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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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Blackwall and the lower Thames

Influence of the East India Company

East India Company's Yard at Deptford.
View full size imageEast India Company's Yard at Deptford. © NMM

The increasing focus on the lower reaches of the river in painting and printmaking was especially associated with the growth of the East India Company. Founded in 1600, this was the leading trading company shipping spices, fabrics and other luxury goods from India and the Far East.

The Company’s shipbuilding yards were located mainly at Blackwall, where ships had been built since the Middle Ages. But it was when it became the East India Company’s yard in the early years of the 17th century that it expanded to become the premier private yard in the country.

John Boydell

A view of Blackwall looking towards Greenwich.
View full size imageA view of Blackwall looking towards Greenwich. © NMM
John Boydell again celebrated this rise of private commercial enterprise by producing prints such as A view of Blackwall. Blackwall’s shipbuilding industry also became the subject of important paintings by marine artists.

Francis Holman

Blackwall Yard from the Thames.
View full size imageBlackwall Yard from the Thames. © NMM
Francis Holman’s Blackwall Yard shows the yard flourishing under the management of John Perry in 1784. Blackwall was then the biggest private yard in the world, where Perry had three 74-gun ships, two 44s, an East Indiaman and a West Indiaman on the stocks.

The painting shows the launch of one of the 44s, probably the Adventure. There's another ship alongside, flying the Union flag. It is probably the Venerable (74 guns), which had been launched in April 1784.

The wealth of activity taking place in and around the yard demonstrates both the artist’s concern to show the thriving business of the river, but also his acute knowledge of shipping and shipbuilding.

A small shipyard on the Thames
View full size imageA small shipyard on the Thames. © NMM

Unlike Canaletto and Scott, who were not part of a shipping community, this painting shows the artist’s inside knowledge of the subject. Holman lived by the river and was thoroughly acquainted with shipbuilding yards.

He was a member of a larger group of artists in this period who lived and worked in the Thames shipping communities, and produced paintings for similar patrons.


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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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