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William Lionel Wyllie and the Thames

Introduction
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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Wyllie and other Thames artists

La Thamise
View full size image La Thamise

James Tissot (1836-1902)

The French artist James Tissot (1836-1902) came to London in 1871.

Just as Wyllie painted the everyday world of the Thames, Tissot's paintings were concerned with fashion, society and the interactions between the sexes in London.

La Thamise was painted only a few years before Wyllie's Toil, glitter, grime and wealth on a flowing tide.

Tissot liked setting his subjects on water. But although the background shows the same shipping and bustling activity in the Pool of London, his foreground figures are far removed from Wyllie's.

Instead of lightermen, a single man, perhaps a sailor, enjoys a pleasure trip with two unchaperoned young women. A picnic hamper and bottles of champagne sit at their feet. It was an image that critics at the time considered 'fast', or risqué.

Trafalgar Tavern, Greenwich.
View full size image Trafalgar Tavern.

Society subjects

The Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich was frequented by fashionable society in the 19th century. That would have given the subject appeal for Tissot.

The view from the first floor dining room is towards Greenwich Reach. Along with the adjacent Royal Naval College, this was drawn and etched by Wyllie on many occasions.

 

   

Charles William Wyllie (1853-1923): the younger brother

Home from the Brazils - refitting
View full size image Home from the Brazils - refitting.

During the 1880s, when Wyllie was making his name with paintings of the Thames and Medway, his younger brother Charlie often painted similar subjects.

Like Toil, glitter…, this painting of a small shipyard was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1883. It shows a type of wooden brigantine that would have traded in the North or South Atlantic.

It has been hauled out of the water on a slip. The owner, in a top hat, and the yard foreman discuss the work being carried out. 

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

Thames Police, 1859
View full size image Thames Police, 1859.

Wyllie would almost certainly have known the etchings Whistler made in 1859. It is likely that their subject matter would have influenced Wyllie's industrial Thames pictures of the 1880s.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Whistler chose to depict the urban landscape. In 1859 he moved to Wapping, in London's docklands. There, he etched the plates for these prints directly in front of subjects that were usually thought to be too vulgar for fine art.

Working class community

Whistler's prints emphasised the existence of a working class maritime community in the heart of the city.

Old Limehouse
View full size image Old Limehouse.
Wyllie's print certainly reflects an awareness of Whistler's Thames prints. But by this time his interest in the industrial life of the Thames was giving way to more representational images of the river, and perhaps also to nostalgia.

 

 


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Glossary
Brigantine
Etching

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