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SISLEY by the Thames
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Sometimes alive with traffic to and from all corners of the globe, sometimes stinking with the waste from a burgeoning urban world but always a mirror reflecting the face of a dynamic capital city, the Thames, for centuries, has been an irresistable subject for artists striving to capture the spirit of the place and its people. The aim of this article is to introduce the reader to many of these artists and their works via a series of walks along the banks of this watery thoroughfare in the very heart of the city.

The river featured in the work of artists, sometimes anonymous, depicting momentous events like the Great Fire of London, displays of royal and civic pageantry or the Thames Frost Fair, for example Jan Griffier’s The Thames during the Great Frost of 1739–40. From the late seventeenth century it began to be the subject of work by Dutch topographical artists such as Peter Tillemans and Jan Siberechts but it was with the visit of the Venetian master Antonio Canaletto that the river moved centre-stage in the genre of landscape painting.

Already a popular artist with wealthy Grand Tourists he was persuaded to visit England, a move made more attractive by politcal instabilty at home that deterred many potential buyers from venturing to his home city. He saw, no doubt, similarities between Venice with its rich history at the centre of a Mediterranean trading empire and the River Thames as a vibrant commercial highway through the city at the heart of an ambitious maritime power. Ships of all desc
riptions from all parts of the world were to be found crowding the Pool of London and he captured vivid scenes of life on the river in a series of canvases painted during his stay from 1746 to 1755. He also ventured much further upstream and painted the bridge at Walton on Thames and the College at Eton. Although, perhaps, not amongst his finest works some, at least, of his London pictures provide a fascinating record of the city 250 years ago. The building of the new bridge at Westminster was a pivotal event at the time and was the subject of several paintings by Caneletto and his contemporaries. In one painting he shows the scaffolding still in place and it is interesting to note that this would be echoed over a hundred years later by Whistler’s The Last of Old Westminster.

An English artist who was much influenced by the work of Caneletto was Samuel Scott. The river was the focal point of life in the city and Scott captured this world of mid-eighteenth century London in a series of paintings including A View on the Thames with Montagu House and
AView of Westminster Bridge and Parts Adjacent. One of Scott’s pupils was William Marlow who was again influenced by the Venetian master and who painted many topographical views of the city and river in the latter part of the century.

Westminster Bridge under construction also provided the subject for a work by Richard Wilson, a pioneering landscape painter, sometimes referred to as ‘The English Claude’ who went on to become a founder member of the Royal Academy but who eventually died poor and forgotten.

The Thames also provided rich subject matter for two giants of English landscape painting, John Constable and Joseph Mallord William Turner. Although more associated with scenes of country life, Constable usually spent the winter months in the city and the river features in several major works. Amongst these  is The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (Whitehall Stairs, June 18th, 1817) a huge canvas depicting a complex scene which took several years to complete and for which the artist made a whole series of drawings and oil sketches. The end result has a resonance with the earlier work of Canaletto depicting riverine pomp and pageantry. In Somerset House Terrace from Waterloo Bridge it is interesting to see the river lapping right up to the buildings which are now set back behind the later construction of the Victoria Embankment. The style of the painting is very loose and would not look out of place in an exhibition of Impressionist pictures. Maybe this is one of the works seen by Monet and Pissarro when they visited London over 50 years later.

The other British artist who definately had an influence on succeeding generations of painters, both at home and abroad, was J. M. W. Turner. His lifelong fascination with the elements of light and water meant that the River Thames was a recurring motif throughout his career. Turner was born in 1775 in Covent Garden, a stone’s-throw from the river and after a long life of travel and adventure, both in Britain and abroad, the river would retain its hold on his imagination and he lived at times in Brentford, Isleworth, Twickenham, Hammersmith and finally died in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea all within sight of the river. When he wasn’t living by the river he would probably be at his beloved Margate where the Thames estuary meets the open sea.

A prodigious talent from an early age he entered the Royal Academy of Art school at the age of fourteen and was accepted into the academy the following year with a watercolour being shown at the summer exhibition. Being not only a talented artist but also a canny businessman with a keen eye for what was commercially acceptable to his wealthy clients led to financial success early in his career. This should not in any way detract from the fact that, inspite of his sometimes rough demeanour, he was a deep-thinking artist who was motivated by the desire to convey complex emotions and ideas about the nature of reality through his chosen medium. He was much influenced by Claude Lorraine and his poetic visions of a classical world in which the paintings seem to glow with inner light. Turner strove to bring some of the same elements into his work but always rooted in observations from the everyday world around him. This was often the world of the river on his doorstep that he obsessively recorded in countless sketchbooks. In 1805, while living in Isleworth, he equiped himself with a small boat from which he would observe the endlessly changing effects of light on the fluid surface of the water and which he would then try and capture in paint on the surface of paper or canvas.

Turner remained a bachelor all his life, although he did have a number of mistresses and towards the end of his life he had a long relationship with Sophia Booth, his Margate landlady who he affectionately referred to as ‘Dear’ and she, equally affectionately, called him ‘Old Un’. His father, always referred to as ‘Daddy’, was his other constant companion until his death in 1829 and he would be responsible for the running of the household and studio, leaving his son free to concentrate on the all-consuming business of painting.

Towards the end of his life Turner’s work became increasingly complex in an attempt to capture big ideas about the nature of light and colour. The notion of the ‘sublime’ as a state of elevated awareness with an appreciation of the irrational and terrifying aspects 
of the natural world was, no doubt, an element in these later works. Turner was also interested in the science of colour perception and explored the use of colour to convey emotion. In his view paintings of epic ambition could be based on subject matter that might be considered relatively mundane. That could be an old fighting ship being towed to thebreakers yard in the blazing tranquility of an esturine sunset or a new-fangled locomotive crossing a railway bridge over the Thames in a vortex of rain, steam and speed. A modern observer might describe these late paintings as almost ‘abstract’ but that is not a label Turner would either understand or agree with. Whatever the right description of Turner’s work might be, it remains a unique reflection of his mind’s eye on the world around him.
Pictures
By clicking on most of the images you will be taken directly to the appropriate website to view the painting at a better resolution.