The Hogsmill River is not the most spectacular waterway in the British Isles. In fact, for most of its length you would be struggling to call it a river. A stream would be more accurate.
Technically, the Hogsmill is six miles long, and flows into the Thames at Kingston Upon Thames. The main source is at Bourne Hall Park in Ewell, in Surrey. But other tributaries, namely the Green Lanes stream, the Ewell Court Stream, the Bonesgate stream, the Hogsmill stream and the Tolworth Brook, at several points along the way all feed into it, and have several different sources.
But it is the part of the Hogsmill that flows just past Berrylands and along Old Malden that we are interested in – and that has become bizzarely famous in the art world.
Ophelia – in the Hogsmill.
For it is the humble Hogsmill that is the setting for the famous painting “Ophelia” by John Everett Millais, painted between 1851-52.
The picture shows Ophelia, the character in the Shakespeare’s Hamlet, lying in the water, singing before she drowns in a river in Denmark.
But Millais staged the scene in the humble old Hogsmill. The actual spot according to local historian Barbara Webb is at Six Acre Meadow, alongside Church Road in New Malden – although other settings have been claimed. The picture has always been noted for its accurate depiction of the plants and trees on what does look indeed like a quintessentially English riverbank. Some claim they can see a skull among the rushes.
The path alongside the Hogsmill today…
The model in the picture, which hangs in the Tate Britain in London, was 19 year old Elizabeth Siddal, herself an artist. But she never posed in the river itself. Millais actually had her lie fully clothed in a bathtub full of water in his studio in Gower Street in London. He placed oil lamps under the bathtub to keep the water warm, but let them go out so engrossed was he in his work. As a result, Siddal caught a severe cold, possibly pneumonia, and her father was understandably unimpressed, claiming £50 for medical expenses for her treatment, which the artist, under threat of legal action, eventually paid.
Is this the spot?
The story goes that Ophelia had fallen into the water while gathering wild flowers, and she lies in the water singing, but then her clothes drag her down and she drowns.
Millais moaned in his diary about Surrey’s flies plaguing him when he painted beside the Hogsmill, and he had a hut constructed alongside the river to protect him from the weather during the winter of 1851.
Or this ….?
Siddal later became a model and muse for the pre Raphaelite artist Rossetti, who she married in 1860 after a long love affair. She died though in 1862 after an overdose of laudanum following a spell of depression.
So though she never actually lay in the Hogsmill – which for most of its length she would have been pretty safe from drowning in, so shallow is the river. But Elizabeth Siddal, and especially John Millais, left their mark on this little Surrey waterway.
Go the Tate Britain and have a look if you get a chance.
See? The old Hogsmill is not just full of shopping trolleys and empty Coke bottles…