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SISLEY by the Thames
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Part 5 – From Waterloo Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge and back to Somerset House



If you are continuing the walk from the previous section, descend the steps from Waterloo Bridge on either side of the road and once on the embankment walkway proceed downstream passed the Royal National Theatre complex until Gabriel’s Wharf is reached. It is approximately from this spot that Daubigny painted St. Paul’s from the Surrey Side, 1873
[20]. In complete contrast to the rural riverscapes near his home in Auvers-sur-Oise that he is best known for, this picture is dominated by beached working boats in the foreground with Blackfriars Bridge and the cathedral beyond emerging from the grimy atmosphere. In today’s view the working boats and wharves have gone, replaced by a riverside walk popular with tourists but the bridge is the same structure and the cathedral still emerges gracefully from its surroundings of rather undistinguished buildings. Behind the road bridge Blackfriars Railway Bridge is still being redeveloped as part of an extensive project which will see the station spanning the Thames.

Now proceed beyond Gabriel’s Wharf and the OXO Tower complex will be reached on the right. This started life as a power station for the Post Office but was taken over and redeveloped by the manufacurers of OXO in the 1920’s and they added the distinctive Art Deco tower which features windows advertising their product. It is now a collection of shops, galleries, restaurants and apartments and it was close to this spot that Derain observed the view that features in Blackfriars Bridge, 1906–07[21]. The triangular roof of the station is no longer evident but the supporting pillars of the railway bridge can still be seen, now painted a rusty red colour and the majestic structure of St Paul’s still dominates the scene.

A few steps further along and probably down at river level would have been the spot where George Chambers observed the scene captured in Opening of the New Blackfriars Bridge by Queen Victoria, 1869[22]. This animated watercolour gives a vivid impression of the excitement that a public occasion on the Thames caused in nineteenth century London and indicates that the river was still central to the life of the city. The  far side of the bridge is now dominated by the Neoclassical Art Deco facade of the Unilever headquarters on the left and the high rise developements at the Barbican are evident in the distance.





With Doggett’s public house on the right, take the steps up to road level, cross the bridge to the north side and then turn left onto Victoria Embankment. Pass the moored vessels, HMS President, an entertainment venue housed in an old naval ship, and HMS Wellington, another survivor from the First World War which is now home to the Honourable Company of Master Mariners, and continue to a point opposite Temple tube station. It is about here that Henry Tidmarsh must have stood to paint the view in his The River Thames from Blackfriars to Waterloo, 1900[23]. It is still possible to identify many features in his picture even though the bridge at Waterloo has changed. Beyond the bridge the distinctive outline of the National Liberal Club can still be seen together with the towers and spires of the Houses of Parliament. The twin towers of Westminster Abbey can also be seen but these are rather vague in the painting. On the extreme left the rather dominant Shot Tower has now been replaced by another imposing structure – the London Eye.

It was also from here, or very close by, that E.A. Goodall painted Construction of the Victoria Embankment in 1865[24]. The Shot Tower is there again but the National Liberal Club had not yet been built. Just across the road is Temple tube station and above this there is a terrace which now accommodates a cafe. Very close by is Number Two Temple Place, the former residence of Viscount Astor, which is now sometimes open to the public for temporary exhibitions and at other times is a venue for ‘high-class’ functions. It is a grand house and the interior is a confection of craftsmanship in late Victorian style with no expense spared.

Just a little further along the road on the right are the extensive buildings of Somerset House. This has a long and complex history. In the mid-sixteenth century Edward Seymour was an influential figure at the court of Henry VIII and when the young Edward VI came to the throne he was made Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector. To reflect his new status he set about building a grand dwelling on the present site. However, even before the building was finished, Somerset lost political power and in predictable Tudor-style also lost his head. The building then started its life as a royal residence, first to Princess Elizabeth and later to the queens of James I, Charles I and Charles II. All the while the building was being extended and embellished by such architects as Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren. By the beginning of the eighteenth century Somerset House had entered a period of decline with the loss of its royal associations. When Caneletto was in London the building with its river front gardens featured in several works and it is interesting to note that a pen and ink drawing of his is in the collection of the Courtauld Institute which now occupies part of the present building. This shows the view from the riverside terrace towards Old London Bridge, dominated by St. Paul’s Cathedral above a skyline dotted with a multitude of other church spires. Many of those spires still reach for the heavens but they now struggle to be seen above the press of more recent buildings. The old complex was demolished in 1775 and was replaced over a period of time by new buildings designed by Sir William Chambers to house various government offices including the Admiralty and Public Records Office. For a time the Royal Academy was housed here and it is fitting that The Courtauld Gallery and Institute now have their home here. The gallery has a wonderful collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist work icluding paintings by Monet, Pissarro and Derain. There is also a cafe for more bodily refreshment and an appropriate conclusion to this section of the walk.