Object of the Week

Alstone Mill by Thomas Hulley (1819). Can you believe this is near Cheltenham town centre?

Painting of Alston Bridge

Every week we will be highlighting an object from our collection. This week’s object has been chosen by Kirsty, a volunteer.

Alstone Bridge by Thomas Hulley, 1819. Oil on canvas.

As we start to rove a little more as lockdown eases, it’s interesting to be reminded how different familiar places once looked. Could it help us see things in a new light and make the by now perhaps overly familiar more interesting? This painting is of somewhere that has changed massively since it was painted in 1819. It shows a picturesque landscape with a rickety old bridge over a shallow river with cows drinking in it, and what looks like it could be a mill in the background. The picture is called Alstone Bridge, and it’s by Bath-based artist Thomas Hulley (fl. 1798-1819). It shows a highly romanticised view of the River Chelt. Believe it or not, this is really quite close to today’s town centre. If the building is Upper Alstone Mill by the Chelt – still above ground here in parts – then this is between Millbrook Road and Great Western Road, pretty much where the roundabout is on Honeybourne Way!

Upper Alstone Mill was probably one of the original mills of the Cheltenham area listed in the Domesday Book of 1086. We’re not sure who the miller was at the time of the painting, but it was Mr Gregory’s Mill early in the 18th century, and by 1844 Michael Bricknell was the miller. By the 1870s, the mill, now run by Elijah Snowsell, had a bakery on the High Street nearby. All looked well, and the mill was converted by steam some years later under yet more new owners, but by the 1920s it had closed. The mill was demolished after the Second World War, and the whole area was changed beyond recognition. Now we have Waitrose, whose underground carpark and storage meant that the Chelt had to be culverted. Walking up from the station to town along the Honeybourne Line and across Waitrose’s car park, you’re hardly aware that there is a river there!

It’s also hard to imagine that, when the Holst Birthplace Museum was built in the 1830s, it was only ten years or so since Hulley painted the picture. But – it is a rather romantic view! Hulley painted a number of views of the growing spa town, mostly watercolours, not oil paintings like this one. Those pictures showing an up-and-coming fashionable place, but, perhaps because this is an oil painting, Hulley has gone for a more conventional picturesque view of nature – slightly ruinous, but very bucolic. It may not have looked like this at all!

If you have a look on the Art UK website you’ll find more views of Cheltenham in the collections belonging to Cheltenham Borough Council – why not see if you can find your area and see how it might have changed?