Printing the Thames in the 19th century
New opportunities for artists
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
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
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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