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Printing the Thames in the 19th century

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 contemporaries and followers

19th-century revival of etching

Whistler’s work was central to the revival of etching in the mid-19th century. Importantly, it promoted prints as art objects with their own status. He became a celebrated portrait and landscape artist with a great influence on many contemporary artists. Throughout the rest of the 19th and into the 20th century, artists such as Haden, Greaves, Wyllie and Mcbey followed his example and explored the river in print.

1. Francis Seymour Haden, 1818-1910

Sunset on the Thames c.1860.
View full size imageSunset on the Thames c.1860. © NMM

This etching was done at the same time that Whistler was working on his Thames series. A surgeon, etcher and collector, from 1851 to 1867 Haden was honorary surgeon to the Department of Science and Art and was married to Whistler’s step-daughter.

Whistler was a frequent visitor to the Haden household, and Haden's collection of old master prints and knowledge of photography and optics greatly influenced Whistler.

The life of the Thames was important for both Haden and Whistler, and they originally intended to be collaborators on the Thames set. Later, Haden was the president of the Society of Painter-Etchers, and largely responsible for the Rembrandt exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club and published The Etched Work of Rembrandt in 1879.

2. Walter Greaves (1846-1930)

Walter Greaves, a Chelsea boatman, met Whistler in about 1863. He and his older brother Henry regularly ferried Whistler across the Thames. Through their interest in art, they became his first pupils and unpaid studio assistants. They carefully copied Whistler's sketches and Walter produced etchings, pastels and nocturnes in Whistler's style.

Whistler abruptly broke with the Greaves brothers around 1872-73 and this loss of friendship devastated Walter Greaves, who took the rejection personally. He continued to make paintings and drawings of Chelsea, many of which contained memory images of Whistler. Much of his work now provides a fascinating record of 19th-century Chelsea.

Lime Wharf.
View full size imageLime Wharf. © NMM

The masts and rigging of the boats in the foreground dominate the scene. The buildings on the right are reminiscent of Whistler’s Thames series though less detailed. The trees and buildings in the distance on the left are very sketchy. A group of figures dressed in working clothes stand on the quay by a horse and cart.

The last Chelsea Regatta.
View full size imageThe last Chelsea Regatta. © NMM

Chelsea on the left runs diagonally across the painting, with the Thames on the right. Crowds line the foreshore waving at the rowers on the river. Figures also stand on the pontoon to get a better view of the regatta. The regatta was a popular subject for artists towards the end of the 19th century.

3. Mortimer L. Menpes (1855-1939)

Warehouses. From the Grey River.
View full size imageWarehouses. From The Grey River. © NMM

Australian born, Mortimer Menpes came to England at an early age. He studied under Whistler, to whom he was devoted, until they had a serious disagreement. 

Menpes held his first exhibition of etchings at the Royal Academy in 1880. One of the first British artists to visit Japan in 1887, his experiences inspired him to hold an exhibition of paintings in London.

In 1886 Menpes collaborated with two writers Justin McCarthy and Rosa Praed to produce The Grey River, an illustrated book about the River Thames. The book was published in 1889, and while McCarthy and Praed’s text centred on history, many of Menpes’s illustrations show industrial scenes, such as wharves, dredges, barges and warehouses. A highly prolific artist, Menpes etched more than 500 plates on various subjects.

Like Whistler’s Thames set, the etching is taken from a low viewpoint. The warehouses on the right are less detailed and the work stylistically more emphatic and definite than Whistler’s work. On the quay, crates are piled up ready to be loaded on to barges.

4. Auguste Lepere, 1849-1918

Lepere was a French artist with a particular interest in print making. He achieved fame for his meticulous wood engravings and etchings of city life and views.

Departure from Greenwich.
View full size imageReturn from Greenwich, the night or Retour de Greenwich, la nuit. © NMM

One of Lepere's best-known etchings, this scene on the deck of a Thames passenger vessel shows a woman and child in a light-hearted manner. The title, Return from Greenwich, the night, suggests that they have been on a day trip to Greenwich and are retuning to London in the evening. Greenwich was a popular destination for day trips from the city, with frequent daily passenger steamers down to Woolwich and Greenwich.

While the etching emphasizes the use of the river for pleasure, the figures appear detached from each other on the deck. Lepere has eliminated detail to concentrate on the figures in the foreground, sitting on benches on the open deck. The size of the woman’s hat has been exaggerated.

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