Chris Wadsworth
Percy Kelly - Looking East to the Ennerdale Fells
Writer and Art Consultant

13th April 2015


The Keswick painting
key to the painting

There is a newly cleaned oil painting in the recently renovated Museum and Art Gallery in Fitz Park in Keswick.  Keswick Street 1870 was painted by Joseph Brown Junior – a local painter and decorator by trade.  It is a well-balanced beautifully executed Breughel type scene of the Main Street with 45 figures – 43 men, 1 woman and a small girl as well as 2 very small horses, a dog and a donkey - set against the background of the Moot Hall.  Standing in front of a painting like this you can’t help wondering who all these people were. Were they real people? There is so much detail that they must have been. Did they pose for the picture together or individually?  What were their lives like? What were their names?   Did they all know each other?

Well, we need speculate no more. The most interesting feature of this painting is that the artist helpfully left a numbered outline key to the people depicted with their names and, in most cases, their occupations. There’s a hermit, a lamplighter, a pig keeper, a multi-tasking Bank manager and a maker of straw beehives – I could go on.  Many of the surnames are familiar to Keswickians.

Armed with this, the intrepid  Ros Roberts, a retired teacher and friend of the museum who lives in Keswick, has spent the last two years engaged in meticulous research of every named person. She has searched censuses, church records, local newspapers and documents of the time as well as loitering in graveyards, wandering up alleys and yards tracing living members of the named families. She has unearthed interesting, startling, sometimes dramatic results which she has published in a book which is invaluable as local history. Ros has breathed life into these people.

Not only the painting but the museum has been reborn. This once dark, dingy, uninspiring place whose claim to fame was a 500 (the old label stated) year old  mummified cat in a box and some musical stones in a dark corner, is now a bright, lively,  welcoming place with a friendly  café that looks out on to the park. It is a pleasure to visit  (incidentally the cat is now 666  - 700 years old according to various conflicting speculations but I can confidently confirm that it is  ‘extremely dead’   – times are moving on).

 You are invited to make music on the Musical Stones ‘xylophone’ whose properties were first discovered by inventor and eccentric Peter Crossthwaite and then painstakingly collected from Skiddaw by Joseph Richardson, a stonemason. After 13  years collecting, marking and carving the stones to make a full octave he formed the first ever Rock Band in 1840 and went on tour as Richardson and Sons Rock, Fell and Steel Band. (eat your hearts out Queen and The Rolling Stones -  this lot  played before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in London in 1848!)

There is so much more in this beautiful building which was almost closed by the council in 2002 but was saved with the help of the Friends of KMAG and, with the aid of a heritage Lottery grant, has recently been resurrected from the dead.

The once dowdy beamed gallery is now transformed with  a series of changing exhibitions. At the moment there is an exhibition of map making of all kinds including contoured 3-D models. A massive OS map is spread across the floor like a carpet and visitors are actively encouraged to explore it on foot.  I stood on my house and waded across Bassenthwaite Lake before jumping on the top of Skiddaw. Phew!

The museum is largely manned by friendly well-informed and enthusiastic volunteers. Before I left I made another interesting art discovery but I’ll save that for another time. I need to go back and delve a little more to get the full story.

** apologies for the poor quality of the reproductions of the painting and key. To see them properly you will have to either get the book or, better still, visit the museum.

The Keswick Painting. Ros Roberts. Bookcase £12.  

Keswick Museum and Art Gallery  017687 73263

Café West at Keswick Museum and Art Gallery 017687 75947                                       April to October  Open 7 days a week, 9.30am – 5.30pm                                                   November to March Monday - Saturday, 9.30am – 4.00pm Sundays, 11am – 4pm





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