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Printing the Thames in the 19th century

Introduction
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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Whistler’s print method

Whistler's style

The 'silent highway'-man. 'Your money or your life!'.
View full size imagePunch cartoon: The 'silent highway'-man. 'Your money or your life!'. © NMM
Whistler achieved a sense of rhythm and design in his compositions through his use of abrupt perspective and unusual viewpoints. People and activity are mainly present at the margins of the images, as if on the margins of actual visibility.

Indeed, Whistler’s response to the seedier side of the city marked a shift in his artistic priorities, towards an aesthetic search for new beauty in the river. Significantly, this was the same river shown in such a sinister way in the Punch cartoons. Yet there is little hint of the lurking dangers in his prints.

Longshoremen.
View full size imageLongshoremen. © NMM

Whistler's work shows an allegiance to Rembrandt, Courbet, Turner and Japanese prints. He worked directly onto the waxed copperplate, without any preliminary sketches on paper. This resulted in reverse etchings in black ink on paper with the pictures effectively back to front.

The 'Thames Set'

Whistler played with line, texture and tone, to show the textures of worn stone, rusting iron grating, light and figures. In 1871 the plates were sold to the publishing firm Ellis & Green, which issued 100 sets entitled A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames and Other Subjects, known as the ‘Thames Set’. The sites that Whistler etched along the Thames are almost unrecognizable today because of the devastation of the World War II Blitz and a century of rebuilding.

Black Lion Wharf, 1859.
View full size imageBlack Lion Wharf, 1859. © NMM

He made Thames - Black Lion Wharf; etching while he was staying at Rotherhithe and it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1860. Whistler shows the old timber frame buildings, brick and stonework, rope, smoking factory chimney, old boats and general decay. He concentrates on the minute detailing of differing widths of board, lettering of signs, crooked window sashes and the ropes, rings and pulleys of machinery. He details quaintly constructed houses along the riverbank, with people idling on the waterfront and glimpses of trees in the distance.

Thames Police at Wapping Wharf.
View full size imageThames Police at Wapping Wharf. © NMM

Number 2 of 'A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames and Other Subjects'

This scene focuses on the police headquarters in the foreground on the right. 

Crowded with old riverside buildings of Wapping, the viewpoint is taken from the water’s edge, looking at masts of sailing ships on the left and a row of river craft anchored on the right. The small skiffs, or rowing boats, of the Marine Police are shown pulled up on the shore at Wapping Wharf. Whistler has shown the old timber frame buildings, brick and stone work, ships’ masts, old boats and river shoreline.

Old Westminster Bridge, 1859
View full size imageOld Westminster Bridge, 1859. © NMM

Old Westminster Bridge is shown in the distance with the newly built Houses of Parliament on the skyline. The artist has concentrated on showing the broad expanse of the river. He has used only a few lines to indicate the movement of the water. Two small paddle steamers are shown on the water with the sails of small craft beyond.

The chimneys of factories on the south bank are sketched on the right. Two men on horseback are shown in the foreground in a stylistic pose, evoking the prints of Rembrandt. The image narrows towards the bridge in the distance. There is an unreal sensation of calm, emphasized by the paddle steamers giving little impression of moving through the water.


Old Hungerford Bridge.
View full size imageOld Hungerford Bridge. © NMM

Number 6 of 'A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames and Other Subjects'

A view showing Old Hungerford Bridge, the pedestrian route across the Thames. This linked the south bank with Hungerford Market on the north side. It was probably etched in the winter of 1860 when the Brunel Bridge was being demolished to make way for Charing Cross railway bridge.

The suspension chains, some of which are shown being taken down, were re-used to complete Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, also designed by Brunel. This etching anticipates Whistler’s move to an aesthetic approach, concentrating on simple lines and shapes to convey the scene. He has included a number of different river craft: steamboats, Thames barges, lighters and a hay barge. Figures can be seen working high up on the bridge.

The Pool, 1859.
View full size imageThe Pool, 1859. © NMM

The Pool of London is shown as an empty expanse within an image otherwise crowded with detailed drawings of buildings and river boats. The viewpoint is low down by the water’s edge.

In the foreground a man is shown sitting in a rowing boat looking out of the picture space towards the viewer. Behind him is a boat inscribed ‘Jane N.6’, and a woman walking towards a houseboat in the middle foreground. The exagerrated characteristics of the figure on the boat almost appear grotesque.

In the distance a forest of ships’ masts is implied with single lines. The image has been alternately organized around 'absences', with great white areas and an intense busyness created with rhythmic banding and vertical lines to show the detailed treatment of the riverside buildings. The image has an air of stillness, calm and unreality.

Limehouse, 1859.
View full size imageLimehouse, 1859. © NMM

Number 12 of 'A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames and Other Subjects'

The buildings of Limehouse are shown on the right with the Thames and shipping in the distance on the left. The low viewpoint shows a complex arrangement of boats, masts, wooden piles and building. A woman is going up some steps on the right and a man descends a precariously positioned gangplank on the far right. Buildings, boat and river are all linked and merge as one continuous whole. The work was exhibited at the Royal Academy as The Thames, near Limehouse; etching in 1861 while Whistler was staying at Rotherhithe. 

Thames warehouses, 1859.
View full size imageThames warehouses, 1859. © NMM

Number 13 of 'A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames and Other Subjects'

A view from Thames Tunnel Pier showing buildings on the left and the empty sweep of the river on the right. The lettering on the buildings describes some of the commercial activities taking place there, such as ‘Rope and Sail Makers’ and ‘the Hermitage Coal Wharf’. Smoke rises from a steamer on the river above the masts of sailing ships on the right. The dome of St Paul’s is visible on the skyline in the distance.

Millbank.
View full size imageMillbank. © NMM

Number 14 of 'A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames and Other Subjects'

The etching looks towards the water’s edge so that the huge monolithic structure of the Millbank Penitentiary towers behind the artist, out of view of this etching. This giant fortress opened in 1816 and stood on the site of today’s Tate Britain. It had a central observation tower and was surrounded by a high octagonal-shaped wall and moat.

On the left bank the dark building in the distance is Lambeth Palace. The image has actually been reversed. The figures on the shoreline are ambiguous - not boatmen - and a man in a top hat looks down on them. All three create an air of surprise.


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Glossary
Etching
Lighter
Wharf

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