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A Refuge for Genius
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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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Part 7 – From Southwark Bridge to Tower Bridge

To continue the walk you need to cross back over to the south side of the river and rejoin the riverside walkway. There will be rather anonymous modern buildings on the right and Cannon Street Railway Bridge in front, loomed over by the ever-present Shard. Just before the bridge is the Anchor Inn, a hostelry dating back several centuries and once the haunt of Johnson and Pepys. Some of the original seventeenth century building is still there, albeit dwarfed by more recent additions. It was must have been close to this spot, right by the water’s edge, where John Atkinson Grimshaw, or ‘Grimmy’ as Whistler called him, painted The Thames by Moonlight with Southwark Bridge, 1884[28]. The railway bridge was significantly enlarged after he made his painting and so the exact spot is probably buried below the rather utilitarian structure that we see today.

The walkway continues under the bridge and for a brief moment there is reminder of the riverside world of yesteryear with some surviving warehouses, although these have been converted to modern usage. On the right is the site of the Clink Prison and there is a museum dedicated to this. A little further on there is a fragment of Winchester Palace, the ancient residence of the bishops of that city, dating back to the twelfth century. The ruins include an impressive rose window that would have been part of the great hall. The building went out of use in the seventeenth century and was converted into tenaments and warehouses and was all but lost until re-developments in the 1980’s exposed the remains now on view. In spite of the ecclesiastic presence the area was also notorious for being a centre of gaming houses, bowling alleys, theatres and brothels and indeed rents from these enterprises went into the bishop’s purse. The mini theme park continues with a replica of the Golden Hinde now permanently berthed in St Mary Overie Dock just a few steps further on. This exact copy of the ship, manned by a period-costumed crew, in which Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe has made the same journey and is now a popular visitor attraction. Carry on a little further and the rear elevation of Southwark Cathedral comes into view. This has been a place of Christian worship for more than a thousand years and the present building dates back to the thirteenth century.

Turn left into Montague Close and follow this road round to the right. Just before you reach London Bridge there is an open space on the left with a riverside view and it must have been near this spot that Derain painted London Bridge, 1906–07[29]. He may actually have been in a building overlooking the bridge because of the angle of view. The bridge in Derain’s picture is, of course, the one that now stands in Lake Havasu City, Arizona amidst an English theme park which also includes a Tudor-style shopping mall. The neoclassical portico of Fishmonger’s Hall is still a prominent feature of the opposite bank and the flaming globe atop the Monument just peeks above a modern block of offices, as does the tower of Wren’s St Magnus the Martyr. The rest of the skyline is now dominated by high rise buildings of varying degrees of architectural merit, including the top of Norman Foster’s Gherkin. Derain also made a painting of the bridge from the downstream side.

Take the steps up to the bridge and cross the road. Before proceeding across the bridge it is worth taking a short detour onto the riverside walkway to take in the view looking down river that Frank Myers Boggs captured in his untitled canvas
[30]which shows a misty Tower of London in the distance with commercial shipping in the foreground. This atmospheric picture rendered with a subdued palette is in complete contrast to the visions of Derain which use vibrant colours in a non-naturalistic way. Now walk to about the middle of the bridge. Looking downstream you see the area which is known as the Pool of London and this is depicted in several paintings by Derain, including The Port of London, 1906–07[31]. Historically, this was the very hub of commercial activity on the river until bigger docks were built in the East End. Merchant vessels of all shapes and sizes would crowd the wharves to load and unload their cargoes and this busy atmosphere is captured in Derain’s picture, although his use of electric yellows and pinks for the water is definately an example of non-descriptive colour. Tower Bridge is still much the same as it was at the turn of the twentieth century but both banks of the river have now been transformed. In the painting the bascules of the bridge are open to allow a larger vessel to pass through, an event that still happens but very rarely these days. The traffic on the river is now mainly passenger ferries and pleasure boats. The largest vessel in the scene today is HMS Belfast, a cruiser of the Royal Navy and survivor of the Second World War, which is permanently moored on the south bank as is open as a visitor attraction.

Continue to the far side of the bridge and before descending to the riverside walkway look downriver towards Tower Bridge and you will see the view that Derain captured in The Thames and Tower Bridge, 1906–07
[32]. Yet another picture alive with colour and the activity of the busy port at the heart of the capital. Now take the steps down to the riverside where the character of the place that would have been familiar to Turner, Monet and Derain is now only hinted at in the names of the walkways, such as Grants Quay Wharf, Dark House Walk, Old Billingsgate Walk and Sugar Quay Walk. All the commercial hustle and bustle has gone, replaced by strolling tourists and office workers taking a break from the blocks of glass, steel and concrete all around. The building that housed the fish market at Billingsgate has now been converted to an entertainment venue, what a contrast to the scene depicted by Gustave Doré which must have been a challenge for all the senses. Beyond Billingsgate the Custom House still stands but is now separated from the water’s edge by railings and a screen of trees. In the nineteenth century the building had immediate access to the waterfront and the river traffic from which it collected duties and taxes.

When Turner painted The Custom House, 1825[33] he must have been in a boat a little way out in the river and he is surrounded by a veritable frenzy of activity. At this time the facade of the Custom House was slightly different to the way it appears today because soon after this painting was made the central section of the building collapsed and had to be rebuilt. This was also before Billingsgate Fish Market was erected and so in Turner’s picture there is a forest of masts where that now stands. The tower of St Magnus the Martyr is very evident on the left of the picture with the dome of St Paul’s in the distance and the Monument rising behind the Custom House, but all these are now hidden. Turner, a genius with the paint brush, also wrote poetry and although his verses are perhaps not of the first rank his lines in ‘On London, 1809’ do capture the atmosphere of the riverside world:
“Where burthen’d Thames reflects the crowded sail,
Commercial care and busy toils prevail,
Whose murky veil, aspiring to the skies,
Obscures thy beauty, and thy form denies,
Save where thy spires pierce the doubtful air,
As gleams of hope amidst a world of care.”

When the tide is low it is possible to go down the steps just before Sugar House Quay and walk onto the foreshore. It was probably from a pier close to this spot that Monet painted two pictures. In the first, The Pool of London, 1871[34] the tide is in and boats are afloat and in the second, Boats in the Pool of London, 1871[35] the tide is out and some of the vessels are grounded. In the first picture the Custom House is very obvious as is the tower of St Magnus. The tower with the pyramid top to the left of this is probably part of the Billingsgate Fish Market although this building was later replaced by the present structure. The other towers in the distance in the centre of the picture are probably part of Cannon Street Station and these can still be seen today. The arches of London Bridge appear in the hazy distance and even though the bridge has changed this is still true today. In the second picture the buildings are little more difficult to identify as the mist seems to have rolled in. The white bales being unloaded at the right of the picture may well be sugar as here we are in front of Sugar House Quay. It is interesting to note the well dressed couple in the small boat being ferried across the river who appear slightly out of place in the busy commercial scene but Tower Bridge had not yet been built at this time and there numerous ferries operating all along the river.

These are the last paintings to be considered in this article and so the walk can be terminated at this point. However you may choose to continue to Tower Bridge and then return towards central London on the south bank walkway.
By clicking on most of the images you will be taken directly to the appropriate website to view the image at a better resolution.