Pillar House, Harwell

This house, built in 1852 after the village fire, in a style that harks back to the previous century, has been the home and workplace of artists valued for their contribution to the development of British Art. Situated between two small farms and with an acre of garden that reached down to School House by the stream, it clearly provided the ideal setting for creative work.

John Henry Frederick Bacon M.V.O., A.R.A., (1865 – 1914)

John Henry Frederick Bacon M.V.O., A.R.A., (1865 – 1914) was a painter of domestic, genre, and biblical scenes, as well as an illustrator of books, periodicals and children’s books. He became a very fashionable portrait painter of distinguished men. His best known work is “The City of London Imperial Volunteers Return to London from South Africa on Monday 29th October 1900″ in the Guildhall, London. Bacon came soon after his marriage in 1894 to live in Pillar House where some of his seven children were born. The late Mrs Gwen Viner, a daughter of the village doctor Dr Rice, remembered coming with her sister to model for the artist. She also remembered that Mr Bacon would paint some of his biblical pictures in the barns adjoining the garden. In 1912 John Bacon was commissioned to do the Coronation Portrait of King George V and Queen Mary which hangs in Buckingham Palace. His paintings are in the Tate Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, other British galleries, the Reform Club, etc. and private collections. He exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and while living in Pillar House he showed the paintings “Suscipe me, Domine” (1895), “Peace be to you” (1897), and “The Ring” (1898). His address is given in the Royal Academy Exhibitors Catalogue as ‘Pillar House, Harwell, Steventon, Berks’.

Sadly he died of acute bronchitis, age 49, on 24th January 1914 leaving a widow with seven children 19 to 4 years of age. The King and Queen heard of his death that evening and immediately sent a telegram of sympathy to Mrs Bacon, the widow.

(Local knowledge tells that Walter Hitchman, Eric James, Jack Harris and other village folk were used as models by Henry Bacon in “Suscipe me, Domine” and “The Doctor”).

L. Leslie Brooke (1862 -1940)

In 1899, L. Leslie Brooke (1862 -1940), children’s book illustrator, caricaturist, portrait, genre and landscape painter, came with his wife and young son to live for ten years in Pillar House. Here he drew his most famous children’s book “Johnny Crow’s Garden” for the publisher Frederick Warne in 1903, the year his youngest son Henry was born (who would become Lord Brooke of Cumnor, d.1984). There followed the immortal books “Ring O’ Roses”, “The Golden Goose Book”, “Johnny Crow’s Party”, “The Nursery Rhyme Book” edited by Andrew Lang, and “The House in the Wood”, all published by Warne. “Ring O’ Roses” shows Harwell houses and scenes and Harwell villagers. The little boy in Baa, Baa Black Sheep is the young Henry Brooke. The late Mrs Viner remembered that ‘Mr Brooke kept a tall looking-glass in his studio and he would pull faces in it to get the expressions for the animals’. Leslie Brooke also illustrated the book “Travels Around Our Village” by Miss E.G. Hayden of West Hendred, and some of the drawings are of Harwell and its people. The artist said that he “loved best in the world children and roses” and Warne promised that his picture books would always be available to children. Tragically his eldest son Leonard, a history student at Oxford, was killed while flying in the 1st World War. L. Leslie Brooke’s sensitive portraits and other work can be found reproduced in his son Henry’s biography of him entitled “Leslie Brooke and Johnny Crow” published by Warne in 1981. Lord Brooke writes”… it is this garden (Pillar House) which has the prime right to be called Johnny Crow’s Garden, because it was here that Leslie Brooke was living when he drew the pictures for that, his best known book.” The books can be bought from Blackwell’s Children’s Bookshop in Oxford.

It was while he was living in Harwell that Leslie Brooke was given by Frederick Warne a set of drawings for his opinion. They were given by a then unknown artist. He and his wife Sybil were staying in London for a few days and he showed them to her that evening. They were duly returned next day with the “unhesitating opinion that Warne should go ahead and publish, and the book would be a success.” The drawings were the coloured pictures for “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” and the artist was, of course, Beatrix Potter.

L. Leslie Brooke exhibited at the Royal Academy and in 1901 he showed “Victory” at the Royal Academy, painted in Pillar House. His paintings are in the Tate Gallery, other British galleries and private collections. When he died the Journal of America Children’s libraries, “The Horn Book”, devoted its entire spring issue for 1941 to tributes to L. Leslie Brooke. Many years later the Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge wrote to the Brooke family “We were much fascinated about Johnny Crow, who is one of our favourite characters, one of the best of all books on Pastoral Care, comparable to the learned treatise on the subject by Pope Gregory the Great.”

Of the picturesque studios where the artists worked, now known only from photographs, nothing remains but the stout eighteenth century walls. The studios were demolished by a less artistic owner in 1960 to make temporary accommodation for cars.

In 1961 the artist Derek Southall, abstract and landscape painter, came with his family to live and work in Pillar House. He stayed until 1968 when he left to paint and teach in America. He has work in the Tate Gallery, painted while he lived in Pillar House, and paintings in many British and foreign galleries.

The next owner was a great -nephew of Harold Rathbone the painter and founder of the Della Robbia Pottery at Birkenhead and friend of The PreRaphaelites, and was also related to Mrs L. Leslie Brooke’s family.

Standing quietly in Pillar House garden with its sheltering barns on a spring or summer evening, one can glimpse that rural tranquility amidst which Bacon and Brooke lived and worked before the age of the motor car changed the English village and swept away those qualities which they had cherished.

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