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John Claridge’s View From A Dinghy

July 8, 2020
by the gentle author

Ship maintenance, 1964

Take a trip down the Thames at a relaxed pace with Photographer John Claridge, in his tiny inflatable dinghy with outboard motor attached. The journey begins in 1961 when the London Docks were still working and ends in the nineteen eighties once they were closed for ever. This set of photographs are some of the views to be seen on that voyage.

Setting out at dawn, John’s photographic adventures led him through smog and smoke, through early morning mist, through winter fog and haze upon the river, all filtering and refracting the light to create infinite luminous effects upon the water. In the previous century, Joseph Mallord William Turner and James McNeill Whistler had attempted to evoke the distinctive quality of Thames light upon canvas, but in the mid-twentieth century it was John Claridge, kid photographer from Plaistow, who came drifting out of the London fog, alone in his dinghy with camera and long lens in hand to capture his visions of the river on film.

Look, there is a man scraping an entire boat by hand, balanced precariously over the water. Listen, there is the sound of the gulls echoing in the lonely dock. “It smells like it should,” said John, contemplating these pictures and reliving his escapades on the Thames, half a century later, “it has the atmosphere and feeling of what it was like.”

“You still had industry which created a lot of pollution, even after the Clean Air Act,” he recalled, “People still put their washing out and the dirt was hanging in the air. My mum used to say, ‘Bloody soot on my clean clothes again!'” But in a location characterised by industry, John was fascinated by the calm and quiet of the Thames. “I was in the drink, right in the middle of the river,” John remembered fondly, speaking of his trips in the dinghy, “it was somewhere you’d like to be.” John climbed onto bridges and into cranes to photograph the dock lands from every angle, and he did it all with an insider’s eye.

Generations of men in John’s family were dock workers or sailors, so John’s journey down the Thames in his dinghy became a voyage into a world of collective memory, where big ships always waited inviting him to depart for distant shores. Yet John’s little dinghy became his personal lifeboat, sailing on beyond Tower Bridge where in 1964, at nineteen years old, he opened his first photographic studio near St Paul’s Cathedral. John found a way to fulfil his wanderlust through a professional career that included photographic assignments in every corner of the globe, but these early pictures exist as a record of his maiden voyage on the Thames.

Across the River, 1965

Gulls, 1961

Quiet Evening, 1963

Smog, 1964

At Berth, 1962 – “It wills you to get on board and go somewhere.”

Three Cranes, 1968

Skyline, 1966 – “I climbed up into a crane and there was a ghostly noise that came out of it, from the pigeons roosting there.”

Steps, 1967

Crane & Chimney Stack, 1962

Spars, 1964

Barges, 1969

After the Rain, 1961

Capstan, 1968

From the Bridge, 1962

Across the River, 1965

Wapping Shoreline, 1961 – “I got terribly muddy, covered in it, sinking into it, and it smelled bad.”

Thames Barrier, 1982

At Daybreak, 1982

Warehouses, 1972

Photographs copyright © John Claridge

You may also like to take a look at

John Claridge’s East End

Along the Thames with John Claridge

At the Salvation Army with John Claridge

In a Lonely Place

A Few Diversions by John Claridge

This was my Landscape

John Claridge’s Spent Moments

Signs, Posters, Typography & Graphics

Working People & a Dog

Invasion Of The Monoliths

Time Out With John Claridge



11 Responses leave one →
  1. Ronald J. Wilkinson permalink
    July 8, 2020

    Being on the water is satisfying. I used to row and paddle around the marinas in Southern California and a couple of times in LA/Long Beach Harbor. LA/Long Beach would be the closest to being on the Thames. I’d love to have a skiff with a motor to go put around San Diego Harbor.
    Love the pictures. Thanks

  2. Paul Wavell Ridgway permalink
    July 8, 2020

    I wonder if he had read ‘London River’ by H M Tomlinson, first published in 1921, later with illustrations in 1951 by Cassell & Co. Can still be found.
    Claridge and Tomlinson would have had much in common, the London River. Liquid History
    as the Battersea MP John Elliot Burns called it.

  3. Pauline Taylor permalink
    July 8, 2020

    Superb photos, the mysterious and fascinating River Thames, gateway to the world and the working place of so many of my ancestors. I never tire of seeing photos of it in all its moods, even the smog.

  4. July 8, 2020

    Sad, beautiful, melancholic, full of mystery, but gone forever. Thank you.

  5. Mary permalink
    July 8, 2020

    I love John Claridge’s photography, and have just given myself a visual treat by looking back over G.A’s other blogs of John’s photographs. No other photographer manages to capture the essence of the old East End quite like John in his wonderful, grainy ethereal images.

  6. July 8, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, great pics of the river.

    “In the previous century, Joseph Mallord William Turner and James McNeill Whistler had attempted to evoke the distinctive quality of Thames light upon canvas …”

    And let’s not forget the dozens of Thames views by Claude Monet (1840-1926) who fled the Franco-Prussian War in Paris in 1870. He took up residence at the Savoy Hotel which then had balconies on premier rooms so he could paint the river from a variety of angles. He returned thirty years later and continued the task.

  7. July 8, 2020

    Thanks for publishing these exquisite photographs by John Claridge. His book is one of those that keeps coming off the shelf.

  8. July 8, 2020

    When John Claridge covers a topic, it is a “full-immersion” experience. Even though I am right here ( still in my jammies) in the Hudson River Valley in New York State, I feel like I have just
    trudged through the midnight fog, my slicker dripping with frigid rain and my boots caked with mud. Still thinking about what I’ve seen during this night time prowl, I decide……..Do I want a steaming hot cup of coffee, or a tumbler of Scotch? Either way, I toast John Claridge and his remarkable descriptive photos. Each one, an exploration. (“Steps 1967” grabbed me by the lapels, and shoved me right DOWN where I could inspect each weathered surface, the sound of the lapping water in my ears. Just amazing.) Yes, you DO need “East End John Claridge” in your
    Stay safe, all.

  9. Jennifer Blain permalink
    July 8, 2020

    And to bring the misty, moody river right up-to-date I heard a talk by Leo Villareal, the light artist working on the Illuminated River project, who told us that he has used the mist-fractured colour pallets of 19th century artists like Turner, Monet, Whistler as inspriation for his lighting programs for each of the Thames bridges.

  10. Tim Betteridge permalink
    July 8, 2020

    Beautiful pictures. I wish I was there.

  11. David Green permalink
    July 27, 2020

    Wow. “Gulls, 1961”. Stunning. All are very, very good, but that image is next level.

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