The River Thames is the lifeblood of London; the element that made the city possible. It is no surprise that many of the paintings of the capital also capture the river that runs through its heart. Here are six of them, arranged in geographical order from West to East.
English School, View of the Thames, c.1870. Compton Verney, Warwickshire
This characterful painting by an unknown artist, from the Compton Verney collection of British folk art, depicts Cremorne Bridge, now Battersea Railway Bridge, which crosses the Thames between Battersea on the south side and Fulham on the north. The view is from the Fulham side, with strollers on the river path seemingly gliding along in the manner of the swans and barges on the water.
John Anderson, The Houses of Parliament with Westminster Bridge and Abbey, seen from the South Side of the Thames, 1872. Museum of London
Further along the north bank, past Chelsea, is Westminster. This is the heart of British government, with the Houses of Parliament, the departmental offices of Whitehall and the Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street all within a short walk of each other. Here also is the Queen’s main residence of Buckingham Palace and the grand medieval church Westminster Abbey. John Anderson’s celebratory painting shows the Abbey, besides the then-recently completed Palace of Westminster, meeting place of the Houses of Parliament. The previous Palace had burned down in 1834, an event recorded in the work of both Turner and Constable.
George Hyde Pownall, The Embankment and Cleopatra’s Needle at Night, c. 1910. Private Collection
Along the north bank, on the Embankment, stands Cleopatra’s Needle, depicted here by Pownall in atmospheric gas-lit twilight. A granite ancient Egyptian obelisk dating from 1450 BC (long before the time of Cleopatra), the Needle was a gift from Muhammad Ali, ruler of Egypt, in 1819. Funds were not available to transport it until 1877, however, when it made its way to London in a specially designed cylindrical craft, called the Cleopatra. Nearly lost in a storm in the Bay of Biscay, it eventually arrived in London and was installed at its present location. A time capsule was placed underneath it, among its contents photographs of the twelve most attractive Englishwomen of the time.
Canaletto, The River Thames with St Paul’s Cathedral on Lord Mayor’s Day, c. 1747-48. Lobkowicz Palace, Prague Castle
Italian artist Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as ‘Canaletto’, famous for his finely detailed views of Venice, moved to London in 1746 after his fortunes were affected by the War of the Austrian Secession. There, he painted various London views, including several of St Paul’s Cathedral. The previous Norman cathedral had been severely damaged in the Great Fire of 1666, and this new cathedral designed by Sir Christopher Wren had been completed in 1720. Here we see it in the background of the River Pageant on Lord Mayor’s Day, a tradition that dates back to the 13th Century when the Lord Mayor of the City of London would have to travel by river to Westminster and pledge allegiance to the Sovereign.
C.R.W. Nevinson, View on Thames (Tower Bridge from the Pool of London), 1930s. RIBA Collections
Running from London Bridge to below Limehouse in the East End, the Pool of London is a stretch of the River Thames where ships would moor and unload at the near-continuous run of wharfs along the bank. The Pool reached its peak in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the point that it was said you could cross the Thames simply by jumping from ship to ship. A move towards shipping containers and deep water ports by the 1960s led to the drying up of shipping traffic down the Thames, and the wharfs were closed and the area redeveloped. The docks were still very much active when Nevinson painted them here, with Tower Bridge looming in the background. His Futurist-influenced style capturing the industrial nature of the scene, combined with the quality of gothic darkness given to the glowering sky, make the Pool seem both of the modern and ancient worlds.
J.M.W. Turner, London from Greenwich Park, 1809. Tate
Our journey ends at Greenwich, with Turner looking past the two towers of the Royal Hospital for Seamen (designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, and destined to be the home of retired veterans of the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805), and back towards London, the Thames winding its way to the horizon, where St Paul’s Cathedral can be glimpsed. The Thames, meanwhile, carries on eastward, down into the Thames Estuary and out to sea, while London itself carries on – to grow, change, and inspire.
These images appear in Richard's new book London in the Company of Painters – a fascinating visual history of London as depicted by artists over the last few hundred years, available to buy here.