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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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Wyllie's artistic development: oils, watercolours and etchings

Weather and atmosphere

Storm and Sunshine: a Battle with the Elements.
View full size image Storm and Sunshine: a Battle with the Elements.
This picture is very much in the spirit of Wyllie's upper Thames pictures. The location of the scene is the River Medway, rather than the London Thames. It exploits the effects of weather and atmosphere.

A sudden squall blows up while gun cotton is being unloaded from the hulk Leonidas. At the same time, a ray of sunlight illuminates the ship's hull.

It is probable that Wyllie witnessed the scene himself. It is painted in his most vigorous manner with broad brush strokes.

The picture demonstrates Wyllie's lifelong admiration of JWM Turner, and he may have been thinking of The fighting Temeraire when he painted it.

'Work' as a central theme

Coal whippers discharging a collier.
View full size image Coal whippers.

In these two sketches, Wyllie takes 'work' as his central theme.

They were probably made as studies for King Coal, the picture that Wyllie painted and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1885. It showed men unloading coal from a steam collier into lighters in the Thames.

Loading coal
View full size image Loading coal.

In pictures such as these, Wyllie was concerned with the dignity of labour.

The underlying theme of these pictures is the progress of the Industrial Revolution and the wealth and prosperity it created.

Wyllie used the Thames as a vehicle to show this.

 Modern industry, Beckton gasworks

Beckton Gasworks
View full size imageBeckton Gasworks.
Wyllie painted and drew Beckton Gasworks several times during the early part of his life, and exhibited a picture of them at the Royal Academy in 1881.

Wyllie sailed on the Thames, sometimes in a Thames barge, and would therefore have had opportunities to make watercolour sketches such as this one.

Jetty of Beckton Gasworks with very rough sketch of a ship and a tug.
View full size image Jetty of Beckton Gasworks with sketches of a ship and a tug.

 For him the gas works would have represented something very modern and he was clearly fascinated by the shapes of the cranes as he saw them from the Thames.





A family voyage: 'London to the Nore'

In 1905 Wyllie collaborated with his wife on a book entitled London to the Nore. It described a voyage down the Thames with his family on board a Thames barge.

To illustrate it, Wyllie made watercolours, such as this, and black and white drawings. This is how the Wyllies describe this scene:

Beckton Gasworks.
View full size image Beckton Gasworks.
Quotation marks left
This great jetty, the cast-iron pillars of which remind one of Karnak or Baalbec, is the landing-place of coal for Becton Gasworks.

The hydraulic cranes load the railway trucks directly from the holds of the colliers. Then the trains run direct into the retort-houses where the grimy toilers are ever-feeding the furnaces.

These seem to stretch for miles in the smoke and coal-dust. … Hundreds of sailing barges are loading with the

Quotation marks right
coke and refuse, and busy engines are puffing along everywhere.

Developing his style

This fluid watercolour demonstrates that Wyllie's use of the medium had developed by the years around 1900. This came about as a result of constant practice and repetition. Wyllie had been painting watercolours since the 1870s. These watercolours were often small and meticulous.

Thames Barges in the Medway
View full size imageThames barges in the Medway.

In this watercolour, one almost certainly done on the spot, the cranes are painted very freely. The light on the water in the foreground is suggested with a few quick brushstrokes.

Watercolour was perhaps Wyllie's most successful medium. This view of Thames barges in the Thames or Medway shows the 'wet' watercolour technique that Wyllie adopted.

He first wetted his paper on a board and applied the wash for the sea and sky... 

Quotation marks left
much darker than it would look when dry. All his lights, such as clouds, waves, etc.
Quotation marks right
were picked out at this moment with a big hard brush that he sucked into a hard, broad point.



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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