Curator's Choice: Catherine Pell chooses a detailed drawing of 19th century Cheam

By Ben Miller | 12 June 2014

Curator’s Choice: Catherine Pell, of Whitehall Museum, on a detailed drawing of 19th century Cheam made by mysterious artist Robert Blemmell Schnebbelie

A photo of an elaborate pen and ink drawing of a 19th century mansion
© Sutton Council Art Collection
“This is a really lovely pen and ink drawing of Whitehall, a Grade II* listed Tudor building in Cheam village.

Whitehall has undergone significant changes over the centuries. While we don’t know a lot about its very early history, we know a lot more about the later history – and that’s what this sketch refers to.

It portrays what Whitehall was like back in the early 19th century, before Cheam became a busy London suburb. From the front, the building structure is pretty much the same, but the view outside Whitehall has changed radically.

Gone are the horses and narrow streets, which were widened during the 20th century. The railway came to Cheam after this sketch was made, which was one of the catalysts for the transformation of the local area.

A photo of a woman holding up a framed drawing inside a historic house
Catherine Pell takes a look at the drawing inside Whitehall's parlour© Courtesy Whitehall Museum
The drawing shows what Whitehall was like when it was a home – you can see subtle details like smoke coming out of the chimney and people chatting over the fence outside.

It’s dated 1810, by an artist called R.B. Schnebbelie. He was quite a prolific topographical artist whose father was Jacob Schnebbelie, a well-known 18th-century draughtsman.

The Museum of London and the V&A have both got works by the younger Schnebbelie in their collections but he wasn’t that well-known compared to his contemporaries.

His tale is quite a tragic one: he died in poverty during the 1840s. He’s largely unresearched, which is one of the reasons I’m quite interested in him.

Schnebbelie was a very talented draughtsman, as we can see from the sketch. It’s very detailed and was probably drawn in situ as he was touring around the Surrey countryside and villages. It’s unlike other works by Schnebbelie, which are generally more polished and likely to have been re-worked and finished in the studio.

A photo of the outside of a historic residential house surrounded by trees
Formerly residential, the Surrey museum has ambitious plans these days© Courtesy Whitehall Museum
The fact he could do this at such speed was quite remarkable, even if it was very common for artists to work in this way – JMW Turner, for example, would often go around the country on sojourns, sketching as he went, and the Impressionists were well known (and ridiculed) for painting ‘en plein air’.

It’s signed and dated by the artist and annotated – “Mr Killick’s at Cheam, in this cottage is an ancient tapestry said to be 100 years old.”

The Mr Killick referred to is a former resident of Whitehall, William Killick. He was born in 1775 and lived at Whitehall with his wife, Lucy, whose portrait we’ve just acquired, which is a really exciting addition to our collection.

William and Lucy raised nine children at Whitehall and their family lived in the building for 200 years, first leasing it in 1741 and purchasing it in 1785.

In 1963 it came into the council’s possession and turned into a public museum. It’s a local authority museum and an historic house – quite a complex, timber-framed structure.

We don’t know why Whitehall was originally built around 1500, which is a real frustration sometimes. There are two main schools of thought: it could have been built as a well-to-do yeoman farmer’s house or as some kind of council house or administrative building.

What’s exciting about not knowing for certain is that it opens up public debate – we can ask visitors ‘what do you think happened here? Why do you think a building like this was built?’

There are lots of rumours associated with Whitehall, largely because of its close proximity to Nonsuch Palace, which was just down the road. The Palace, which is no longer in existence, was a hunting lodge built by Henry VIII.

There are stories about tunnels connecting the house with the palace and rumours that Elizabeth I came to Whitehall when she was out hunting and needed to sign urgent papers. There are always stories of ghosts, as well.

Although we’re a small museum, we’re very ambitious. We’re in the middle of a Heritage Lottery Fund project at the moment.

Our project aims to preserve and enhance Whitehall and put Cheam on the heritage map. If successful, the museum, which has been open to the public since 1978, will receive significant funding to preserve Whitehall for future generations to enjoy.

Cheam 1914, our summer exhibition, is linked with the World War I Centenary and the IWM. We’ve also got loans on display from the V&A and from the Museum of London and have established local partnerships as well, including with local schools.

Whitehall’s got a wonky porch at the front, which is one of its most striking features.  We often get people asking us if it’s safe – it is perfectly safe, but it’s not symmetrical. It’s actually very distinctive – people instantly recognise it.  

It’s quite a quirky place to work and fantastic being on site day-to-day in a unique listed building.

Although the building has changed significantly over the years, it has retained quite a lot of its original Tudor features: beautiful chimneys and fireplaces, exposed timbers and rafters in the attic...it’s really quite architecturally remarkable and it’s all on show.”

  • Open 2pm-5pm (10am-5pm Saturday, closed Tuesday). Admission free. For more information on the museum's HLF project visit whitehallmuseum.wordpress.com.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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