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James McNeill Whistler In The East End

August 15, 2017
by the gentle author

Writing my new book  EAST END VERNACULAR, Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th century to be published by Spitalfields Life Books in October, has brought me to a new appreciation of the work of James McNeill Whistler.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Whistler was the first artist to appreciate the utilitarian environment of the East End on its own terms, seeing the beauty in it and recognising the intimate relationship of the working people to the urban landscape they had constructed. Many other artists became fascinated by Whistler’s vision and were inspired to follow in his footsteps, some embracing his medium of etching, like Joseph Pennell, while others like Frank Brangwyn and C R W Nevinson – and more recently, John Minton, Roland Collins and Jock McFadyen – were attracted by the spectacle of the docks and the life of the river.

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William Jones, Limeburner, Wapping High St

American-born artist, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, was only twenty-five when he arrived in London from Paris in the summer of 1859 and, rejecting the opportunity of staying with his half-sister in Sloane St, he took up lodgings in Wapping instead. Influenced by Charles Baudelaire to pursue subjects from modern life and seek beauty among the working people of the teeming city, Whistler lived among the longshoremen, dockers, watermen and lightermen who inhabited the riverside, frequenting the pubs where they ate and drank.

The revelatory etchings that he created at this time, capturing an entire lost world of ramshackle wooden wharfs, jetties, warehouses, docks and yards. Rowing back and forth, the young artist spent weeks in August and September of 1859 upon the Thames capturing the minutiae of the riverside scene within expansive compositions, often featuring distinctive portraits of the men who worked there in the foreground.

The print of the Limeburner’s yard above frames a deep perspective looking from Wapping High St to the Thames, through a sequence of sheds and lean-tos with a light-filled yard between. A man in a cap and waistcoat with lapels stands in the pool of sunshine beside a large sieve while another figure sits in shadow beyond, outlined by the light upon the river. Such an intriguing combination of characters within an authentically-rendered dramatic environment evokes the writing of Charles Dickens, Whistler’s contemporary who shared an equal fascination with this riverside world east of the Tower.

Whistler was to make London his home, living for many years beside the Thames in Chelsea, and the river proved to be an enduring source of inspiration throughout a long career of aesthetic experimentation in painting and print-making. Yet these copper-plate etchings executed during his first months in the city remain my favourites among all his works. Each time I have returned to them over the years, they startle me with their clarity of vision, breathtaking quality of line and keen attention to modest detail.

Limehouse and The Grapes – the curved river frontage can be recognised today

The Pool of London

Eagle Wharf, Wapping

Billingsgate Market

Longshore Men

Thames Police, Wapping

Black Lion Wharf, Wapping

Looking towards Wapping from the Angel Inn, Bermondsey

You may also like to read about

Dickens in Shadwell & Limehouse

The Grapes in Limehouse

Madge Darby, Historian of  Wapping

Views from a Dinghy by John Claridge

Among the Lightermen

Steve Brooker, Mudlark

Click here to preorder a copy of EAST END VERNACULAR for £25

8 Responses leave one →
  1. August 15, 2017

    GA has chosen well with the high status Whistler quality does count. What a performer detailing is in abundance here such fine work. Features on some faces have a ghost life appearance , so how was the original on site drafts worked up, could be by pencil using some five grades of lead, that’s my guess. Yes Whistler is definitely a 10/10 man for this book. Poet John. Hi American cousins -good buddies this art book will be up for grabs soon we have an American on board, now that’s got to be nice ok.

  2. August 15, 2017

    I love Whistler’s very atmospheric work, and can understand that he always wanted to live near the river. I was born and grew up near the Thames and docks, and now live near the Rhine – not the same, but a good place to be, too. Valerie

  3. August 15, 2017

    The etching of the scene by The Grapes and the one of the Pool immediately make me think of Our Mutual Friend which draws so much on the river.

  4. August 15, 2017

    Unless the sketch of entitled ‘Looking towards Wapping from the Angel Inn, Bermondsey’ has been reversed for the purposes of display in this website that cannot be facing be a accurate description of the view presented.

    The pub is on the south bank of the river at Bermondsey Wall East, and the balcony or terrace faces Wapping. Thus the view presented to the viewer in the sketch is undoubtedly looking towards Rotherhithe. Neither can the two rather languorous looking longshoremen be said to be facing Wapping either.

    Interestingly Whistler would not be the first artist to gently manipulate the setting of that terrace with regards to enhancing a river scene. J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting of the The Fighting Temeraire (1839) shows the old Trafalgar veteran being towed from sheerness to the breakers yard at Rotherhithe with the sun setting behind her. It is purported to have been painted from that same balcony of the Angel Inn (still surviving). Of course a ship being towed up river could not have the sun setting behind it as the sun sets in the West – or at least always has so far.

    Well, interesting to some perhaps!

  5. Malcolm permalink
    August 15, 2017

    James McNeill Whistler: artist extraordinaire.
    A man whose career was almost ruined when he sued John Ruskin, the highly esteemed Victorian institution and somewhat self-regarding writer and self-appointed art critic, for libel after Ruskin wrote about Whistler’s magnificent painting “Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge” that he “never expected to hear a coxcomb ask 200 guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”. Whistler won the case but was awarded only a farthing in damages, which, in a story that turned almost Dickensian in its grim humour, resulted in his bankruptcy. He was forced to sell his brand new house “The White House” in Tite Street, Chelsea and most of his possessions, which were auctioned off at Sotheby’s. Needless to say, Whistler then decided to gain revenge on his nemesis by writing several pamphlets in which he sought to “expose the empty pretensions of art criticism”. They were not a success. He was, however, pleased to find out that Ruskin had lost his Slade Professorship at Oxford, a position he valued more than anything. He wrote in his resignation letter that Whistler “…belongs in a workhouse or jail” The bitterness never abated until his dying day.
    Whistler was a master engraver and printer, using many revolutionary and experimental techniques to achieve his beautiful prints. The Wapping etchings were among his earliest pictures of London. In 1878 he started making lithographs and lithotints of the Thames from Limehouse to Chelsea and these are some of the most exquisitely atmospheric works he ever made. They depict a soft, dream-like vista of the river and its environs that he loved more than any other place. His pictures are a valuable record of a London that has passed into history, leaving behind a mythical city that we would all love to have seen for ourselves. The teeming Victorian metropolis that hummed with industry, glittered with fabulous wealth and on foggy nights dissolved into that mysterious, gas-lit dreamworld.
    Often compared to Rembrandt, Whistler has left us with a superb body of work, much of it devoted to the city he loved and the river that was his muse for almost 50 years.

  6. Malcolm permalink
    August 15, 2017

    In response to W.H. Amos the etching which shows the Thames from the Angel Inn, the title of which is simply “Rotherhithe”, is back to front because, like almost all etchings, although drawn the right way around, it is reversed during the printing process. There is also a painting of this scene, entitled “Wapping” which shows the same men on the same balcony, but with the addition of Whistler’s red-haired mistress, Joanna Hiffernan. The scene is painted the same way around as the etching, which was made before the painting. This is why Whistler kept the painting’s aspect the same.

  7. August 15, 2017

    I hadn’t paid much attention to Whistler until this illuminating piece from the GA. Informative comments from readers, above, too. Yes, marvellous work: such a bold, modern sense of composition with figures in the foreground, for example at the Angel in Bermondsey.

  8. Whistler Society permalink
    August 16, 2017

    The Whistler Society was founded in 2012 at the Chelsea Arts Club and launched in 2014 at the Fine Art Society by Charles Saumarez Smith, Secretary of the Royal Academy. Whistler was never elected a Royal Academician.
    The Society’s first journal, The Ten O’Clock, was published this year and launched by Charles Saumarez Smith at the Fine Art Society. In the gallery Whistler had exhibited his etchings loft the Thames.
    Details of the Society can be found on

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