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Picturing the 18th-century port

Illustrating London's commercial pre-eminence
Painting the Thames
Blackwall and the lower Thames
The Cleveley family
The working river in art
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Illustrating London's commercial pre-eminence

'The Thames or the triumph of navigation'

The Thames or the Triumph of Navigation.
View full size imageThe Thames or the Triumph of Navigation. © NMM

James Barry’s unusual print The Thames or the triumph of navigation was produced in response to a large painting made in the late 18th century for the Society of Arts. That painting hung in the recently built Adelphi in the Strand, a building with an impressive neo-classical river front.

The picture shows an allegory of the River Thames at the centre of world navigation: Father Thames, the river god, is surrounded by actual personalities of British naval history and exploration, including Sir Walter Raleigh and Captain Cook.

This grandiose, theatrical statement by a leading member of the Royal Academy proclaims the ‘triumph of navigation’, in imitation of classical and Renaissance models. It demonstrates the growth and prestige of the Thames as the centre for British commerce in the 18th century. It also indicates the increased reputation of London as the world capital of trade. An early 19th century visitor described London as:

Quotation marks left
at the same time the metropolis of the empire, the centre of England’s home trade and the centre of its foreign trade. The concurrence of these three factors is what
Quotation marks right
makes it the richest, the largest and the most populous among all the cities of the old world. 

Charles Dupin, Voyages dans la Grande-Bretagne, Entrepris relatives aux Services Publics 1816-19, vol. 6 (Paris, 1824), pp. 2-3

The panoramic view

London. Mainly the City of London showing St Paul's Cathedral, viewed from the south bank, 1749.
View full size imageThe City of London showing St Paul's Cathedral, 1749. © NMM

A growing number of images of London and the Thames, dating from the early 18th century onwards, celebrate the city and river as the source of national commercial prosperity. Often they were produced as part of a much larger panoramic view, as with Samuel Buck’s London. Mainly the City of London.

Other views were made in connection with maps and the need to record accurately the rapidly expanding and developing city. Often they show the river teeming with vessels of all sorts, with the ‘forests of masts’ so frequently referred to in 18th century descriptions of the Thames.

The South East prospect of London from the Tower to London Bridge, 1746.
View full size imageThe South East prospect of London from the Tower to London Bridge, 1746. © NMM

Often, too, images of the Thames, such as Maurer’s The south east prospect of London from the Tower to London Bridge celebrate the river’s importance for the nation as a whole. They do this by linking it with monuments of national heritage or symbols of patriotism.

In this picture, the artist has highlighted the Tower of London. In the 18th century, as now, an outstanding symbol of national history and identity.

The Pool of London

Increasingly, images of the Thames focused upon the centre of its commercial activity - the stretch of river just below London Bridge, known as the Pool of London. This was as far as the large overseas trading vessels could travel upstream. It was here that the main wharves and quays were located, as well as the Custom House for registering imports.

Shipping in the Pool of London.
View full size imageShipping in the Pool of London. © NMM

Robert Dodd’s late 18th century oil painting Shipping in the Pool of London brings together all these themes. It provides a realistic, or topographical, view of the commercial prosperity of the Thames that complements Barry’s contemporary allegory.

Notice as well that at the centre of the picture, visible between the sails and masts, is the Tower of London, symbolically illuminated by a shaft of sunlight breaking through the clouds.

Ogle's plan

Mr Ogle's plan for mooring vessels in the River Thames.
View full size imageMr Ogle's plan for mooring vessels in the River Thames. © NMM
Edward Ogle’s 1796 proposal for re-organizing the shipping entering the river, Mr Ogle’s plan for mooring vessels in the River Thames, shows how busy the Pool of London was with shipping and unloading goods from around the world.

Ogle proposed a system of mooring vessels according to their country of departure and the type of cargo they carried. He believed his plan would help cope with the growing amount of river traffic.

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Find out more
Fact fileJohn Cleveley
A marine painter
GalleriesDeptford Royal Dockyard collection
StoriesDeptford and Woolwich: London's Royal Dockyards
The rise and decline of Henry VIII's Dockyards
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory Greenwich New Opportunities Fund  
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