The story of the London Borough of Islington – from Anglo-Saxon village to major urban area – is told through the unique collections at Islington Local History Centre and displays at Islington Museum.
Located at Finsbury Library, Islington Local History Centre has a dual role as the local history library and historic record office for the London Borough of Islington. Prior to 1900, local authority responsibilities were administered by Islington, Clerkenwell and St Luke’s (Old Street) vestries, but in 1900 these were replaced by the two newly formed metropolitan Boroughs of Finsbury and Islington. These merged in 1965 to form the present day Islington.
Operated by Islington Council as part of its Library and Heritage Services, the Centre was created in 2003 by combining the local history reference collection held at the Central Library in Holloway with that already at Finsbury Library. This enabled material from the two previous Boroughs to be housed on one site.
The Centre currently holds in excess of 125,000 items on the history of the Borough and its predecessors. Its acquisitions policy is to record life and events in the area: its people, buildings, institutions and events – past, present and future – by collecting local material and records, and to make these publicly available to researchers. Items in the collection include approximately 25,000 illustrations, comprising photographs, postcards, prints, watercolours, sketches and oils.
Islington Museum at Finsbury Library opened in 2008 (funded by a £1million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund), and is run by the local authority; it replaced a community museum previously located at Islington Town Hall. The Museum houses a gallery covering several themes on local and social history, as well as separate display space for special events and temporary exhibitions.
From the early nineteenth century Islington began to attract professional artists. It was an area of contrasts: industrialised Clerkenwell and Finsbury in the south, and semi-rural Highbury and Holloway to the north. Together with the centrally located Upper Street area – a place of eating, drinking and entertainment – there was much to inspire the artist. Later, the Borough’s many residential squares and terraced villas, as well as its close proximity to the bustling City of London, offered a convenient location for artists to live and work. During the twentieth century many artists were drawn to Islington’s ‘pockets’ of affluence, fading charm and unpretentious atmosphere.
Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1793–1864), a watercolour artist and resident, captured Islington’s topography at a point when it was ceasing to be a rural village. George Cruikshank (1792–1878), a graphic artist, lived and worked in Clerkenwell, and fellow illustrator Kate Greenaway (1846–1901), who studied at the Finsbury School of Art, was another local resident.
One of the nation’s foremost painters, Walter Richard Sickert (1860–1942), was inspired by Islington and had many connections to the area. He often visited Collins’ Music Hall on Islington Green to study the artistes, audience and atmosphere for future works and, between 1924 and 1934, Sickert lived and worked at several addresses in the Borough. Islington Local History Centre is home to the Walter Sickert Family Collection. Most of its content was deposited with Islington Library Service by the Sickert Trust (1947–1950) in recognition of the significance of Islington in the artist’s life. Examples of Sickert’s oil works, as well as those by his third wife, Thérèse Lessore (1884–1945), and other members of his family are catalogued here.
Walter Sickert was a great inspiration to artist and writer Geoffrey Scowcroft Fletcher (1923–2004), whose work is also featured in the collection. As a favoured location for Fletcher to draw, he referred to Islington as having a ‘many-sided’ character and observed ‘Islington, like St Paul’s, is something that has to be seen for oneself: in fact it is a total experience, requiring all the senses and all the faculties.’ He found the combination of affluence and poverty and the resulting variety of buildings and people that made up the area intriguing. In appreciation, the artist donated many of his works to Islington Library Service, which are now held at Islington Local History Centre.
Other works found in the collection have been acquired directly from the artists or their families or as bequests or donations from members of the public. Many of these oils have rarely been seen until now and they and their artists deserve this opportunity to enjoy a wider audience.
Mark Aston, Local History Manager, Islington Local History Centre
Text source: PCF / Islington Local History Centre and Museum
This description was originally written for a catalogue.