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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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London and the artist at work

Constant observer

Album leaf: studies of Thames barges.
View full size image Studies of Thames barges.
Wyllie constantly made studies of what he saw. This ranged from cloud formations, water, buildings and people, to ships and craft, such as this sheet of studies of Thames barges.

He kept these for reference when making paintings, watercolours or etchings. Many are among the 7000 drawings that make up the Wyllie collection in the National Maritime Museum.


Maritime collections

Shipping in Greenwich Reach.
View full size image Shipping in Greenwich Reach.
Wyllie would often have seen this view as he sailed past Greenwich. He would have known the buildings of the Royal Naval College, previously the Royal Hospital for Seamen.

These buildings housed the collection of naval paintings assembled in the early part of the 19th century, and included Turner's famous painting of the Battle of Trafalgar. This collection would have been of great interest to a marine painter like Wyllie.

Events on the Thames

Opening of Tower Bridge. Procession of ships passing through. Trinity yacht Irene H.M.S. Landvail Bismark Clacton Bell.
View full size image Opening of Tower Bridge - procession of ships passing through.
Some of Wyllie's most important pictures have ceremonial occasions as their subject. Examples include the funeral of Queen Victoria in 1901 and the visit of the French fleet to Portsmouth in 1905.

In 1894 Wyllie and his wife were present at the opening of the newly built Tower Bridge. He painted a large picture of the event (now in the Guildhall Art Gallery). Through this he became friendly with the architect of the bridge, Sir John Wolfe-Barry.

The black-and-white drawing was probably made as an illustration for The Graphic.

The Opening of Tower Bridge
View full size image The opening of Tower Bridge.

Tower Bridge became one of Wyllie's favourite Thames subjects.

This watercolour shows how Wyllie worked rapidly in the medium and tested his colours around the edge of his piece of paper.


'Marine Painting in Watercolour', 1901

Thames Sailing Barge.
View full size image Thames sailing barge.

The Providence appears in the painting Storm and Sunshine and it is likely that Wyllie used this watercolour when painting that picture.

He also used it as a colour plate in his book Marine Painting in Watercolour, 1901.

This is a manual to teach people how to paint in watercolours using Wyllie's own watercolours as examples to be copied.

Etching process

Greenwich with barges and other craft.
View full size image Greenwich with barges and other craft.

This view of shipping in Greenwich Reach was commissioned by the print publisher, Robert Dunthorne.

In his early prints Wyllie used the etching process simply, to make bold images such as this.

As his interest in printmaking developed, the processes he used became increasingly elaborate.

Barge and other craft on the River
View full size image Barge and other craft on the river.

This large print is based on the painting that Wyllie exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1896.

It shows how he was becoming increasingly interested in conveying atmospheric effects in his etchings.

To achieve this he often combined etching with drypoint. In etching, the marks on the printing plate that hold the ink are made by immersing the plate in acid. In drypoint, the artist scratches directly on the plate with a sharp tool.

Tower Bridge, late 1920s

Tower Bridge
View full size image Tower Bridge, London.
Wyllie continued making prints of the Thames until the end of his life. This is one of his finest.

In it he returned to a favourite subject, and used an upright composition that he may have learnt from Whistler many years before.

In order to achieve the effects he wanted, Wyllie made his prints in a series of stages, or 'states', printing copies as he went along.

It is sometimes possible to trace the development of a print through a number of different stages.

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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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