Thames as a Working River

Until the introduction of container ships, the Thames in London was very much a working river, full of pollution, commercial craft, and bustle. As such, few contemporary viewers would have seen it as picturesque or worthy of fine art. Despite this, the famous nineteenth century artists Whistler, Monet and Turner chose to record the Thames in paintings and etchings.

Art as Historical Document?

The main question for historians and archaeologists is to what degree these images can be used as historical evidence. It is important to view art as evidence critically – the artist, particularly in the case of Impressionists whose aim was to capture the effect of light and atmosphere, is unlikely to have been trying to produce a “photographic” record. By considering what audience the painter wished to view the painting, what message he was trying to convey, and any contemporary biases that he may have had, we can estimate how useful the image is as a historical record.

Turner, Whistler and Monet.

In 2005, the Tate held an exhibition which focused on the work of Turner, Whistler and Monet and their paintings of the Thames, Seine and Venice. Details of this exhibition can still be found on the Tate Britain website.

Turner – The Thames above Waterloo Bridge c.1830-35

The painting, belonging to the Tate, shows a paddle-steamer on the left, which is taken to show how modern London was. However, very little detail is visible and as a documentary source it is not the most useful of images!

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Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 N01992

Whistler – Wapping 1860-64

This painting, belonging to the National Gallery of Art Washington, shows a contemporary river scene at Wapping. This is a lively, detailed image with the the types of boats identifiable in the background. Whistler did many etchings of Thames scenes that may also be useful as evidence.

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JM Whistler – Wapping – The National Gallery of Art Washington 1860-64

Claude Monet – The Thames Below Westminster 1871

This painting, belonging to the National Gallery, London, shows shipping and the new Houses of Parliament. It is more detailed than the Turner though still clearly impressionistic.

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National Gallery London

Conclusion

Artworks may not give precise details of a view, river craft or working people on the Thames but they do give a vivid impression of the atmosphere of the Thames as a working river that sepia photographs may lack. By choosing what to record, to amend, or leave out, the artist acts as a filter, so that the finished work is a record of what he or she thought was most relevant or important about the Thames. Impressionist paintings provide valuable evidence of how the Victorians saw the Thames, in much the same way that a fictional work such as Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend does.