July is not a popular month with swans on the river Thames! Every year in the third week, men take to the river in traditional wooden skiffs, dressed in colourful garb and feather-adorned caps, to track down and pluck from the water these familiar British birds. Although this had a more sinister purpose in days gone by – to lay claim to the best birds to serve for dinner at grand banquets – today it is a more sedate and less-threatening affair.
One of Her Majesty’s Swan Upping skiffs flying her Royal cypher
For this is Swan Upping week: the annual census of mute swans that inhabit the Thames. I joined the Swan Uppers on the second day of this year’s event accompanied by cameraman Raj Yagnik to capture the ceremony for next year’s special exhibition Royal River: Power, Pageantry and the Thames (April-September 2012) in which we will feature this ancient and peculiar rite. The event was led by David Barber, in his 19th year as The Queen’s Swan Marker, whose scarlet and gold blazer brightened up a gloomy morning at Eton riverside.
David Barber, Marker of The Queen’s Swans, being interviewed on board the press boat
Dating back to at least the 15th century, Swan Upping in the past was about claiming the right to own swans on the river. The ownership of unmarked swans belonged to the monarch, who could also grant the right of ownership to others. Some aristocratic families, institutions and guilds were given these rights which were asserted at Swan Upping when the swans would be rounded up and marked with unique notches cut into their beaks.
Today, the cutting of beaks has ceased – Queen Alexandra worried about the unnecessary pain and distress it caused – and only two City Livery Companies, the Vintners‘ and Dyers‘, maintain their right to own swans, alongside Her Majesty the Queen. At this time of the year the companies come together with the Crown, crewing six skiffs between them, to make the 79-mile journey between Sunbury in Surrey and Abingdon in Oxfordshire searching for the season’s new cygnets…
Much of my morning Swan Upping was spent in the press boat taking a leisurely journey up the Thames, admiring the quirky spectacle and taking in the beauty of a river which it is hard to believe passes through one of the busiest cities in the world. Meanwhile the Swan Uppers alongside us were rowing at a reasonable pace while keeping their eyes peeled for young swans. After turning a bend in the river one of the watermen cried ‘All Up’, and sure enough a group of swans – two parent birds and six cygnets – were spotted greedily devouring bread being offered by day-trippers on the bank. Swan Upping was once described to me as ‘all feathers and blood’ so as the men sprang into action, corralling the group between the skiffs and the bank, I expected much hissing of tongues, gnashing of beaks and beady eyes filled with terror.
Swan Upping skiffs corralling the swans against the bank
On this occasion though, the fearsome swan crooks for hooking the birds from the water (think fishing for ducks at the fairground) were not needed and the swans were relatively easily lifted from the water with little distress, few feathers and absolutely no blood shed – by swan or Swan Upper! The feet of each bird were tied to demobilize them and then they were taken ashore for ringing (which replaces beak-cutting). The cygnets were the cutest things – grey fluff and stubby wings (no ugly ducklings, Hans Christian Andersen) – and were anxiously watched by their parents (also taken from the water) as they were weighed and measured, under the direction of The Queen’s Warden of the Swans, Professor Christopher Perrins. After meeting the locals, the swans were returned to the water and the band of Swan Uppers went on its way.
Professor Perrins, The Queen’s Swan Warden, measuring this year’s cygnets, with David Barber explaining the process in the foreground
We saw very few swans in this session; apparently swans on the Thames have a more fearsome adversary this year than the men in colourful coats. Duck Virus Enteritis or ‘Duck Plague‘ has struck mute swans on the Thames and is having a significant effect on their numbers. At times like this you realise that the work of the Swan Uppers is not just about tradition and show; they fulfil a valuable conservation, education and welfare role which will help us to understand the spread and impact of this dreadful disease and to hopefully confirm the recovery of the population of these iconic birds on the river Thames.
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.
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.
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.