Without doubt, one of the highlights of our London trip last month was seeing An American in London: Whistler and the Thames – a truly great exhibition devoted to the drawings, watercolours and paintings of Chelsea and the Thames at Battersea Reach made in the two decades following Whistler’s arrival in London in 1859. The exhibition culminated in a display of some of Whistler’s stunning Nocturnes which rank among my favourite paintings.
We got the train out to Dulwich on a particularly fine Saturday morning. It was our first visit to Dulwich Picture Gallery, England’s first purpose-built public art gallery opened in 1817 to house the King of Poland’s royal collection after Poland’s disappearance as an independent state. A stipulation was that that the paintings always be available for the ‘inspection of the public’. The building, set amidst attractive parkland, was designed by the architect Sir John Soane, whose house and museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields we visited earlier this year. His design, a series of interlinked rooms lit by natural light through overhead skylights has influenced art gallery design ever since, leading the 20th century architect Philip Johnson to comment, ‘Soane has taught us how to display paintings’.
Dulwich Picture Gallery
Whistler may have been American by birth but, as this exhibition demonstrates, he produced some of the most evocative portraits of London and its waterfront of his time. The show focusses on Whistler’s depictions of the Thames – the extensive series of etchings and prints which Whistler produced during the time that he lived in London, plus a selection of those stunning Nocturnes.
In 1859 Whistler arrived in London from Paris and was soon painting, etching, exhibiting his work and acquiring patrons among the city merchants. The Dulwich exhibition begins with The Thames Set, ‘a series of 16 etchings of scenes on the Thames’ produced in his decade in the capital and published in 1871. He worked down by the docks, depicting workers and prostitutes, sailors and foreshore men, the decaying wharves, the ferries and wherries, clippers and cutters. He documented the industrial waterway that was the Thames realistically and in all its dirty, bustling activity.
A marvellous tangle of rigging, yardarms and rope; a chaos of fog, furnaces and gushing smoke; the profound and complicated poetry of a vast capital.
– Charles Baudelaire, 1862
The Thames Set: ‘Limehouse’, 1859
Whistler sought to capture by pen and brush the essence of the river. Along with the better-known impressionistic oil paintings, the atmospheric nocturnes, he made the works which form the first half of this show – vivid sketches in pencil and chalk, watercolours with expressive brushwork and delicate colouring, richly textured lithographs, and finely detailed etchings that showed his masterly draughtsmanship. They were immensely influential on both sides of the Atlantic, and a foretaste of modernism.
In the etchings that comprised ‘The Thames Set’, Whistler was responding to Baudelaire’s call for ‘modern’ subject matter in art. In 1859 Baudelaire had mocked the predictable, dull landscapes exhibited at the Paris Salon that year, and urged artists to pursue alternative subjects, to paint the world as it was. He encouraged artists to explore the appearances of day-to-day life, ‘a genre which I can only call the landscape of great cities’.
Conscious of Baudelaire’s remarks, Whistler began making etchings of London, seeking to capture the essence of little known aspects of the English capital. In 1860 he spent two months living in the East End, exploring that part of the city and making evocative images of the Thames and its surrounds, its people and their haunts. He often introduced the figures of workmen, boatmen or loungers in the foreground of the ‘Thames Set’ images.
The Thames Set: ‘Battersea Dawn (Cadogan Pier)’, 1861
To produce the etchings in the Thames Set, Whistler worked down by the Thames with his etching needle, inscribing his lines directly onto the copperplate – as the excellent web resource Printing the Thames in the 19th century observes:
He worked directly onto the waxed copperplate, without any preliminary sketches on paper. This resulted in reverse etchings in black ink on paper with the pictures effectively back to front.
‘Greenwich Pensioner’, 1859
The images that Whistler created – primarily along the Battersea Reach and eastwards around Limehouse, Rotherhithe and Wapping – are not just works of art that impress with their economy of line, sense of space and unusual composition; they also constitute a fascinating historical record depicting scenes and characters that might have leapt straight from the pages of a Dickens novel. Greenwich Pensioner portrays a possible survivor of Nelson’s navy, resting in Greenwich Park.
Writing in the Independent, Adrian Hamilton offers a reminder of just how good Whistler’s etchings are:
Critics at the time declared him the successor to Rembrandt as an etcher and they were not mistaken. Black-and-white engravings may have fallen from popular taste since his day but seeing the ones in this show is to be reminded how direct an artistic media etching is and how thoroughly Whistler mastered it.
The Thames Set: ‘Eagle Wharf’, 1859
It’s difficult, looking at these etchings now, to get a sense of how revolutionary they were in their day, challenging conventional aesthetic taste. For art critics and patrons Whistler’s ‘Thames Set’ portrayed a hidden and threatening world, as Greg and Connie Peters note at The Art of the Print:
Each of these path-finding etchings explore then uncharted waters. The docks, barges, ships, workers and adjacent buildings were brilliantly analysed by Whistler in patterns of both horizontal and vertical lines and spaces.
Whistler’s attention to the detail of ordinary life reflected both the aesthetic propounded by Baudelaire and the growing influence of French realism, most notably the work of Gustave Courbet.
The Thames Set: ‘Old Hungerford Bridge’, 1861
The Thames Set: ‘Black Lion Wharf’, 1859
The Thames Set: ‘Longshore Men’, 1859
When the etchings of the Thames were published in 1871 as ‘The Thames Set’, a review in Punch spoke of
The tumble down bankside buildings from Wapping and Rotherhithe to Lambeth and Chelsea – where all is pitchy and tarry, and corny and coally, and ancient and fishlike.
Whistler portrayed a grim world of dockworkers and shipping hands as they toiled along the foetid mud banks of the Thames and the crumbling, rat-infested warehouses that stretched for miles eastward of the Tower. In works such as Longshoremen, Whistler delineated buildings and figures in bold graphic elements, presenting the finished image with some areas left blank or understated. Longshore Men is a vivid masterpiece that draws us into a Thames-side bar room, its denizens boldly drawn in rough outlines and scribbled shading. Four men, a woman and a child sit around tables in a tavern, most likely in the Rotherhithe or Wapping area where Whistler was working on the ‘Thames set’ etchings. The men are wearing caps and three are smoking pipe. Some were scavengers along the ‘long shore’ of the river banks, others were dockers, unloading goods from ships and barges. Henry Mayhew described visiting Bermondsey in 1849:
The houses were mostly inhabited by “corn-runners,” coal-porters, and “longshore-men,” getting a precarious living – earning some times as much as 12s. a day, and then for weeks doing nothing.
While the Times wrote of the casual labourers of the Thames that they were:
Dilapidated citizens … wandering along the banks of the river at low water, and pursuing their researches among the debris of dead dogs, bottles, bones, oyster shells and bits of coal which form the margin of our Father Thames.
James Hedderly, ‘Thames barges’, 1870-75
James Hedderly, ‘From Greaves Boatyard (Man on Riverbed)’, 1870-75
James Hedderley, ‘Looking west towards Old Battersea Bridge from the tower of Chelsea Old Church’, 1870-75
Reinforcing the historical atmosphere in the exhibition is a selection of well-chosen photographs by James Hedderly, a painter and sign-writer until the mid-1860s, when he became a photographer. He lived in Duke Street, only a short distance from Whistler’s house at 7 Lindsey Row, from 1841 until the 1870s, when the street was demolished for the Embankment. Whistler was well-acquainted with Hedderly, and probably saw his photographs of old Chelsea before the completion of the Embankment in 1874. Whistler seems to have been a regular customer of Hedderly, who was one of his creditors in 1877. The sites along the Thames that Whistler etched and Hedderly photographed are long gone – the result of devastation during the Blitz, plus a century of rebuilding.
Stanford’s London map 1862: Battersea Reach section
Alongside the photographs contemporaneous with Whistler’s Thames scenes, the curators have placed the Chelsea and Battersea section of Edward Stanford’s beautiful 6 inch to the mile map of London, first published in 1862. In March 1863 Whistler settled at 7 Lindsay Row on the Thames at Chelsea where his neighbours included Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Soon after, he moved to number 2 (now 96 Cheyne Walk), a three-storey town house facing the Thames, with Battersea Bridge to the left and the smoking chimneys of Battersea opposite, across the river. Further up-river were the pleasure gardens of Cremorne. For over 30 years, from his home on the Chelsea shore, Whistler roamed the river, painting it in in all seasons and all weather – from the river bank, bridge and nearby piers, and from his house.
The Thames Set: ‘The Lime Burner’, 1859
As we’ve seen, Whistler aimed to create the scenes of ‘modern life’ advocated by Baudelaire. To this end, he frequently introduced the figures of workmen, boatmen or loungers in the foreground of the ‘Thames Set’ images. In The Lime Burner, however, the figure is made the central element while the view to the river – beckoning through the tumble-down premises of ‘W. Jones, Lime-burner of Thames Street’ – becomes almost incidental.
‘Two Men with a Boat’, 1872
I loved Whistler’s etchings, but he was a dab hand at other media, too. Even in competition with the Nocturnes, I would nominate the drawing of Two Men With a Boat, in chalk on brown paper, as a high point of this exhibition – a few curving lines, quick smudges and streaks and he’d nailed it. Drawn on coarse brown paper, the effect is complete.
‘Early Morning’, lithograph, 1878
‘Nocturne: The Thames at Battersea’, lithograph, 1878
‘Nocturne: The Thames’, 1896, lithograph
And then there were these three lithographs: the silvery Early Morning in which the river and surrounding landscape seems to be dissolving, Nocturne: The Thames at Battersea drawn entirely from memory (though more of that in a minute), and The Thames of 1896, the last Nocturne, drawn directly on the stone. These, for me, represent the perfect marriage of Baudelaire’s realist mission to document the urban landscape of the modern city with aestheticism: Whistler has created moments of calm and transcendental beauty from the smoking chimneys of industrial Battersea.
‘Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge’, 1863
Moving on now to the oil paintings. Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge reflects Whistler’s interest in French realism and the work of Courbet. It’s a view from an upstairs window of Whistler’s house on Lindsey Row in Chelsea looking out over the wooden bridge that connected Chelsea with Battersea and taking in the factories and warehouses of Battersea, with Paxton’s Crystal Palace just visible on the horizon. Realism. The modern.
Richard Dorment, in his review for the Telegraph:
Begun in 1859 soon after he arrived from Paris and around the same time as he was working on a set of etchings depicting the dilapidated docks at Rotherhithe and Wapping, the painting is steeped in the modernity of French realists like Courbet and Manet. Determined to paint the metropolis and its river as they really were, Whistler not only shows the picturesque old bridge, barges and bargemen but also the far less salubrious vista in the distance – a semi-industrial wasteland on the Surrey side of the river.
‘The Last of Old Westminster’, 1862
The Last of Old Westminster, painted in 1862 when Whistler was 28, is an impressionistic record of the reconstruction of the old bridge, viewed from the present-day location of New Scotland Yard.
In the early 1860s Whistler began an intimate relationship with Joanna Hiffernan, a beautiful Irish redhead who posed for his famous painting Symphony in White, No 1: The White Girl. Hiffernan is the woman in Wapping, finished in 1864 when Whistler was barely thirty. She is sitting at a table with two men on a balcony of the Angel Inn overlooking the river on which Whistler has meticulously delineated a riverine rush hour of commercial traffic on the busy river. In a preview feature in the Independent, Claudia Pritchard noted that:
Its focal point seems, at first glance, to be three figures at the table of an inn, The Angel, overhanging the south bank of the Thames where it widens after the Pool of London and winds out to sea. Hiffernan is in the foreground, with Alphonse Legros, a fellow artist befriended in Paris, and a sailor. Today, The Angel is popular with tourists and the now fashionable riverside’s new residents: but it is still possible to sit in the same spot as Whistler’s models.
But, as Richard Dorment observed in his Telegraph review of the exhibition, Victorians would have read the scene quite precisely:
The main subject as we see it today looks innocuous, but as originally painted it explicitly depicted another kind of commercial transaction that took place along the river, one between a pimp, a prostitute and a client – and it did so without moral censure. As such, it could not have been exhibited in public, so that Whistler was forced to repaint this scene, making the trio seem disassociated from each other, to make it palatable to both the French and British public.
‘Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf’, 1864-1868
After working on Wapping, Whistler moved away from his earlier approach of painting outdoors. He began a practice of roaming the Thames on shore or by boat before returning to his studio to create scenes from memory or from quick sketches made while out and about. In Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf, the factories in the distance are blurred and blend together as if he imagined them there. A few dark lines and shapes create the masts on the docks. His colour palette is one of muted tones and complementary touches of blue, grey and orange. Whistler declared that, ‘As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight’.
‘Grey and Silver: Old Battersea Reach’, 1863
Grey and Silver: Old Battersea Reach is another depiction of the view down river from Lindsay Row, focussing on a busy industrial scene – boats and barges, labouring men, and the smoking chimneys of the factories of Battersea across the river.
‘ Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge’, 1859
‘Old Battersea Bridge’, c. 1879
Two views of Old Battersea Bridge, the last surviving wooden bridge on the Thames in London, painted many times by Whistler (as well as by several other artists). Designed by Henry Holland, it was first opened to pedestrians in November 1771, and then to vehicle traffic in 1772. The bridge was poorly designed and dangerous both to its users and to passing shipping, and boats often collided with it. Dangerous and unpopular, the bridge was closed to traffic in 1883 and demolished in 1890.
Hokusai, ‘Settsu Temma-bashi’, 1827
Alongside the pen and ink drawing of Old Battersea Bridge, the exhibition curators have placed this painting by Hokusai of one of the three great bridges across the Yodo river at Osaka. This is by way of introducing the impact on Whistler of Japanese art. Whistler loved Japanese prints and became a serious collector of Japanese porcelain and prints – items that had slowly become available after Commodore Perry’s opening of Japan in 1854.
‘Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses’, c.1864
Whistler wanted to integrate the Japanese aesthetic into late 19th century European art. An example of the resulting amalgam can be seen in Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses in which three women disporting themselves on the Thames shore are painted with some care and detail dressed in contemporary fashion, yet the distant view is of the unglamorous industrial warehouses of Battersea on the south bank. However, the Thames is enveloped in mist so that everything appears veiled and mysterious, while the boat on the water appears indistinct and poetic: those elements, plus the parasol and spray of blossom on the far right suggest Whistler’s new interest in Japanese prints.
An excellent summary of what Whistler was seeking in this painting is provided by Richard Dorment in his Telegraph review:
As Whistler absorbed the principles of Japanese art into his work, he began to limit his palette to a range of subdued colours, to reduce detail and to concentrate on the careful arrangement of large, simplified forms. That was easy enough when his subject was a woman in a white dress or a graceful Japanese geisha, but when applied to views of the Thames, this aestheticising of visual experience created a conflict between style and subject matter.
How could he reconcile this quest for decorative perfection with the teeming reality of the dredgers, tugboats and penny steamers he actually saw from his balcony? The answer becomes clear in a picture such as Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses. This too is a view looking across the river to a coal slag on the Battersea side. But now, instead of the working class bargemen in the foreground Whistler places fashionably dressed Victorian ladies, two carrying open parasols that make them look like delicate figures on a Japanese screen. […]
What we see in this exhibition is how Whistler managed to integrate the seeming opposites of realism and aestheticism. Rather than abandon his commitment to realism, he chose to paint the river exactly as he saw it.
‘Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl’, 1864
The story of the beautiful is already complete – hewn in the marble of the Parthenon, and broidered, with the birds, upon the fan of Hokusai – at the foot of Fusihama.
– Whistler, public lecture, Prince’s Hall, Piccadilly, 20 February 1885.
More Japonaiserie is apparent in Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl’, painted in 1864 and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865. Jo Hiffernan holds a fan decorated with a woodblock print by Hiroshige. The fan, the red pot and blue and white vase on the mantelpiece, and the spray of pink azalea give the picture a Japanese feel. Exhibited alongside the painting is this example of woodblock print by Hiroshige, designed as a fan decoration.
Hiroshige, ‘The Banks of the Sumida River’, 1857
Another example of Japanese inspiration is provided by this screen depicting Old Battersea bridge, painted around 1872.
Blue and Silver Screen with Old Battersea Bridge, 1871-2
There’s a photo of Whistler in his studio at this time, with the screen visible behind him.
Whistler in his studio, ‘Blue and Silver Screen’ in the background
Whistler credited Japanese art with having a profound impact on his own art, the Japanese cultivation of beauty in all aspects of material life informing his own ‘art for art’s sake’ philosophy. This sensibility led Whistler to shift from naturalistic representation in his pictures toward more abstract, evocative arrangements of colour and form in the late 1860s – towards the Nocturnes.
‘Variations in Violet and Green: Chelsea’, 1871
‘Pink and Silver: Chelsea, the Embankment’, 1885
Before we reach the Nocturnes there are a couple of contrasting images that reflect Whistler’s skill in handling different techniques: Pink and Silver: Chelsea, the Embankment is a quick watercolour sketch of a windy day with expressive brushwork that flutters over the figures, while Nocturne: Chelsea Embankment’, is a study in brown ink and wash on paper, with urgent pen strokes evoking sky and water and hasty suggestions of trees and human figures.
‘Nocturne: Chelsea Embankment’, brown ink and wash on paper, 1883-1884
The exhibition reaches its triumphant culmination with a small selection of the Nocturnes in which Whistler sought to convey a sense of the beauty and tranquillity of the Thames by night. It was Frederick Leyland, the Liverpool shipping magnate and art patron, who first used the name ‘nocturne’ to describe these moonlight scenes, suggesting the concept of evening, or night, but with musical associations. The expression was adopted by Whistler, who explained:
By using the word ‘nocturne’ I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and colour first.
Whistler never painted his Nocturnes on the spot, but from memory in his studio. In his Telegraph review, Richard Dorment describes Whistler’s technique:
To paint the nocturnes Whistler developed a mnemonic system as a means of creating vivid mental pictures of exactly what he saw from the river as he drifted near the lights of Cremorne Gardens, under Battersea Bridge, or past the Houses of Parliament. After looking for some time at the scene before him, he would turn his back on the vista and recite what he saw “in a sort of chant”: “The sky is lighter than the water, the houses darkest. There are eight houses, the second is the lowest, the fifth the highest. The first has two lighted windows, one above the other, the second has four.”
‘Nocturne: Grey and Gold – Westminster Bridge’, 1874
Back in the studio, Whistler employed a special medium devised for painting swiftly in oils. He thinned his paint with copal, turpentine and linseed oil, creating what he called a ‘sauce’, which he applied in thin, transparent layers, wiping it away until he was satisfied. In this picture he used thin washes to give the impression of smoke blowing across the velvety darkness. He then dripped paint across the surface to convey the effect of lights, and brought the figures to life with deliberate, studied brush-strokes. Whistler’s own description of Nocturne: Grey and Gold – Westminster Bridge was: ‘a very warm summer night on the Thames – view of the river from the Houses of Parliament’.
Whistler carried his portrayal of darkness to extremes, seen particularly in Nocturne’, 1875-80 which depicts an evening scene along the Thames so shrouded in mist that all detail becomes blurred and the far bank, a horizontal dark band of grey, seems the only tie to anything representational. The barely discernible distinction between the bank and the reflection in the water and the merest glint of far off lights is all that remains in the advancing darkness. Whistler’s nocturnes were for him an ‘artistic impression’:
As the light fades and the shadows deepen, all pretty and exacting details vanish, everything trivial disappears and I see things as they are in great strong masses… And that night cannot efface from the painter’s imagination.
Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, 1872-75
Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge is one of six Nocturnes that Whistler painted of Cremorne Gardens, situated on the river, only a few hundred yards from Whistler’s home in Lindsey Row. They could be reached by foot or by steamboat, and offered a variety of entertainments, including restaurants, theatres, a gypsy grotto, a maze and an indoor bowling alley.
In all his depictions of the gardens, Whistler ignored the dancing and music which were major features of the night life there and focused on the more mysterious and ephemeral activities, such as the nightly display of fireworks. The central motif is Battersea Bridge, with Chelsea Church and the lights of the newly-built Albert Bridge visible in the distance. There are fireworks in the sky and one rocket ascends as another falls in sparks. Possibly inspired by Hiroshige’s woodcut Moonlight at Ryogoko of 1857, which includes a similar tall structure, Whistler intentionally exaggerated the height of the bridge.
This is the painting that was produced as ‘evidence’ in the famous Whistler-Ruskin trial of 1878. Ruskin had first expressed his disdain for Whistler’s paintings in an Oxford lecture in 1873, when he declared that he had never seen ‘anything so impudent on the walls of any exhibition, in any country, as last year in London. It was daub professing to be a ‘harmony in pink and white’ (or some such nonsense); absolute rubbish, and which had taken about a quarter of an hour to scrawl or daub – it had no pretence to be called painting’. Then, writing in Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain in 1877, he described an exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery which included Whistler’s work. He was particularly exercised about Nocturne in Black and Gold, asserting:
I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.
Whistler to sued for libel and triggered the first row about modern art. At the trial Whistler stated ‘I did not intend to paint a portrait of the bridge, but only a painting of a moonlight scene…the thing is intended simply as a representation of moonlight’. In the end, Whistler won the case, but was awarded only a farthing in damages. The costs bankrupted him and the Nocturnes, brought into the court upside down and lampooned in the press, were rendered unsaleable.
‘Nocturne: Blue and Silver- Battersea Reach’, 1870-75
Whistler was living in Chelsea, across the Thames from Battersea, when he painted this nocturne. He brushed thinned pigment across the canvas in bold, sweeping strokes, modulating the tone of the blue only slightly to create the subtle gradations that separate river, shore, and sky. Specks of orange and yellow mark the position of boats on the water, lights on the shore, and a clock tower in the distance.
Whistler was enraptured by the half-seen, the evanescent, the image that vanishes almost before it can be named. Hence his predilection for moments in the life of landscape that are about to slide into illegibility: the moody vistas like Nocturne: Blue and Silver- Battersea Reach, 1870-75, in which forms preserve the last vestiges of themselves – boat, horizon, crane, bridge – before they are lost in the blue darkness.
– Robert Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical, 1990
The Dulwich exhibition was brilliant and memorable; as Richard Dorment wrote at the conclusion of his review of the show for the Telegraph:
By taking at one strand in Whistler’s long career at its many facets, this small show achieves something that a full scale retrospective could not. ‘Whistler and the Thames’ supports my belief that Whistler was one of the most inventive and daring of all 19th century artists. Margaret F Macdonald working with Patricia de Montfort has put together an outstanding exhibition, accompanied by a catalogue that will continue to be read long after the show has closed.
I’ll leave the closing words to Whistler himself, from his public lecture of February 1885:
And when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil – and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky – and the tall chimneys become campanile – and the warehouses are palaces in the night – and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairyland is before us – then the wayfarer hastens home – the working man and the cultured one – the wise man and the one of pleasure – cease to understand, as they have ceased to see – and Nature, who for once, has sung in tune, sings her exquisite song to the Artist alone.
- ‘The Thames Set’: reproductions and discussion (University of Glasgow)
- Artists v critics, round one: Jonathan Jones on the first row about modern art (Guardian)
- Printing the Thames in the 19th century: Port Cities London website
- Down by the River: Chelsea Reach in the 1860s: a page of James Hedderly’s photos (Kensington & Chelsea’s Library Time Machine)
- Whistler and the Thames at Dulwich Picture Gallery: Telegraph review
- The river runs deep: Whistler in London (Independent)
- Turner Whistler Monet: 2005 exhibition