Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
The Keswick Painting by Ros Roberts. Bookcase £12
J.F.Crosthwaite, townsman and Postmaster; Jimmy Dyer, strolling player; John Glaister, noted pig-keeper; Sarah Skurr, weighing machine attendant. These are just four of the forty-five people portrayed in a remarkable painting by Joseph Brown, which is now in Keswick Museum. In 1870 Brown assembled the inhabitants of Keswick in front of the Moot Hall and painted them. The most prominent of all are the figures of Police Sergeant Rooney, clad all in black with matching exuberant moustache and, standing bare-footed, leaning on his stick, "the Skiddaw hermit or Doddy living on the Dodd, in a hut made with moss, a clever portrait painter". They are a cross-section of the town's inhabitants, each named and with details of their occupation. It is as though the people of Victorian Keswick have been brought to life
And that is just what Ros Roberts has done a hundred and fifty years later. Having carefully researched archives and old newspapers and walked the streets and alleyways and talked to many of the families who still proudly remember a grandfather or great-grandfather standing there to be painted, she has recreated these people in all the busyness of their everyday lives.
Willie Hogarth was one of fourteen shoemakers in Keswick. In 1870, his wife was expecting their eighth child. Their house-cum-shop at 7 Gatey Yard must have been a bustling place with children and glue-pots and leather dyes and customers stopping for a bit of a crack.
Sim Fisher was a maker of straw bee-hives. In 1843, he'd married "a Borrowdale lass, Ann, who was twenty years his junior". Their children, according to the census returns, had been born in Portinscale, Borrowdale and Keswick. Sim was an itinerant agricultural labourer moving from farm to farm as he was hired year by year. He died a widower, aged 78, in 1882, but in the 1881 census, after years of being listed as an "ag lab" he is finally honoured as "a beehive maker".
Ros Roberts imagines the time when the Skiddaw Hermit arrived at Acorn Lodge at 8 o'clock one morning to paint the portrait of Mr Denton. "At 6 foot tall, he had to stoop to enter the room and his shock of unkempt bushy hair brushed the door-jamb." George Smith chewed the end of a hazel twig as he softened the fibres to make it into a painting brush.
Mark Shearman was somewhat less patient when he sat for his portrait at Alfred Pettit's Photographic and Portrait Gallery on John Street. "Will this take much longer? I am quite a busy man and it is nearly Easter. There is a lot to do in the hotel and I still have a cabinet to finish for delivery to Mr Gaspey at the end of next week."
Ros is able to breathe life into the Keswick of the time. Joe Sparks, the old miner, Willie Hogarth, the shoe-maker, Tom Fallows, the barber and coach agent, Willie Coulthard, the lamplighter, and John Crow, who made his meagre living crowing for coppers, all have their entrances and exits.
And she is ably assisted by the detailed pen-and ink drawings by Stephen Rycroft, which nicely complement the dark oils of Joseph Brown's portraits.
The book, however, is more than just a wonderfully colourful portrait of Keswick. It is also the story of indefatigable research pursued with enterprise and enthusiasm. She reports that the two poplar trees at the junction of Daniel Lane and Poplar Street were "cut down after a storm when one of the branches ended up through a house roof". And she write to Betty Viney in New Zealand to uncover the story of how Joe Sparks was saved from drowning in Derwentwater.
Ros Roberts takes the reader on a very special journey as she re-creates the life of a small Victorian town in the heart of the Lakes.