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William Lionel Wyllie and the Thames

Early career
Wyllie and other Thames artists
Wyllie's artistic development: oils, watercolours and etchings
London and the artist at work
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Early career

First commission

Funeral of the late Prince Louis Napoleon - debarkation of the body at Woolwich.
View full size image Funeral of the late Prince Louis Napoleon - debarkation of the body at Woolwich.
In 1870 Wyllie began working as an illustrator of maritime subjects for The Graphic magazine.

He had to reproduce detail accurately in black and white, and this discipline probably influenced him when he began making etchings in the early 1880s.

It is likely that Wyllie witnessed and drew the event pictured, but that was not always the case. 

This image shows the return from South Africa of the body of the Prince Imperial. He had been killed fighting for the British in the Anglo-Zulu War.

The Prince was the son and heir of the exiled French Emperor, Napoleon III (d. 1873) and the Empress Eugenie, who lived at Chislehurst in Kent.

The illustrations for The Graphic were printed from engraved wooden blocks. Wyllie did not engrave these himself, but sent his black and white drawings to an engraver who worked with skill and at great speed to meet tight press deadlines.

First etching

Toil, glitter, grime and wealth on a flowing tide.
View full size image Toil, glitter, grime and wealth on a flowing tide.

Wyllie's first etching, made in 1884, is Toil, glitter, grime and wealth on a flowing tide. It was commissioned by the print publisher Robert Dunthorne.

It is the first of some hundreds of prints, many of the Thames, which Wyllie was to make. Wyllie exhibited the picture on which it is based at the Royal Academy in 1883.  This oil painting is now in Tate Britain.

It is considered to be his most important picture and helped to make his reputation.

The title shows that the picture is not about the romance of the Thames, but about the hard reality of labour for the individuals who worked on the river. It is also about the prosperity that was eventually generated as part of the great industrial machine.

This was recognised at the time:

Quotation marks left
The Thames Mr Wyllie paints is the Thames as it is, with all its grime … its material
Quotation marks right
embodiment of British supremacy and prosperity, and its testimonies to the dark romance of these coal and iron times.

Wyllie was to continue exploring this theme in further pictures during the 1880s and 1890s.

'The Tidal Thames' exhibition

Drawing for plate in The Tidal Thames
View full size image Drawing for plate in The Tidal Thames.

In 1884, the year after he exhibited Toil, glitter, grime and wealth on a flowing tide, Wyllie held his first one-man exhibition in London.

It followed one by Whistler in the same gallery. Wyllie's exhibition included drawings of the Thames and was called 'The Tidal Thames'.

Later that year the drawings were reproduced by the new process of photogravure. They were included in a large book with the same title and with a narrative written by Grant Allen.

They demonstrate Wyllie's increasing wish to produce images of the river from his first-hand experience of it. He sailed on Thames barges from which he drew whatever was around him.


Find out more
Fact fileWilliam Lionel Wyllie
London river artist
StoriesThe 19th-century port
Docks and industry transform the Thames
StoriesThe 20th-century port
The changing fortunes of Docklands and the port
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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