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London and the Thames

After returning to London from Paris in May 1859, Whistler took lodgings in Wapping and explored the area of warehouses and wharves along the Thames east of the City. Much of the architecture and character of the sites quickly changed with the demolition and rebuilding that took place in connection with the construction of the embankments. When a selection of the prints was published as A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames and Other Subjects (known as 'The Thames Set') in 1871, the prints were recognised as a valuable record of an already vanishing London.

In Whistler's later Thames etchings linear description of detail gave way to evocation of the atmosphere resulting from increasing pollution and smog, leading him to experiment with different ways of printing half-tones.

Old Westminster Bridge

from 'The Thames Set'

Object Number P.79-1959

Etching printed on old laid paper, 1859

Probably Whistler's earliest etching of the Thames, made soon after his move from Paris on 6 May 1859. Like other early Thames etchings it was originally printed in small numbers for private circulation, probably on the press in Seymour Haden's house in Sloane Street. Only later was it published as one of the sixteen etchings of 'The Thames Set' in 1871.

The newly built Houses of Parliament dominate the skyline with the tower of Big Ben still scaffolded (the clock chimed for the first time on 31 May 1859). Old Westminster Bridge was soon to be demolished and the river embanked. Two years later, Whistler made an etching showing construction of the new bridge.

Bequeathed by G. J. F. Knowles 1959.



from 'The Thames Set'

Object Number P.2089-R

Etching and drypoint printed on laid paper, 1859

Whistler took lodgings in a pub at Wapping from August to October 1859, and made a group of eight etchings. This view of Broadway Wharf is the most easterly of the early Thames etchings, with the Old Harbour Master's House on the right (the name partly visible at the top). The view is reversed, with the wood sheds of West India Docks in the distance.

This impression is inscribed on the back: 'Proof printed by J. Whistler / Given to me by Mrs Whistler - (his Mother) / 1872. T. N. Maclean.' The sculptor Thomas Nelson Maclean (1845-1894) exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1870 and in the 1880s became an ally of Whistler. He married the donor shortly before his death. See Katharine Anne Riches on the Collectors and Donors page.

Given by Mrs T. H. Riches 1923


Eagle Wharf

from 'The Thames Set'

Object Number P.2090-R

Etching printed on handmade wove paper, 1859

One of several etchings that Whistler made of wharves along Wapping High Street, often with one of the local workers or inhabitants prominently depicted in the foreground. The name of the firm Tyzack, Whiteley, & Co. is visible on the building on the left (Whistler often referred to this plate by the title 'Tyzack Whiteley'). The firm was listed in the 1859 London Directory as 'patent windlass, chain cable and anchor makers' at 266-7 Wapping High Street; at 268 was 'William Brown, sail maker & ship chandler'.

This print is inscribed on the back by Thomas Nelson MacLean (see Limehouse, also from his collection): 'Proof printed by J. Whistler, Given by him to a friend from whom I received it - 1873 - T.N.M.'

Given by Mrs T. H. Riches 1923


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Object Number P.2080-R

Etching and drypoint printed on machine-made wove paper, 1859

This etching shows a view further west than the other views of wharves and docks made in 1859 (Limehouse and Eagle Wharf). The site is the old fish market of Billingsgate, with London Bridge and the tower of Southwark Cathedral in the background on the right. Whistler was probably sitting on the Custom House Stairs to etch it (Charles Haden, Seymour's brother, worked at the Customs House).

This rare impression appears to show an undescribed state of the plate, printed after some of the figures and masts on the left had been burnished away, but before some of the redrawing of the figures and sails. The impression of Billingsgate below is a later state.

Given by Mrs T. H. Riches 1923



Object Number P.2081-R

Etching and drypoint printed on Japanese paper, 1859

This plate was not published as part of The Thames Set. This is one of the impressions of the final state printed on Japanese paper before the plate was published in The Portfolio in January 1878. Whistler was persuaded to let The Portfolio publish this plate by Ernest Brown, who was later to introduce Whistler to the Fine Art Society, resulting in a series of publications culminating in the first Venice set.

Given by Sir Herbert Thompson 1920


Little Wapping

Object Number P.283-1954

Etching and drypoint printed on Dutch 'antique' laid paper, 1861

In 1860 Whistler spent extended periods working in Rotherhithe, producing views from the balcony of the Angel Inn by Cherry Garden Pier looking across the river to Wapping. He returned again in early 1861 and made additional etchings (Vauxhall Bridge, Millbank, The Little Pool and Early Morning, Battersea) for inclusion in his first one-man exhibition of etchings in April 1861 at the New Bond Street gallery set up by Serjeant Thomas and run by his son Edmund.

This view is taken from the balcony of the Angel looking North-West, but unlike the larger etching from the previous year it does not show figures on the balcony in the foreground and the distant view on the left stops just short of showing the dome of St Paul's Cathedral.

Given by G. J. F. Knowles 1954


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Vauxhall Bridge

Object Number P.80-1959

Etching printed on Japanese paper, 1861

Among the Thames etchings made in early 1861, several show the old bridges spanning the river. Whistler is more interested in the pictorial potential of the foreground shipping and the stormy mood of the sky than in the detail of the bridge.

This is one of a group of early etchings in the Fitzwilliam (with Fumette, The Tinker, Mother Gerard, Street at Saverne, The Mustard Seller and Seymour, seated) that were apparently printed at the same time on similar Japanese paper, and have remained together ever since. As this plate is dated 1861, the entire group was probably not printed before that date, when Delâtre was doing the printing for Thomas's exhibition. Another impression of this plate printed on lighter-weight Japanese paper was given to the Fitzwilliam Museum by G. J. F. Knowles in 1921 (P.2077-R).

Bequeathed by G. J. F. Knowles 1959



from 'The Thames Set'

Object Number P.282-1954

Etching printed on laid paper, 1861

To sketch this view, the artist stood with his back to the huge Millbank Penitentiary, now the site of Tate Britain, with the dark silhouette of Lambeth Palace in the far distance.

This plate was made as an announcement card for the exhibition of Whistler's etchings newly published by Serjeant Thomas in April 1861. It was subsequently published in 1871 in the 'Thames Set', but this is a later state with additional lines in the sky and the word 'London' added to the address.

A note in the margin shows that Whistler sent this impression to the writer William Ernest Henley (1845-1902), who shared Whistler's love of the Thames and was one of the first to publish an appreciation of his work. His poem 'To James McNeill Whistler' appeared in his book Rhymes and Rhythms, 1889-92:

Under a stagnant sky,
Gloom out of gloom uncoiling into gloom,
The River, jaded and forlorn,
Welters and wanders wearily--wretchedly--on;
Yet in and out among the ribs
Of the old skeleton bridge, as in the piles
Of some dead lake-built city, full of skulls,
Worm-worn, rat-riddled, mouldy with memories,
Lingers to babble to a broken tune
(Once, O, the unvoiced music of my heart!)
So melancholy a soliloquy
It sounds as it might tell
The secret of the unending grief-in-grain,
The terror of Time and Change and Death,
That wastes this floating, transitory world.

What of the incantation
That forced the huddled shapes on yonder shore
To take and wear the night
Like a material majesty?
That touched the shafts of wavering fire
About this miserable welter and wash -
(River, O River of Journeys, River of Dreams!) -
Into long, shining signals from the panes
Of an enchanted pleasure-house,
Where life and life might live life lost in life
For ever and evermore?

O Death! O Change! O Time!
Without you, O, the insuperable eyes
Of these poor Might-Have-Beens,
These fatuous, ineffectual Yesterdays!

Given by G. J. F. Knowles 1954


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The Little Pool

from 'The Thames Set'

Object Number P.284-1954

Etching and drypoint printed on old Dutch laid paper, 1861

Like The Rag Gatherers this print was made as an announcement card for Whistler's 1861 exhibition, although it is not certain whether both prints were used. This is the final state of the print as published in the 'Thames Set' in 1871; the previous state had the same two lines of lettering that appear in Millbank. It was made in March, just before the exhibition opened, and probably shows Whistler at work on a pier overlooking the Pool of London (the stretch of river between London Bridge and Rotherhithe) with Serjeant Thomas and his son Ralph. Whistler had etched a different view of 'The Pool' two years earlier.

Given by G. J. F. Knowles 1954


The Punt

Object Number P.1502-1991

Etching and drypoint printed on chine collé, 1861

At the January 1861 meeting of the Junior Etching Club, Whistler agreed to contribute two plates to a collection of etchings to be published by Day & Son. When the publication appeared in 1862 with the title Passages from Modern English Poets, it included this print and The Thames (Sketching No. 1) (see below), retitled River Scene and The Angler.

This plate was probably made on the same etching trip along the Thames as The Thames (Sketching No. 1) below.

Reitlinger Bequest 1950 (received 1991)


The Thames (Sketching No. 1)

Object Number P.1501-1991

Etching and drypoint printed on chine collé, 1861

In the summer of 1861 Whistler made several etchings and drypoints on trips along the Thames, during visits to the home of Edwin Edwards and his wife Ruth at Sunbury near Hampton Court. This print was made in August 1861 when Edwards, Whistler, Fantin-Latour and Haden made an etching trip along the Thames. Edwards etched Molesey Lock (Whistler on the gate) on the same occasion, using the same sized plate.

Reitlinger Bequest 1950 (received 1991)


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Early Morning, Battersea

from 'The Thames Set'

Object Number P.2079-R

Etching and drypoint printed on 'antique' French laid paper, 1861

Of all the early Thames etchings, this is the one that most anticipates the later poetic nocturnes among the Thames and the Venetian etchings of the late 1870s (see Nocturne: The River at Battersea, The Beggars, The Doorway and Long Lagoon). It is one of the earliest glimpses in Whistler's work of the smog-ridden factory chimneys of Battersea that became one of his favourite subjects after his move to Lindsey Row, Chelsea, in 1866. The creation here of the atmosphere of dawn using hatched lines, led in his later work to experiments with pools of printed tone to create haze and fog. This impression was printed on a flyleaf from an old book.

Given by Sir Herbert Thompson 1920


The Two Ships

Object Number P.286-1954

Etching and drypoint printed on old Dutch laid paper, 1875

In the mid 1870s Whistler returned to making etchings of the Thames after a period of visiting the family of his patron F. R. Leyland, at Speke Hall near Liverpool. These sometimes lacked the concision of his earlier Thames views, and in this case there is no compensating evocation of atmosphere. This is partly due to the coarse printing. The plate had passed into the hands of Charles Augustus Howell, who helped Whistler during his gathering financial crisis in the late 1870s. Howell sold it to Dowdeswells', who in turn announced its publication in a numbered edition of 30 in January 1880, while Whistler was away in Venice (the plate was then destroyed). This impression is numbered in graphite No. 23.

Given by G. J. F. Knowles 1954


Nocturne: The River at Battersea

Object Number P.438-1949

Lithotint printed on machine-made wove paper, 1878

One of five lithotints of the Thames made in 1878, this was drawn from memory at the offices of the printer Thomas Way. The view across the Thames from Whistler's house in Lindsey Row, Chelsea (see Cheyne Walk, Chelsea), had featured in his work for almost twenty years. Prominent are the steeple of St Mary's Church and the smokestacks and clock tower of Morgan Crucible Company, notorious for emissions that contributed to 'the almost perpetual obscuration of the prospect, the blurring of distant objects, and the complete veiling on nine days out of ten of everything beyond two miles.' This proof on white paper was printed before the sides of the image were masked to tidy the irregular edge of washes. The published state was printed on blue paper, increasing the sense of smog.

Bequeathed by Campbell Dodgson 1949


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"The Adam and Eve", Old Chelsea

Object Number P.2092-R

Etching printed on Japanese paper, 1879

This waterfront tavern had already been demolished to make way for the Chelsea embankment. Whistler based details of his print on a photograph by James Hedderly (c.1815-1885) taken around 1865. Whistler's pupil Walter Greaves, son of a neighbouring Chelsea boatman who helped Whistler explore the river, also made an etching of this subject. Whistler's print was published by Messrs Hogarth and Son in early 1879.

The print conforms to Whistler's description of his transitional style, as recorded by his first biographers: 'instead of drawing the panes of a window in firm outline,... he suggested them by drawing the shadows and the reflected light with short crisp strokes and scarcely any outline at all.'

Given by Sir Herbert Thompson 1920


"The Adam and Eve", Old Chelsea

Object Number P.81-1959

Etching printed on old laid paper, 1879

This is exactly the same state as "The Adam and Eve", Old Chelsea above, but printed on European paper that was probably a flyleaf from an old book (the watermark is 1814). It is inscribed à mon ami P. G. Hamerton. / J. McNeill Whistler (presumably a record of Whistler's inscription on a mount, as it is not in the artist's handwriting). Whistler often crossed swords in print with the art critic Philip Gilbert Hamerton, but he had agreed that his etching of Billingsgate could be published in Hamerton's journal The Portfolio in January 1878, and in the new edition of Hamerton's influential Etching and Etchers in 1880.

Bequeathed by G. J. F. Knowles 1959



Object Number P.82-1959

Etching printed on heavy handmade wove paper, 1879

This is one of three etchings of the old Fulham (or Putney) toll bridge that Whistler etched in 1879. The wooden structure had to be constantly repaired and in 1879 was scheduled for replacement by the present stone bridge (constructed 1882-6).

All three of Whistler's prints were published by the Fine Art Society, this one on 28 January 1879, with Whistler providing twenty signed proofs and Frederick Goulding printing the rest of the edition. This proof lacks the blindstamp of the Printsellers' Association used on the published edition. Whistler hoped to stave off bankruptcy with these publications, but failed, and was declared bankrupt in May 1879.

These views of the old Putney Bridge and an etching of the Battersea bridge were the last prints that he made before the Fine Art Society commissioned him to go to Venice in September (see The Venice sets).

Bequeathed by G. J. F. Knowles 1959


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