In summer 1884 an exhibition of William Wyllie’s watercolours of the Thames was held at the Fine Art Society in New Bond Street, London. The writer Grant Allen, in his introductory chapter to the catalogue of the artist’s first one-man show The Tidal Thames, noted that the Thames contemporaries commonly called up to the mind was a peaceful and placid rural river, and went on to say:
But there is a second and far other Thames … the Thames of history and of commerce… the Thames which makes London what it is … which has made the wealth of London and, in fact, much of the greatness of England.
This was the Thames W. L. Wyllie (1851-1931) portrayed in his work. In the river below London Bridge in particular was the Pool of London, the hub of British maritime commerce and the busiest waterway on earth at the time. Though the site was mostly shrouded in the clouds of smoke and grime and wasn’t a place either Londoners or tourists remembered to visit, Wyllie, having found artistic inspirations in the Pool, represented its aesthetic qualities in his works to bring the poetry of the sights to the public mind. Most memorable among such images would be Toil, Glitter, Grime and Wealth on a Flowing Tide. The NMM holds the etched version (PAF2187) of the painting that was purchased for the nation in 1883.
Toil, Glitter, Grime and wealth on a Flowing Tide 1884
Even on the print the power of contrast of light and dark, of Glitter and Grime, of Toil and Wealth is acutely envisaged. However, modernity doesn’t end in the magnitude of the imperial port: where are we looking towards in the picture? It is Greenwich with the dome of the Old Royal Naval College visible in the background of the painting.
This is a kind of questions I ask in my PhD dissertation (The University of Edinburgh), an integral part of whose research was carried out on the Caird Short-Term Research Fellowship at the NMM. Using the visual representations of the Thames I explore ways in which the turn of the 20th century London’s modernity related to imperialism and maritime commerce and to the idea of continuity, the respect for the past, and I examine the role of images in the public imagination of London. It has been a privilege working on images in the Fine Art collection with excellent resources and support at the NMM. I’m immensely grateful for the opportunity and the kindness of those who assisted my research and who encouraged me and stimulated my thoughts.