Girolamo Nerli: The London Park Scenes
Although Nerli is best known for his work in New Zealand and Australia, he spent a considerable amount of time in London between 1909 and 1923. After his marriage to Cecilia Barron in 1898 he left New Zealand never to return. He spent several years in Australia before returning to Europe in 1903. He was in London in 1904 but was based at his mother’s villa at Isola Palmaria until her death in 1909.There he painted views of the villa and the nearby town of Portovenere in a lively plein air manner. After her death he had sufficient funds to move to London where he could travel to Paris and other places in Europe until the outbreak of war in 1914 confined him to the city.
Little is known about his London years though he did keep contact with some expatriate Australian and New Zealand artists like Grace Joel and Tom Roberts. In fact Grace Joel painted his portrait in London and later donated it to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. He did not exhibit at the Royal Academy or at any other well-known gallery so far as we know. However, he did continue to paint and made an attractive series of small oils of scenes in central London near where he lived at various addresses in rented accommodation. Between 1921 and 1923 he was in rooms at Lissenden Gardens near Hampstead Heath in straitened circumstances. He was helped by a friend to sell a version of his portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson enabling him to return to Italy where he died near Genoa in 1926.
His London scenes are of well-known central locations such as the Serpentine and Hyde Park or famous buildings like Buckingham Palace or the old Bull and Bush Inn at Hampstead. His paintings are in oils on board and are of a modest size about 25 x 30 mm. They conform to the scale and type of his plein-air sketches done in Australia and New Zealand. They are in an impressionist style and appear to have been painted directly from the motif showing his fluent brushwork and sense of light and colour to advantage. A celebration of everyday life and leisure, they evoke the French Impressionists in particular and recall their depictions of Paris and the environs of the Seine. At the time, impressionist painting was becoming more acceptable in London with members of the New English Art Club adopting a lighter palette with more attention to transitory effects of light and atmosphere. Monet himself had worked in London after 1900 doing his now famous views of the Houses of Parliament viewed from the Savoy Hotel. Lucien Pissarro based himself in England where he painted everyday scenes comparable with those of Nerli.
Nerli’s sketches of Hyde Park and the Bull and Bush Inn, Hampstead, capture the atmosphere of Edwardian London. They show the beauty of the parks and historic buildings in full summer light and heat. We see well-dressed ladies with parasols and long dresses promenading and enjoying their leisure hours. There are horse riders, carriages and even modern petrol driven vehicles that look like taxis of the war period. Nerli, as a foreigner, was well placed to single out the characteristic features of his scenes, their Englishness, in a way that gives a period charm to his works. These sketches, that are freshly painted and exquisitely handled, show Nerli at his best. He even includes signage for the Bull and Bush and advertisements for India ale.
Sadly his career did not prosper and he tried sending paintings to Australia and New Zealand for sale. He died at Nervi in 1926 and was buried in a pauper’s grave.