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Picturing the 18th-century port

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Painting the Thames


The topographical view

Greenwich from One Tree Hill
View full size imageGreenwich from One Tree Hill. © NMM

Artists also became increasingly interested in the River Thames as a subject for painting in the 18th century. From the late 17th century, Dutch topographical artists working in England, such as Peter Tillemans or Jan Siberechts, had produced views of the river.

These paintings were not, however, in celebration of its commerce and shipping. The Pool of London was not represented in visual form except in maps and prints.

Greenwich Hospital from the North Bank of the Thames.
View full size imageGreenwich Hospital from the North Bank of the Thames. © NMM

It was only in the middle decades of the 18th century that firstly the City of London and subsequently the commercial reaches of the Thames became regular and important subjects for landscape painting.

This rise in the Thames's popularity with artists coincided with:

Canaletto's London

To Sir Hugh Smithson Bart this view of the City of London taken through one of the centres of the arches of the new bridge at Westminster....
View full size imageThe City of London through the arches of Westminster bridge. © NMM
Canaletto’s View of the City of London Taken through one of the Centres of the Arches of the New Bridge at Westminster, of 1747, celebrates the rise of commercial London and the river in several ways.

The view embraces the magnificent sweep of Wren’s churches and St Paul’s cathedral commemorating the late 17th-century rebuilding of the city after the Great Fire of London.

Canaletto directly compares the earlier regeneration of the city with modern development by taking the view from Westminster Bridge. This was a newly completed and very prestigious classically designed building that provided a crossing over the river at the west end of London.

Samuel Scott

Canaletto’s London views greatly influenced English artists. Samuel Scott, in particular, produced at about the same time his own version of the view of the City of London through an arch of Westminster Bridge. His picture is now in the Tate.

From the middle decades of the 18th century there was an increasing interest among English artists such as Scott and his pupil William Marlow in depicting London and the Thames as commercial centres. They were fascinated by the quayside activities of shipping and loading taking place there.

A Danish timber barque.
View full size imageA Danish timber barque. © NMM

Scott's 'Danish timber barque'

Scott’s painting, the Danish timber barque, is set probably near the mouth of the Thames. It shows a cat bark, a Danish trading vessel, which flies the Danish flag from the stern. Such ships were extremely strong and could carry large tonnages of essential raw materials, especially timber.

Scott has employed a simple device to convey the power and immensity of the vessel, by making the figures on deck much smaller in scale than they should actually be.

The artist is interested here in depicting the processes of commerce and shipping, and the importance of trade. He shows piles of timber unloaded from the bark being carried on a barge to the left, and the crew preparing to get the ship under way.

The inclusion of other ships, one of which flies the Dutch flag, draws attention to the international scale of commerce coming out of London.

Prints of the commercial Thames

A view taken near Limehouse Bridge, looking down the Thames.
View full size imageA view taken near Limehouse Bridge, looking down the Thames. © NMM
Alongside the rise of topographical painting, views of the commercial Thames were produced in prints, such as John Boydell’s A view taken near Limehouse.

Such images as this, made by the leading print publisher in Britain in the 18th century, suggests the growing popularity of this subject matter for contemporary British audiences.

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