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At Joseph Harker’s Paint Studios

January 18, 2017
by the gentle author

In 1905, Joseph Harker (1855–1927) the pre-eminent scenic artist of his age – celebrated for his work for Henry Irving’s company at the Lyceum – built paint studios in Walworth for his own use and to his own specification. Remarkably, these studios survive with all the essential fixtures in place just as Harker knew them. If the name ‘Joseph Harker’ sounds familiar, it is because Henry Irving’s manager Bram Stoker immortalised him by naming a character  – Jonathan Harker – in his novel ‘Dracula’ in honour of his friend the scene painter

These days, the ground floor is occupied by the trade counter for Flints Theatrical Chandlers, stocking paints, brushes and all the paraphernalia required for the scenic arts, but Joseph Harker would only have to climb the old staircase with its close-set treads to the mezzanine above and roll his sleeves up to set to work upon the paint frames again.

Grade II listed, this is a building which does not declare itself from the outside. You have to enter and explore the distinctive nature of the single, tall narrow space with its the particular fixtures and fittings to understand its unique historical importance – which makes it all the more disappointing that last month Southwark Council granted permission for the studios to be carved up and redeveloped for luxury flats.

[youtube iqB2oE7JuQM nolink]

Joseph Harker’s signature with those of his family and colleagues

Scenic cloths were painted in natural light

The air vent at the top right is opened or closed by a sliding shutter

Frames were hung forward from the wall at the top to tilt them and prevent drips falling onto the cloth

One of several winches for winding cloths up and down

Wooden frame in which the canvas would be stretched for painting

Looking down into the frame

The original staircase leading up to the paint frames

Fullers Earth & Walnut Dust

Fog Fluid

The trough for the central frame, enabling cloths to be winched up and down, remaining at arm’s length for the painters

Flints Theatrical Chandlers, 39 Queens Row, Walworth, SE17 2PX

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24 Responses leave one →
  1. January 18, 2017

    What a crime to want to ‘develop’ a place like this. We’re living in a strange world where greed and ignorance go hand in hand to destroy our history and culture. Valerie

  2. @rupertbu permalink
    January 18, 2017

    Valerie is absolutely spot-on!

  3. January 18, 2017

    It appears the old paint studios will be lost in the name of entrepreneurial regeneration, that’s more destruction of old London. The only consolation is, its well documented here by GA. What will happen to the more important ‘relics’ I hope they are not just dumped or sold for scrap. Of course its all old technology associated with the studios, its electronic now with projector systems throwing backdrops at will. Show scenes are changed quickly replacing the old mechanical backdrops, as demonstrated with scenes projected at night onto the façade at Buckingham Palace and scene changes in theatres. I am sure they still bring down the safety curtain in an emergency and at the end of a theatre show. Poet John

  4. January 18, 2017

    This back stage tour is magnificent, and the short film is a treasure. How wonderful to have the rare opportunity to view this specialized work environment, and poke into all the corners and
    staircases. If such places are erased by “progress”, then I am not a fan of progress. Harumph.

    Just watching Harker dabbling (in a very theatrical way, I might add!) made me happy today.
    Thanks, I needed that.
    You shine a light, every day.

  5. Paula Farrington permalink
    January 18, 2017

    Fascinating — as always — thank you!

  6. January 18, 2017

    Beautiful photography! Thank you for sharing the life and fate of this magical place.

  7. Shawdian permalink
    January 18, 2017

    I was feeling so happy reading this article, wow! still like it was in his days and then .. suddenly I felt NAUSEATED! ANGRY & PLAIN FED UP !
    All I see for London is CONDEM : FLATS & OFFICES.
    Have the people responsible for our great city NO SENSE AT ALL. Can they not see what they
    have before their idiotic eyes. Talk about art & justice. Poor London. Hurts me to see the monster our once great City is forcibly turning into.

    Is there nothing we can do ?

  8. Sue M permalink
    January 18, 2017

    What a fascinating building and Aladdin’s cave. Yet again the idiots in charge are going to destroy more of our history. Thank goodness we have the gentle author to document this before it is lost.

    I hope the historical contents are going to be saved and not sold for scrap.

    The destruction of London is very depressing.

  9. January 18, 2017

    These images brought back memories.I was a scenic artist and designer between 1970-2000 and worked briefly at Harkers. Now in my dotage i run a firm which devises oral history projects and am planning one on scenic artists and paint frames so would love to hear from others who have stories to tell about working at Harkers .
    Puzzled to learn that Southwark Council feel able to overide a Grade 2 listing?
    David 0750 5813297

  10. Joan permalink
    January 18, 2017

    Anyone interested in seeing theatrical backdrops painted in state of the art facilities should book themselves on a tour of the Bob and Tamar Manoukian production workshop out in Purfleet, Essex. This is where all the backdrops for the Royal Opera House are meticulously painted in an eco friendly building which forms part of the complex of High House Production Park. You also get to see the fantastic ROH costume workshops and the Grade II listed barns which are at the centre of the complex. It’s an easy walk from Purfleet station which is a half hour journey from Fenchurch Street.

  11. January 18, 2017

    Soon London will be a huge luxury flat serviced by people on zero hour contracts bussed in from afar. In this brave new world there will be no artists just celebrity culture and privilege for the 1%.

  12. Andy French permalink
    January 19, 2017

    Such an amazing place. I would love to look around there, it can never be recreated, it should be saved there are so many other sites that could be developed which do not have the history and heritage of this place. Such a greedy, shortsighted world we live in…

  13. martin permalink
    January 19, 2017

    I left sadly London in the noughties, this just reminds me of the reasons i had fewer and fewer regrets. Great article (till thee end) and photo record. I can almost smell the studio. All the best for 2017 everyone.

  14. January 20, 2017

    I learnt to be a scenic artist at Harkers from around 1978-1980
    Taught by the inimitable Peter Crombie, Stephen Jettan, and Peter Handy . I think one day we added our names to the list in the phone box !
    Brilliant place – I realise how lucky I was . Painted marvellous cloths for Glyndebourne, ROH
    Royal Ballet , Évita … met great designers , Carl Toms , Julia Trevelyn Oman , David Hockney Maurice Sendak Bill Dudley to name a handful here

    There is nowhere quite like it. Marvellous that Alistair Flint made good use of it for so long
    Elms Lesters Covent Garden is that place still a working frame ?
    Where does scenery get painted in London these days ?
    Is there no way Harkers can be “saved ” ?

  15. January 20, 2017

    Great pics and a good record. Thank you gentle Author!

  16. January 20, 2017

    Design for theatre – first and probably foremost. Hard to believe _ like a lot at the
    moment. Stick your’luxury’ flats (somewhere else?)

  17. Robert Lewis permalink
    January 28, 2017

    Luxury Flats, huh? Well, at least it isn’t flattened as I am now. When one thinks of Harker’s labor, this story is too much to bear.

  18. Sarah McDermott (nee Harker) permalink
    February 4, 2017

    How extraordinary and sadly ironic that I discover this wonderful record of the Harker Studios as I sit with my father in his dying days. My father is Martin, son of Roland and Deborah Harker and grandson of Joseph and Sarah. Martin is very frail now but I remember him talking of the Harker clan meeting at the Walworth Rd studios and often repairing to the nearby pub.

    The most important family history is the autograph list of many Harker family members and loyal employees. Does anyone know whether this is being saved – perhaps as a heritage condition of Planning? If not, the Harker descendants are certainly interested in saving it.

    Does anyone know the planning reference for the Southwark planning permission?

  19. Peter Crombie permalink
    February 26, 2017

    I worked at Harkers for more than 16 years, from 1968 to 1984, for the last 10 as a director, and painted there twice after Alistair Flint had taken over the building. As I remember it, Alistair stepped in at the last moment in the 1980s, with the building under immediate threat even then, and saved it; all praise to him in using the building structurally unaltered all these years. From what a lot of people have written, appalled at an important building likely to be turned into flats, I can see that the exciting quality of the building has got through to them from these excellent pictures alone.

    I have to say there is one essential of the original missing, sadly. Before Alistair Flint got possession of the building, the original weighty paint frames, hand-winches and counterweights that I knew had been ripped out. It might never have been possible to electrify them, but it was sheer vandalism. The two you can see were installed by Alistair, electrified but of much lighter construction than the originals. It was not practical for several reasons to replace the huge 30’ deep, back-to-back middle frames; the wooden truss and wheels from which they were hung can be seen in several pictures.

    I have worked in seven studios with movable paint frames in London (and two others elsewhere) in the course of 50 years: almost all are gone or unavailable, except I believe Drury Lane. Of them all, the Harkers studio was easily the best lit and, designed by a famous scenic artist, had the most practical design. If Southwark Council cares at all about this really remarkable building, they should think in terms of making it available as workshops, studios, or even one studio that would appeal to a big-thinking artist.

    I would say there’s no way that the Harkers building alone can be turned into flats. I am guessing the real plan is for a developer to get hold of it – and the adjoining theatrical buildings, demolish all three and build from scratch. That would be tragic, one more step towards making London a characterless wasteland.

  20. Jonathan Laverock permalink
    March 4, 2017

    I made my first visit to Flints yesterday lunchtime and was surprised to find such a wonderful example London’s less well known historical buildings still intact and being used as a theatrical workspace after so many years. Having survived the Blitz, it would be a great pity if this unique part of the capital’s hertiage is lost for future generations as it will never be replicated elsewhere.

  21. vera schonberg permalink
    July 27, 2017


  22. Grit Eckert permalink
    July 29, 2017


    We are the group, trying to save this building or at the very least, raising awareness of these types of workspaces. They have been disappearing very quietly in the recent past.

    If you are reading these comments and would like to do something please do get in touch under or look on our Facebook page

    I would also love to hear from those you have worked in the space or have stories that relate to the space.

    Many thanks,

  23. October 26, 2017

    I am writing the first spreadsheet from the American point of view about 19th century rotunda panoramas. These were the biggest paintings in the world, 50 x 400=20,000 square feet, housed in their own rotundas which were 16-sided polygons. Chicago in 1893 had 6 panorama companies and 6 panorama rotundas. Harker’s obituary in THE TIMES April 18,1927 reads:”For several years he was in America painting the huge panoramas then in vogue.” I learned about Harker only this afternoon, and want very much to learn about his work in America. Info to share

  24. vera schonberg permalink
    December 12, 2021

    My Father Thomas Lake Schonberg worked for Mr Harker. He had me when he was 58 and I am now 80. No one ever mentions him as he painted scenery all his life a lot for Drury Lane.

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