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A Refuge for Genius
Return Visitors
In Monet’s Footsteps
An American in London
Lesser-known, Home-grown
Self-guided walk - Part 1
Self-guided walk - Part 2
Self-guided walk - Part 3
Self-guided walk - Part 4
Self-guided walk - Part 5
Self-guided walk - Part 6
Self-guided walk - Part 7
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SISLEY by the Thames
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There now follows a self-guided walk that, in its entirety, extends from Lambeth Bridge to Tower Bridge and takes in about thirty sites where artists positioned themselves to sketch or paint. Each work is discussed and the similarities and differences between what the artist saw and what can be seen today are examined. The walk is broken down into sections with some optional diversions to important galleries such as Tate Britain and the National Gallery, but these are only suggestions and the reader should feel free to use the information presented here to form their own itinerary if desired.

Part 1 – Embankment to Westminster Bridge

The starting point is the Victoria Embankment just by Embankment tube station. Walking towards Westminster Bridge on the riverside footpath a memorial to Sir Joseph Bazalgette will be seen and this commemorates his achievements in improving the capitals sewage system. Not, perhaps, the most romantic starting point for an artistically themed walk but very significant nonetheless. The first painting to be considered is The Thames Below Westminster, 1871 [1] by Claude Monet and when he made this picture of what is now an iconic symbol of London, the place where he set up his easel was amidst a building site. The construction of the Victoria Embankment was still underway and this was part of Bazalgette’s ambitious programme of works to improve the sanitation of the city. By the middle of the nineteenth century the rapidly expanding metropolis and its burgeoning population had turned the river into an open sewer and the year 1858 became known as the Great Stink. Action to improve matters became essential and was, no doubt, hastened by the fact that members of parliament had to work right alongside the river and although they were housed in palatial splendour, that did not stop the noxious fumes penetrating the debating chamber. The view is now changed by the mature avenue of trees along the busy road but a good view can be achieved by returning to the footbridge on the west (upstream) side of Hungerford Bridge. The elevation is slightly higher and the foreground is occupied by moored vessels but otherwise the similarities are remarkable, especially on a slightly misty day. An alternative view can be achieved by boarding the Tattershall Castle, a converted paddle steamer, which is now a floating bar and restaurant. Another addition to the scene is the Royal Air Force memorial topped by a golden eagle. The south bank of the river beyond Westminster Bridge is now lined by modern commercial and residential developments and the uncompromising slab of the Millbank tower rises behind the neo-gothic confection of the Palace of Westminster. The low range of buildings on the extreme left of Monet’s painting are possibly the then newly built wings of St. Thomas’ Hospital. As in the artist’s image, there is usually a lot of river traffic in the area going to and from from the passenger pier at Westminster. Monet’s picture can be seen in the National Gallery, which is only a few minutes walk away.

Now walk further along the embankment towards the bridge and by standing in the shadow of the statue of Boudica by the riverbank you are close to the spot where James McNeill Whistler must have stood to create The Last of Old Westminster, 1862 [2]. In his painting the new bridge is almost entirely obscured by scaffolding and that is the structure that we see today. The southbank of the river to the right of the bridge is now dominated by the new buildings of St. Thomas’ Hospital and these obscure the domed structure in the centre of Whistler’s picture, which may be what is now the Imperial War Museum, but then was part of the Bethlem Royal Hospital or ‘Bedlam’. It is poignant to realise that Richard Dadd, a highly gifted but mentally tormented artist was confined in this institution at the time. The far end of the bridge on the downstream side is watched over by an impressive lion statue which was installed here at the express wish of King George VI. Made from Coades artificial stone, it had previously presided over the Lion Brewery on the south bank which was demolished after the Second World War to make way for the Royal Festival Hall. To the left is part of the old County Hall, the monumental range of buildings which used to house the Greater London Council and is now a cultural and entertainment centre.

Proceed up the steps and turn left onto the bridge and carry on until the point is reached where there is a brass plaque bearing the sonnet by William Wordsworth entitled Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802. This is a Romantic hymn of praise for the city seen from this approximate vantage point and although much has changed, there is still a whisper of familiarity, especially on a sunny day. Turning to look upstream you get almost the exact view that André Derain depicts in The Houses of Parliament from Westminster Bridge, 1906 [3]. Although the only more recent intrusions upon the scene are the Millbank tower and modern developments beyond Lambeth Bridge, the challenge here is to appreciate the changes made by the artist between what he saw in front of him and what he conveyed to the canvas in this riot of Fauve sponaneity.

Continue to the far side of the bridge and stand on the edge of the pavement by the lion statue and you will be where Childe Hassam captured a wet, misty day in his gouache and watercolour study Big Ben [4]. The date for this is not certain, it could be 1897 or 1907. The vehicles have changed, as have the costumes of the pedestrians and there is usually much more traffic of both kinds but otherwise the artist would recognise the scene immediately.

It is now necessary to cross the road and make your way down to the Albert Embankment and if the traffic is too hazardous this can be achieved by using the underpass beneath the bridge. A few steps along the embankment will bring you to the approximate spot where Monet made his extensive series of paintings of the Palace of Westminster in 1903, one of which is Houses of Parliament, Effect of Sunlight [5]. There are a total of 19 paintings of the same subject in various lighting and weather conditions which are now in galleries around the world. It is recorded that he actually worked on a roofed terrace of a building now gone and where he was supplied with hot tea and cake by the hospital treasurer on a particularly cold day.

Following in Monet’s footsteps (almost exactly) a few years later, André Derain painted Big Ben, London, c. 1906 [6]. In essence the view is unchanged although you are unlikely to see a sailing barge pass by today. Derain only spent short periods in London and it it is probable that most of the work on his canvases was done back in his Paris studio with reference to sketches made on the spot. He might have shared the same viewpoint with Monet but the images could hardly be more different. Monet was obsessed with capturing the fleeting effects of light and atmosphere using a palette of colours which matched as closely as possible what he actually saw. Derain’s palette was ‘anti-naturalistic’ and he was more interested in developing a form of painting that abandoned direct representation and explored a more theoretical relationship between art and observation. ‘Art for art’s sake’ as Whistler had commented several years before with regard to his own desire to push artistic endeavour beyond sentimentalism and romanticism.

Taking us back to a more romantic view of the world, albeit with a firey edge of realism and political comment, requires just a few steps back towards the bridge. In 1834 the buildings which housed the Lords and Commons of the British Parliament were devastated by an enormous conflagration. Turner, in company with some of his students from the Royal Academy, rushed down to the river and hired a boat to get an uninterrupted view of fire which lasted for several hours. Turner made sketches on the spot and went on to create a series of watercolours, some of which can be seen at Tate Britain, a short distance away,  and two major oil paintings. One of these, Westminster Bridge and the Fire of 1834 [7] shows the fire at its height. Unlike the images previously considered, not very much of what Turner saw now remains with the exception of the twin towers of Westminster Abbey. It is interesting to note that when this huge canvas was exhibited in 1835, Turner arrived with it on varnishing day, when it was customary for the artist to put any minor finishing touches to the work, having only roughly blocked in the outline of the painting and he completed the image in a six hour ‘tour de force’ of performance art.

By clicking on most of the images you will be taken directly to the appropriate website to view the image at a better resolution.