing animals like wolves pacing in small enclosures. There were little brown pandas in an open space with their own tree which was more acceptable. We loved them, they looked happy.
“Dame Laura drew geese for me on the back of a menu once, and I kept it. The main dish of the day on June 19th 1949 was grilled salmon trout, cucumber and cauliflower and new potatoes with butter for 3/9d. You could only spend up to 5/- because of the austerity and rationing.”
In the winter of 1946-47 they went skating on the lake in Regents Park. It never ever happened again, perhaps it wasn’t so cold or the authorities got frightened of people falling through the ice. “It was wonderful to be in the middle of somewhere so familiar, looking so different.”
“Lords is a wonderful feature of St John’s Wood. So exciting, you arrive and you step out into the stands and it is so breathtaking. Yes, I have always followed cricket, the big stuff. I’ve never been a follower of one county, but knowing Brian and Polly Johnston, I would go as their guest sometimes, and I occasionally go now. Just to be there is thrilling. I did a big picture of the pavilion one winter, commissioned. There wasn’t a match. I can’t do a lot with tiny figures in the distance and would rather watch the match when there is play. I don’t like the modern trend of the players wearing what look like pyjamas. For me it is essential that they are dressed in white.”
Places of Worship
Charlotte was christened in St John’s Wood church when they came back in 1946. She loves the architecture with its basic classic style with the columns, the clear glass – so spare and simple.
“The first picture I ever had in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition was of St John’s interior. Families with young children would go out before the sermon, so I called the picture ‘Before the Sermon’. The view was from the gallery. St Mark’s exterior is a good focal point but I don’t like its interior of Victorian Gothic. I did a big gloomy drawing of the Baptist church in Abbey Road in the 1960s. The exterior was very dirty then. In the late 1980s I went to see a friend have a total immersion there. He and the pastor both had white nightshirts on and my friend was dipped down right underneath the water. I also went to visit someone who had a flat there when it was a warren at the back. Now it is all smart penthouses of course.”
The family moved to number 62 Hamilton Terrace in 1949 specifically for its big studio. It had a gorgeous garden. They let the top floor flat, but still had three bedrooms and two bathrooms, with a big dining room, and big drawing room.
Below was the kitchen with space to eat. There was a huge coal hole. There was also coke for heating the boiler for hot water, which her mother had to stoke at least twice a day. What a relief it was when they got a modern system. The big studio was out at the back but apparently it wasn’t ideal as it didn’t face true north. It was terribly cold and the skylight leaked. They had a succession of women to help with the housework.
“I can remember having a fire in my first floor bedroom – the luxury of falling asleep with the fire dying in the room, just something else. Then when the smokeless zone came in, the fires had to be discontinued and we had little gas fires instead”
“Awful cracks appeared in the walls of the house, and huge garden walls would fall down suddenly. I was told that when the big blocks of flats were built above Hamilton Terrace, they had interrupted underground streams which had not been properly diverted.”
Hamilton Terrace was always a run through for those wishing to avoid the Finchley Road or the Edgware Road. But Charlotte’s brother took a photo of it as it was in the 1950s and his car was virtually the only one parked in the road. You used to be able to see the wellington boots and tricycles in the front gardens, but sadly it is now security gates and burglar bars.
The Festival of Britain
“It was just the most thrilling event. Everything about it was fresh and new and exciting, even the lettering, the whole thinking behind it. I was 13 or 14 and it had a great impact on me, the Skylon, the Dome of Discovery, the Funfair, something so different, a brave new world. It needs recording that. If you were there and you were young it was marvellous.”
“For the Coronation we had some seats, my father was a member of the Savage Club and at that time it was in Carlton House Terrace so we were on the Mall. We all got up incredibly early in the morning. I was determined to wear my new summer dress but I had to wear it with a raincoat and a jersey: it was a horrible day. I remember seeing a news hoarding saying ‘All this and Everest too!’ It was marvellous. When the procession had returned we walked up the Mall to Buckingham Palace. Left behind was this appalling detritus of mattresses and whatever people had camped on or under, a grey mess, and wet. But everybody was very, very cheery.”
Charlotte ’s work has always been a mixture of commissions and exhibitions. She has particularly specialised in depicting buildings and while still at the Royal Academy Schools did 16 big pen and ink drawings of the Shell building when it was in course of construction.
“My favourite building of all is St Paul’s Cathedral. To come upon it down an alleyway is just breathtaking. I find it is like a huge piece of music, a great syncopated rhythm. To me it is really obvious that it is like a fugue with all these circles. Drawing it, it is a challenge trying to keep it under control. It must be a bit like a conductor trying to conduct the B Minor Mass, keeping all the elements together, conflicting and not conflicting,”
Charlotte started singing with the St John’s Wood Choral Society in the mid 1950s, which really enriched her life. Francis Routh was the conductor. They would practice at the hall next to the chapel in Queens Terrace and hold concerts in St John’s Wood church. Charlotte followed Francis when he moved to help run the Redcliffe Festival. In 1962, she joined the Orpheus Choir where she continued for 47 years, and was the librarian for them, which was a lot of work, though she enjoyed it. Now she sings with a friendly choir in the Unitarian Chapel, in Rosslyn Hill. She likes choral orchestral music best.
She goes about London in the winter when the leaves are off the trees, till she finds something she wants to draw or paint. She loves London bridges. The Gherkin is acceptable but not the Lloyds building. In the 1980s she began to look out for fanlights. Discovering that there was no book documenting them, she got together with Alexander Stuart Grey and Tony Birks-Hay and they produced a book of their own. Although taking in examples from many places, it features fanlights from Hamilton Terrace and Abercorn Place. The designs are delightfully varied.
St John’s Wood
“St John’s Wood has really given me a living because I love all the streets of white stucco and brick, and the architecture which includes the occasional Georgian terrace and the Victorian gothic gables. Quite a mixture of styles. They are there for me to paint all the year round, and it is only two miles from Oxford Circus. It could hardly be better.”