PortCities London

Printing the Thames in the 19th century

Whistler’s Thames

New opportunities for artists

Free Trade Wharf.
View full size imageFree Trade Wharf. © NMM
In the second half of the 19th century the Thames offered new opportunities for artists producing aquatints, engravings, drypoints and etchings.

In addition to topographical views of waterways, their picturing of the river took them to the water’s edge, visiting docksides, wharves and bridges to depict scenes of the everyday. Through the use of line and space, they captured docks, boats, buildings and the people living and working along the waterway.

James McNeill Whistler

Billingsgate, 1859.
View full size imageBillingsgate, 1859. © NMM
The earliest and most influential of these artists was James McNeill Whistler, 1834-1903. American born, he moved to London in 1859 and immediately began working on a group of etchings of the Thames. He produced his pictures of the river at roughly the same time that Punch was commenting on its polluted state.

Whistler lived for a while among the dockworkers and labourers of Rotherhithe and Wapping. His resulting etchings are full of carefully detailed wharf scenes, stressing the grimy industrial aspect of the riverfront, such as factories, shipping and warehousing.

Whistler's Thames set of prints

View full size imageLongshoremen. © NMM
Whistler immersed himself in the more dangerous and crime-infested areas to create a bold group of images that examined the gritty industrial core of the busy commercial life of the docks. He focused on barges, clippers, warehouses, crowded wharfs and waterside taverns, bridges and boats.

Although tugs, dredgers and paddle steamboats, continually moved along the river, Whistler rejected them in favour of rowing boats, barges and lighters. He included the prostitutes, sailors and longshoremen he observed in the taverns and wharfs of Wapping and Chelsea. They formed a visual response to Mayhew's observations on working class life in London.

Although Whistler exaggerated human character and embraced the grotesque when he depicted people, his work constantly romanticizes the squalid and seedy side of the city. He had made all but one of his Thames set of prints by 1861, though they were not formally published until 1871, and Whister always thought of them as a set. The Royal Academy exhibited some of them in 1859 and continued to do so until 1864.

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