Thursday, 14 June 2012

BBC4 - Turner's Thames

This week I'm going to focus on JMW Turner's relationship with the Thames and, in particular, the different places where he lived near the Thames.

BBC4 - Turner's Thames

For all those who missed it last night, you can catch up with Turner's Thames on iPlayer - I watched it and recommend it
In this documentary, art critic Matthew Collings explores how Turner makes light the vehicle of feeling in his work, and how he found inspiration in the waters of the river Thames.
It's not going to be repeated and is only available until

The programme is part of the series of BBC programmes about London and the River Thames - and now forms part of the London Collection Archive - A collection of BBC programmes celebrating the people, places and spaces of London.
In this documentary, the presenter and art critic Matthew Collings explores how Turner, the artist of light, makes light the vehicle of feeling in his work, and how he found inspiration for that feeling in the waters of the River Thames. JMW Turner is the most famous of English landscape painters. Throughout a lifetime of travel, he returned time and again to paint and draw scenes of the Thames, the lifeblood of London. This documentary reveals the Thames in all its diverse glory, from its beauty in west London, to its heartland in the City of London and its former docks, out to the vast emptiness and drama of the Thames estuary near Margate.

Turner was among the first to pioneer painting directly from nature, turning a boat into a floating studio from which he sketched the Thames. The river and his unique relationship with it had a powerful impact upon his use of materials, as he sought to find an equivalent in paint for the visual surprise and delight he found in the reality of its waters.

By pursuing this ever-changing tale of light, Turner also documented and reflected upon key moments in British history in the early 19th century; the Napoleonic wars, social unrest and the onset of the industrial revolution. His paintings of the river Thames communicate the fears and exultations of the time. Turner's greatness as a painter is often attributed to his modern use of colour. Many of his paintings are loved by the British public and regularly celebrated as the nation's greatest art. This film reveals for the first time on television a key inspiration for that modernity and celebrity; a stretch of water of immense importance to the nation in the early 19th century but which today is often taken for granted - the River Thames.
Interesting aspects of the programme included:
  • Turner lived near to the River Thames or its estuary most of his life - when not off on his travels and the river featured in a lot of his paintings (Tomorrow I'm going to look at the places Turner lived along the River Thames and its estuary - and highlight some of his paintings)
  • He returned to the Thames again and again in terms of paintings he created - at a time when London was the most important trading capital city in the world and the Thames was a very important way in which goods were moved
  • His methods of notating what he saw, creating a visual framework and language for finding a way to paint the light - and how it varied when seen with water
  • His habit of creating a lot of fast sketches of what he saw and then creating watercolour studies while the subject was still fresh - and then the oil paintings back in the studio
  • His use of contrast to make a painting more beautiful and the depth of field more effective
  • His system for structuring colour and the scope to link colour to human emotion
  • His habit of dissolving the landscape in atmospheric swathes of light - his view was that the sun is God
Turner rounded up his students at the Royal Academy and got a boat so that they could all go out into the middle of the Thames and make sketches of the Houses of Parliament burning.  Now there's dedication to your art!
The Burning of the Houses of Parliament
Joseph Mallord William Turner - 1834
watercolour, 23 x 32 cm
Collectiom: British Museum
Turner-The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons
The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834
J. M. W. Turner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Link: About J.M.W. Turner - Famous British Painter

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Thomas Rowlandson - Kew Palace and the River Thames

This watercolour painting of Kew Palace by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) includes the River Thames in the foreground.

Kew Palace by Thomas Rowlandson
watercolour, 11.2" x 16.8" English School; Late 18th - early 19th century
Kew Palace, seen across the river; a boatman steadying his boat for three stout persons to enter it
Kew Palace | Rowlandson, Thomas | V&A Collection

Thomas Rowlandson is an English artist who was well known as a caricaturist in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  He was much less well known as a landscape artist per se - however he did use them in the background of his figurative work.
Thomas Rowlandson (1756/57-1827) was one of the most brilliant draughtsmen of his day, and is best known for his satirical and humorous figure drawings. Many of his drawings have a topographical element, which serves as a backdrop for the various human encounters depicted. However, Rowlandson also made a small number of purely topographical viewsV&A
Rowlandson also produced the satirical book titled Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque (more of this in later posts) which was a satire on the work of William Gilpin and his Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty.

Kew Palace

For me the above painting illustrates how valuable landscape paintings can be as historical records.

I looked at this Kew Palace and did not recognise it from the one I've visited at Kew Gardens.  It turns out that the building called Kew Palace today is the fourth such Palace.

Kew Palace
Kew Palace 
from The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction,
Vol. 10, No. 275, September 29, 1827
The one in the watercolour is the third Palace - built at the west end of Kew Green to the castellated design of King George III.  It was started in 1802, but was much criticised and never occupied and was demolished by his son George IV in 1828.

The painting is also interesting as it records the use of pleasure boats on this area of the Thames in the time of George III.  I'm not sure I've ever seen a sail boat on this part of the Thames - although competitive rowing boats can now be seen there very frequently.

Given Rowlandson's preference for satire, one wonders whether the very portly gentleman in the foreground might possibly be an allusion to the Prince Regent/future George IV.

Scene on a Thames-side towing-path

This next watercolour is also of the Thames.  I suspect it's in a similar area because of the width of the river

Scene on a Thames-side towing-path (undated) by Thomas Rowlandson
reed pen and ink and watercolour on a wove paper, 18cm x 27cm
Scene on a Thames-side towing-path | Rowlandson, Thomas | V&A Collection

This is a view of the River Thames, with a vessel on the water and a team of horses on the riverbank. The V&A record cites how Rowlandson tackled such topographical views
Rowlandson repeated drawings for sale by working up and colouring a counterproof of an original pen drawing. In this case the original has itself been worked up, strengthened with pencil and coloured. The deception was frequently increased by counterproofing the original pencil lines, thus conveying the impression of spontaneous sketches following a rough outline.
(J. Hayes, Rowlandson watercolours and drawings, 1972, pp. 41, 42.)’

Saturday, 9 June 2012

John Constable - Somerset House Terrace from Waterloo Bridge

I've been looking at views of the Thames by different artists this week and came across one which was attributed to John Constable but which just looked wrong to me.  I first found it on wikipaintings - and then noticed that they'd sourced it from one of those "we can paint you any painting you want" sites.

Finally, it dawned on me why it was wrong - the image had been reversed!  Maybe you have to have walked along this terrace to know these things?

So here is a small Constable oil sketch of Somerset House Terrace from Waterloo Bridge - the proper way round!  The real thing forms part of the Paul Mellon Collection in the Yale Center for British Art At Yale University in downtown New Haven.

Somerset House Terrace from Waterloo Bridge (c 1819) by John Constable (1776-1837)
Oil on panel, 6 1/8 x 7 3/8 inches (15.6 x 18.7 cm)
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

What's also interesting about this painting is:
  • it's definitely a sketch/study - given the size and the quality of the finish.  Constable simply did not paint like this for his studio paintings but he did when painting studies for studio paintings.  It would be interesting to know whether he did anything with it.
  • the sketch dates from before the Embankment was built along the edge of the Thames.  In those days Somerset House was on the banks of the Thames and didn't have a couple of roads and pavements and a wall between the terrace and the river.

The other names for this painting are:
  • Somerset House Terrace and the Thames: a View from the North end of Waterloo Bridge with St. Paul's and Blackfriar's Bridge
  • Somerset House, A View from Waterloo Bridge looking towards St. Paul's and the City

Whatever it's called it suggests that a good place to paint the Thames and the City of London is the north end of Waterloo Bridge.

The end of the terrace at Somerset House is not such a good spot for painting - you can see how much trees now interfere with the view in my post Sunday Papers at Somerset House on my Travels with a Sketchbook blog

Friday, 8 June 2012

Richard Wilson - View of Syon House across the Thames

View of Syon House across the Thames near Kew Gardens (c. 1760) by Richard Wilson
Oil on canvas, 104 x 139 cm
Neue Pinakothek, Munich
Continuing the notion of a yellow sky and water (see View of the Thames by Childe Hassam), here's another view of the Thames - this time at Kew.

The painter of this scene is Richard Wilson - the man regarded as the father of British Landscape Painting and the finest painter Wales has ever produced.  He painted this scene shortly after his return from Italy where he developed his skills as a landscape painter.

The hazy warm yellow glow is very much redolent of the style of the artist who had profoundly influenced his landscape painting - Claude Lorrain.  It's almost as if the Roman campagna has arrived in southwest London!

That said the sun does set in the west behind Syon House and this indicates that this is an early evening painting in summer.

The important point about this painting is that has been painted the year after Kew Gardens became established as a botanical garden - in 1759.
In 1759, Princess Augusta and Lord Bute established the first botanic garden at Kew, employing William Aiton as the gardener. The Physic or Exotic Garden is the direct ancestor of today's establishment and this date is now accepted as the foundation of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.Kew, History and Heritage - Kew's first botanic garden
The place

The scene is one of my own personal "places to paint" (or rather sketch - see The Thames at Kew - in March sunshine).

Wilson's perspective is from a mound - which nowadays has a very convenient seat - at the end of the walk known as Syon Vista and next to the path at the far end of Kew Gardens.  This gives an excellent view of the River Thames and Syon House.

The Artist

Richard Wilson RA was a pioneer of landscape painting in the UK.  Both Turner and Constable admired his paintings.

He was born on 1 August 1713 in Penegoes, Montgomeryshire in Wales.  He died on 11 May 1782 age 68 at Colomendy Hall, near Llanferres, Denbighshire and is buried in St Mary's Churchyard in Mold.  He never married.

His family was well connected and a relative sent him to London to train to become a painter and he initially trained as a portrait painter.  It appears he was successful gaining commissions and setting up his own studio.

He begins to demonstrate an interest in landscape painting from the mid 40s onwards.  However it's unclear why he subsequently became more interested in landscape painting. However it is known that he went to study in Italy between 1750 - visiting Venice first and then Rome - and there became very much influenced by the paintings of Claude Lorrain. 

Wilson is sometimes called 'The English Claude'.

His approach to landscape painting

While in Italy, he earned a living and had modest success by selling picturesque paintings of Italian scenes to English aristocrats who were doing the "Grand Tour".  He devoted himself to painting idealised landscapes in the manner of Claud Lorrain.  The main contrast being that Richard Wilson was typically painting a real scene rather than an idealised picture.

As a landscape painter, Wilson was obsessed with light and the quality of light reflected from the sky - and he loved a good sunset!  His tendency to bathe a scene in golden light was well known.

However Richard Wilson was also very sensitive to colour and demonstrated in his paintings his appreciation of the very many hues found in nature.  John Ruskin wrote that Wilson "paints in a manly way, and occasionally reaches exquisite tones of colour".

Kew Gardens: The Pagoda and Bridge (1762) by Richard Wilson (1713-1782)
Oil on canvas,
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
When painting figures in a landscape, they play a minor role and do not intrude upon the overall impact of the landscape.

The website of records the following as being the way he approached the painting of landscapes
His landscape paintings were produced by first applying an underdrawing of brown paint, followed by ‘dead-colouring', a task which was given to the studio apprentices. Thin washes of colour were applied at this stage; Prussian blue and grey-brown for the sky, and a mixture of red and blue pigments for the landscape. The colour was applied to a thickness depending on the depth of tone required, allowing the light tone of the ground to show through more towards the horizon. Once the dead-colouring was dry it was oiled out before the second painting.

For the foreground Joseph Farington records that Wilson 'went over it a second time, heightening every part with colour and deepening the shadows, but still, brown, loose and flat, and left in a state for finishing: the half-tints laid in, without highlights.' In the third and final painting of the foreground Wilson altered the tints, adding the necessary sharpness to the different objects, before glazing them with rich warm tints, and finally adding further solid tints over this.

The sky and distant landscape, on the other hand, were worked wet-in wet after the initial dead-colouring, rather than in two separate stages. This allowed Wilson to achieve easier blending of the clouds with the blue of the sky, apparently using ultramarine rather than Prussian blue for this stage of painting. Last of all the horizon was adjusted and the distance softened with grey-brown again as necessary.
This is a complete catalogue of Richard Wilson's paintings - which has obviously been a labour of love for its creator.

The Yale Centre of British Art in America has an excellent collection of paintings by Richard Wilson.

Richard Wilson - art communities and art societies

On his return to England, Wilson took on a grand studio and was initially successful and held many exhibitions, gained a reputation and sold his landscapes to a number of different clients.

He was active in founding first the Society of Artists and then in 1768, age 55, he became a founder member of the Royal Academy of Art.  He became the Director of what became ‎(in 1765)‎ the Royal Society of Artists of Great Britain.

The prices for his paintings went up and up - along with Wilson's arrogance - until on one famous occasion he offered to let the King have a painting on an instalment plan!  After that the commissions began to dry up and at the end of his life he lived in poverty and had to rely on his family.

Wilson subsequently became an alcoholic and stared the slide into poverty and ill-health. At the end he was taken back to the family home in Wales. He died there on 11 May 1782.


Wednesday, 6 June 2012

View of the Thames by Childe Hassam

View of the Thames (1889) by Childe Hassam
I'm very fond of paintings by Childe Hassam but only came across his painting of the Thames very recently.  I wasn't even aware he'd ever paid a visit to London.

Behind the boats is a view of Charing Cross Railway Bridge with Embankment Gardens and Cleopatra's Needle on the right and the Houses of Parliament in the background.  The Thames Embankment would still be very new when this was painted.

The mixing of pigments on the paper is very attractive and lifts what are ostensibly grey buildings and grey water into some far more interesting.  Why shouldn't be water and sky be yellow?  It seems entirely appropriate.

I spotted it partly because I saw some boats very like this last Saturday moored in the River Thames outside Old Billingsgate Market

Boats participating in the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant Flotilla

Monday, 4 June 2012

Painting the Thames: Jan Siberechts

This week, in honour of the River Pageant which took place on Sunday, I'm doing posts about artists who have painted views of the River Thames.

Landscape with Rainbow, Henley-on-Thames c.1690 by Jan Siberechts
Oil on canvas, 82,5 x 103 cm
Tate Gallery, London
The first artist is Jan Siberechts and I chose him because he painted the Thames near Henley on Thames - which is an area less well know to those who only think of Thames in relation to London.  It's also a town which is associated with the Henley Royal Regatta which is held each year in July.

Siberechts was a Flemish landscape painter who was born in Antwerp in 1627.  In 1672, in his 40s, he emigrated to England and died in London in 1703.

His earlier landscape paintings tend to depict a small detailed aspect of a landscape.  His later paintings are typically more topographical in nature with sweeping views.

This particular riverscape painting of the Thames has been done from an elevated slope above the flood plain of the River Thames.  It purports to be a realistic painting of the scene and is one of the most important landscape paintings in the collection on Tate Britain.

  • the painting appears to present a realistic portrayal of the profile of the natural landscape of this place.  However the true reality is that the view has been embellished and the perspective has been distorted.  (I did my usual Streetview search for the view - and it's not one which is at all easy to spot.  That might because of the growth of vegetation and development of buildings)
  • on the right is the village of Henley on Thames (the church and bridge are still there, although the bridge has been replaced - the current five arched Henley Bridge across the river was built in 1786 -and the steep slopes in the background of the painting have disappeared!)
  • the background portrays a steep slope up from the river - which exists - but not quite so close as indicated in the painting
  • the foreground has cows and sheep eating the pasture of the lush grass meadows next to the river
  • on the left there is a cargo boat.  There is another on the main river next to Henley.  These both  reflect the importance of the river's role in carrying goods between different centres of population and the countryside.  The boat on the left looks like it's on another river but judging by the map it seems very likely it's parked up.
  • the shadow of storm clouds cover parts of the landscape while bright sunlight bathes Henley in a golden glow
  • One of the unique aspects of this painting is that it's one of the few ever painted which appears to depict a convincing rainbow - although I'm not sure it's in the right place relative to the sunlight and rain.  I think it should be further to the left.  What do you think?
It's possible that the painting was commissioned by a landowner of one of the large houses built between Remenham Wood and the River, situated off White Hill above the town.  It's unlikely that any of the current houses were the one in question but it appears it may have become established as a a vantage point for the wealthy in the seventeenth century.

In contrast to the Flemish landscape painting of his homeland, England offers hills and slopes to a much greater degree and consequently, more components within a landscape to illustrate depth.  It possible explains why Flemish landscapes tend to focus on one aspect of the landscape while Flemish painters who move away to other countries start to depict larger views of the landscape.

This is a link to another painting by Siberechts - Henley-on-Thames from the Wargrave Road, Oxfordshire which you can see at the River & Rowing Museum on the banks of the Thames at Henley.


Sunday, 3 June 2012

Painting a River Pageant

Today, on the River Thames in the centre of London, crowds will see the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant.  It's part of the official celebrations on this festive weekend which marks the 60th anniversary of the Queen's accession to the throne of England.  There are some who are saying we've seen nothing like this in 350 years - in terms of the nature of the event and the number of vessels on the Thames.

Canaletto Westminster Bridge 1746
Westminster Bridge from the north on Lord Mayor's Day (1746)
Oil on canvas, 96 x 137.5 cm
Location: Yale Center for British Art, New Haven
A history of river pageants

Previous monarchs and the City of London have used the River Thames for spectacular royal celebrations and pageants including:
  • Anne Boleyn's coronation:  The coronation procession from Greenwich to the Tower of London on 29 May 1533 was a grand spectacle
Fifty barges of the London livery companies, decorated with banners and draped in gold cloth, accompanied the lavishly apparelled barges of the Lord Mayor and Crown, with a further 250 vessels forming an impressive armada.
  • On 23 August 1662, King Charles II and Queen Catherine of Braganza were greeted by an extravagant pageant involving the twelve livery companies on their arrival at Whitehall from Hampton Court
  • on 17 July 1717 a musical concert was held on the River Thames for King George I and his court.  Handel was commissioned to write 'Water Music', for wind and strings.
On Wednesday Evening… the King took Water at Whitehall in an open Barge… and went up River towards Chelsea. Many other Barges with Persons of Quality attended, and so great a Number of Boats, that the whole River in a manner was cover’d; a City Company’s Barge was employ’d for the Musick, wherein were 50 instruments of all sorts, who play’d all the Way from Lambeth… the finest Symphonies compos’d express for this Occasion by Mr. Hendel; which his Majesty liked so well that he caus’d it to be plaid over three times in the going and returning.
The Daily Courant
Painting river pageants

In terms of paintings of pageants on the River Thames, Canaletto is the probably most well known artist.

I've tried working out how Canaletto would have created his paintings of river pageants.  This one in particular perplexes me.  While his perspective may be fine, he's not renowned for getting his proportions right or even painting things where they are actually are!

For example, the river looks too wide.  However, at the time it was painted the River Thames was a lot wider than it is today - it's been channelled and an Embankment built since then

But how do you tackle an aerial perspective of a view of the Thames before there was any means of being up in the air?  I haven't got a clue - any ideas?

If it was painted from a bridge - which bridge?  The location of the painter seems to be the vicinity of the Hungerford Rail Bridge and the current Golden Jubilee Footbridges - but so far as I'm aware they weren't there at the time.

So where was he painting from?  Or is it completely from his imagination?

The Web Gallery of Art provides an explanation of the painting London: Westminster Bridge from the North on Lord Mayor's Day
In this picture he combines a view of its whole span with a depiction of festivities, which, although tamer than the Venetian spectacles he generally painted, partially recall them. The celebrations accompanied the appointment of the new Lord Mayor of London. The largest City Barge is shown taking him to Westminster Hall, by the Abbey at the right, where he will be sworn in. The prominent building on the horizon to the left of it is St John's Church, Smith Square, and over on the other side of the river is Lambeth Palace, the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. All the other spectacular barges are those of the different city guilds (Skinners, Goldsmiths, Fishmongers, Clothworkers, Vinters, Merchant Taylors, Mercers and Dyers); a number of them are firing salutes to honour the Mayor. In order to encapsulate all of this activity within such a broad panorama Canaletto has adopted an imaginary vantage point high above the Thames.
Westminster Bridge

One of the things which I didn't know is that the Westminster Bridge in the painting was relatively new at the time - and is not the one which is there today.  The first bridge opened in 1750 - some 3 years before this painting was painted.  However it was troubled by subsidence and had to be replaced in the nineteenth century and a new cast iron bridge was opened in 1862.

Below you can see the very famous painting by Canaletto - painted while the first Westminster Bridge was being constructed

Canaletto - London: Seen Through an Arch of Westminster Bridge 1747
London: Seen Through an Arch of Westminster Bridge (1747) by Canaletto
oil on canvas, 57 x 95 cm
Location: Syon House, Middlesex
Painting a River Pageant today

I wonder who's going to be out there today collecting material and generating sketches and studies for painting the pageant?  Who's the modern day Canaletto of figurative paintings of the River Thames?  Do we have one?

It did occur to me that various painters might have a go at painting the River Pageant today.  I expect there might be members of the Wapping Group out on the banks of the Thames somewhere attempting to paint today.

I know I had planned to go down to the River today - but that was before the rain!

It rained on the Coronation Day in 1953 - and it's raining again today (as in I couldn't see Canary Wharf at all this morning - which means very low rain clouds along the Thames!).  Which means my planned vantage point is going to be overrun with people trying to stay dry!

Which is partly why we went down to the Thames yesterday - while it was still dry and sunny - to see the Avenue of Sail - which comprises the sailing ships gathered  in the Pool of London either side of the Tower of London.

Billingsgate Fish Market. ILN 1876
Billingsgate Fish Market in 1876
By Illustrated London News [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I tried sketching a couple of Thames Barges outside Old Billingsgate Market yesterday.  It was very weird to be seeing the type of vessels which might have visited the market in the past, moored right next to it.

Thames Sailing Barges at Billingsgate 2nd June 2012
It's the first time I've ever tried to sketch anything which moved constantly while sketching - from side to side and down (ther tide was going out) - and also while the owners were putting up the bunting for today's Pageant!  I'll come and leave a link here when I've posted it online.

If you had a go at painting the Pageant why not enter The Big Diamond Jubilee Art Challenge



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