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Printing the Thames in the 19th century

The polluted Thames
Picturing life by the Thames
Whistler’s Thames
Whistler’s print method
Whistler’s contemporaries and followers
Into the 20th century
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London Docks, looking west, by Thomas Shepherd.
View full size imageLondon Docks, looking west, by Thomas Shepherd. © NMM

By the 19th century London was the world’s largest and richest city. It was the commercial capital with an industrial and imperial dominance over much of the world.

Essential to this commerce was the River Thames, flowing through the city. As the principal pathway for travel, communication and business transactions, the river represented British supremacy and prosperity. It provided the vital link between metropolis and empire, and reinforced the country's status as a naval power.

This essay explores the print imagery of the period and the artists who took the Thames as their inspiration.

The Illustrated London News Panorama of London and the River Thames.
View full size imageGrand Panorama of London from the Thames. © NMM

During Queen Victoria’s reign there was a growing demand for maps and views. Throughout the 19th century technical improvements in engraving and printing also led to the mass reproduction of images and art prints.

Maps and panoramas were just part of the 19th century process of modernising London. The demand for their production increased considerably after the huge influx of visitors to the 1851 Great Exhibition. This surge in tourism matched the pride in new buildings and architecture and the celebration of progress.

Artists found the Thames a vital focal point in portraying London. Their interpretations of the river varied from topographical views to aesthetic interpretations. They identified its perpetual movement as the source of wealth, beauty and life.

Horse Guards Parade.
View full size imageAerial View of Horse Guards Parade with the River Thames. © NMM

On the right is a lithographic panorama over the roof tops of Pall Mall across to Westminster and the River Thames. It was probably seen from the viewing gallery at the top of the newly built York Column, Carlton House Gardens. Horse Guards Parade and St James's Park are shown in the foreground. The dome of St Paul’s is visible on the left with the hills of the North Downs in the far distance.

The sinuous shape of the river dominates the scene, distinguishing the grand buildings such as Somerset House in the foreground, from the factories and boatyards of the south bank. There is no sign of the Houses of Parliament - they burnt down in 1834.

Westminster Bridge is on the right and Waterloo Bridge on the left. To the right, the line trailing into the distance on the south side of the river shows the route of the proposed Westminster Bridge, Deptford and Greenwich Railway. The line was never built, but it demonstrates the technological superiority and changes taking place in the capital.

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Find out more
StoriesWilliam Lionel Wyllie and the Thames
The career and techniques of a prominent Thames artist
Fact fileWilliam Lionel Wyllie
London river artist
StoriesPicturing the 18th-century port
How artists interpreted the Thames in the 18th century
GalleriesJames (Jean-Jaques) Tissot (1836-1902)
Depictions of 19th-century London life observed with a Frenchman’s eye
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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