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


1 comment:

vivien said...

aerial perspectives - we had to do things like that on my degree - 0ne project involved imagininging ourselves within a painting and drawing from other viewpoints, very high or very low etc, with believable perspective and imagining what would be seen that was unseen

challenging but fun :>)


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