In the 17th-century, the visual image of the river Thames was, on the whole, limited to the defining feature of topographical views, the site of carnivalesque frost-fairs or simply the backdrop for pictorial representations of architectural magnificence. By contrast, during the 18th century the Thames became a respectable subject for art in its own right, and was treated as an increasingly celebratory site which reflected the great changes in London as the city evolved into the centre of a commercial empire. Paintings and prints celebrated the growth and prestige of the port, with the Thames itself held up as a symbol for London, the world capital of trade.
Though 18th-century imagery of the river Thames is widely known, this tends to be confined to a very select and narrow range of fine art, above all the oil paintings of Canaletto and Samuel Scott and scenes depicting royal events and pageants which are almost always confined to the section of river between St Paul’s and Westminster. Less attention has been given to the abundant visual imagery, particularly in printed form, of what is referred to as the ‘commercial’ river below London Bridge. My research is focused on a rich aspect of the National Maritime Museum collections: the imagery relating to the river Thames during the long 18th century, particularly the lower ‘commercial’ reaches from the Pool of London downstream towards Gravesend. Artists whose works celebrate the commercial river include the Cleveleys, John Boydell, Francis Holman, Nicholas Pocock, William Anderson, Richard Paton and William Daniell. Of particular interest are the highly detailed images made by Robert Dodd and published by John and Josiah Boydell, for example Blackwall…at the Launch of the ‘Bombay Castle’ a 74 Gun Ship, 25 March 1789, (PAH9724) (detail reproduced below).
Blackwall… at the launch of the ‘Bombay Castle’ a 74 Gun Ship. Built at the Expence of the Honble East India Company and presented by them to his Majesty.. (PAH9724)
This triumphant image, with finely dressed spectators, enthusiastic crowds and energetic hat-waving, presents Blackwall in all its glorious pomp and ceremony at the launch of the great ship, Bombay Castle, which was actually floated out seven years before this print was published. In his A View of the Royal Dockyard at Deptford, 28 March 1789 (PAH9746) (detail reproduced below) Dodd presents another fantastically detailed scene with a carefully balanced view which takes in the full sweep of the river from the shoreline, where lighters and a rowing boat busily carry barrels to and from the ships, to the Dockyard itself where ships on the stocks are in various stages of completion. On the shoreline two ladies dressed in fine clothes promenade beneath a parasol and a gentleman raises his hat to them, suggesting to the viewer that this is a polite space and a source of national pride.
A View of the Royal Dockyard at Deptford, 28 March 1789 (PAH9746)
In the process of researching these and other images and sifting through the archives, as part of my doctoral research, a rich assortment of contemporary works depicting the working Thames by lesser known (or unknown) artists and engravers have come to light. Studied collectively these visual records represent a distinct pattern of demand for, and supply of, images of the downriver reaches of the Thames and a fascinating insight into the way the commercial river was represented and imagined in the 18th century.
We’ve joined The Commons on Flickr, where we’re enjoying sharing some of the content from PortCities. PortCities was a NOF funded digitisation project, which ran between 2003 and 2005, so we’d like to wish everyone season’s greetings and share this PortCities animation that relays a Christmas message…
It’s derived from a print (see below) in the Museum‘s collection. It shows the last great frost fair, which took place during the winter of 1813-14, on the Thames.
The fair on the Thames, February 4th 1814 by Luke Clenell
During particularly cold winters, the Thames would freeze over and spontaneous frost fairs would follow. Frost fairs were popular events and Londoners took to the ice for entertainment. Revelers can be seen dancing and playing games including skittles, while musicians are performing for the crowd behind. The event was captured by typographers who erected printing-presses at the fair to commemorate the festivities.
We hope that you’ll enjoy this short animation and we wish you all the best for the season.
An architectural model of Nelson’s Column by William Railton, c.1838
On the ground floor of the National Maritime Museum you will find our Maritime London galleries. This is a very special section of the Museum – here you really get a sense of London as a changing port city. From drawings to panoramas, Greenwich is depicted here as an integral part of the networks of trade. Trade is inevitably bound to power. Powerful cities are full of symbols that reflect, commemorate and rewrite history. In this gallery one of the most famous landmarks of London can be found – Nelson’s Column. Of course to see it in its actual location you will need to travel to Trafalgar Square – just a short train ride away. Here, though, we have a model of it, carefully constructed at a 1:22 scale from bath stone, wood, marble and metal.
In 1838 the Nelson Memorial Committee proposed an idea to create a memorial to commemorate Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. An open competition was announced and the architect William Railton was chosen to design the monument’s column, while the sculptor Edward Hodges Baily was selected to create Nelson’s statue. This model is believed to be the first visualisation of how the final version would look. Construction on Railton’s column began in 1840. In 1850 the four bas-reliefs depicting Nelson’s battles of St Vincent, Copenhagen, the Nile, and Trafalgar were added. In1867 four bronze lions, which are shown here in the model at NMM, completed the monument as we know it today. Now much sat on by visitors to London, these figures were designed by Sir Edwin Landseer, a painter known for his depictions of animals. There are also a few differences between NMM’s version and how the statue turned out. Architectural models are design experiments that inevitably will be reworked once the scaling-up process begins. Our model shows steps around the base that did not make it to the final design.
Monuments are usually built to commemorate a specific event, but as they slip into public consciousness they gather anecdotes and associations. As a public square, Trafalgar Square operates as a meeting place and as a space to gather groups to both celebrate and demonstrate – from sporting victory parades and New Year revelry to demonstrations against apartheid and the poll tax. Nelson’s Column famously was sold in 1923 by a retired Glasgow-born actor Arthur Furguson to an American tourist for £6000, and just before the statue of Nelson was placed on the top of the column construction workers held a picnic right at the top. This model is a constant reminder that history is always perceived through the present and by how we use architecture, while the present is equally marked by events and symbols of the past.
‘Limehouse, 1859′ by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (PAF5482)
On hot August days as I cycle home from the National Maritime Museum there is a secret ‘beach’ along the river in Limehouse where I sometimes stop off. Of course it is not a beach in the same sense as the locations that we will see in NMM’s forthcoming exhibition ‘Beside the Seaside’, but somehow it still works. You can watch the boats moving up and down the Thames, see the waves lapping at the shore and, at low tide, comb the edges for all kinds of things that have been washed up.
In the Museum we have a really wonderful etching of Limehouse by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). American born, French trained and British based, the painter’s legacy can be seen throughout the history of art, making this a very special part of our collections. This etching is one of five currently on show in the ‘Art and the Sea’ display and is from a series of 16 etchings that were published in 1871, 12 years after the artist made the plate.
Whistler moved to Wapping in 1859 and created a number of paintings and etchings of working class maritime London. Then the area was characterised by the incredible smell that emanated from the Thames. Victorian society associated such smells as symptoms of a perceived lack of morals of the area. Whistler, however, had a more detached view as he sought to capture a sense of modern life, for him encapsulated by the working river Thames in London. From his base in Wapping, the artist captured a fast disappearing way of life as the river embankment was developed.
In the background of this etching two buildings can be seen – one marked with the name ‘Frederick Vin and Co, Rope and Sailmakers’ and the other ‘Smith and Son, Hermitage Coal Wharf.’ The viewpoint is at standing eye level, which draws you right into the scene. In the foreground a man is depicted on a boat carrying cargo, looking back to tall masts fading off to the horizon. There is a real sense of immediacy in Whistler’s Thames prints, making them quite different from his better-known paintings of the area. Although the activities of Limehouse that I will cycle past later today are very different from those Whistler reveals, the beach where I pause for thought is unmistakeably the same place.