Whistler Etchings

The Thames Set

James McNeill Whistler (July 11, 1834  – July 17, 1903) American artist, based primarily in the United Kingdom. Lived in Wapping for two months to record people working on the river against a backdrop of decaying buildings.

‘During the summer of 1859 the idea of making a series of etchings of the Thames led Whistler to explore the South Bank, Rotherhithe and Bermondsey, perhaps the most squalid part of London, where narrow streets and alleyways led down to the river. It is difficult now to imagine the area as it then was, a maze of timber ramshackle buildings crowded with a population whose living depended on the river, which was a stinking open sewer, thoroughly polluted….’

‘The Thames as a subject provided Whistler with many challenges. Distractions or the weather might interfere with the meticulous etcher, working out of doors in the middle of a busy river. But for a painter trained to work in the studio, capturing the effects of light and weather on the river was equally difficult. This was increasingly Whistler’s concern. The sheer volume of river traffic itself posed practical problems for an artist wishing to reduce what he saw to simple forms.

The solution was to paint the river at quiet times, at night. Whistler would go out in a boat rowed by Walter and Henry Greaves, sometimes staying on the water until dawn. The stretch between his home at 2 Lindsey Row (now 96 Cheyne Walk) near Cremorne Gardens, near Battersea Bridge and down to Westminster Bridge, became an enchanted world, with the water, buildings and bridges reduced to dark shapes among which lights and lanterns glimmered. He made drawings, but could not work in oils. Instead he committed what he saw to memory so that he could paint it when he returned to his studio.’

The Fine Art Society

Header image: Hermitage Coal Wharf, Wapping

Images: (c) The Hunterian, University of Glasgow