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Whistler In The East End

August 13, 2022
by the gentle author

Next tickets available for my walking tour are on Sunday 21st August



William Jones, Limeburner, Wapping High St

American-born artist, James Abbott McNeill 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.

He 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

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Gregory White permalink
    August 13, 2022

    Excellent, enlightening & informative.

  2. August 13, 2022

    Lovely drawings – are they in any collection/gallery?
    Would like to see them in person.

  3. Stephen Watts permalink
    August 13, 2022

    The opening image (William Jones, Limeburner) bears an uncanny resemblance to the view into the Captain Kidd, if you are stood on the pavement outside, looking in. The same yard entrance, rooms behind (where the Bar now is) & the Thames visible, or sensed, beyond. I’m not suggesting they are the same building, but there is an uncanny resemblance. The Captain Kidd also, to my knowledge, is one of the few buildings on Wapping riverside that retains a sense of the complexity of rooms & space that must have typified many riverside buildings in Wapping in the C19th.

  4. August 13, 2022

    I would love to know if I can buy a book about these drawings as I would like to have them to look at frequently. They are marvellous, so thank you for bringing them to my attention. I would also love to join you for your walking tour but alas, age and infirmity means that my walking is somewhat limited so it is out of the question (I also have to travel from the S.E.)

    Thank you for consistently enthralling blogs and for adding to my knowledge of my London. I miss the city every day.

  5. Helen Breen permalink
    August 13, 2022

    GA, thank you for introducing Whistler’s great drawings of the East End, revealing a part of his career with which I am not familiar. Interesting that he declined to stay in London’s West End, preferring the grittier environs near the river.

    But then Whistler was always his own man. Born in 1834 in Lowell, Massachusetts, a deteriorating mill city, he chose another birthplace, St. Petersburg, Russia where the family had traveled in his childhood with his railway engineer father. In later life stated definitively – “I do not choose to be born in Lowell.”

    PS. You mentioned that Whistler was coming from Paris when he landed in London circa 1859. The recently departed U.S. historian David McCullough’s THE GREATER JOURNEY, Americans in Paris, contains a great account of the artist’s years in that city.

  6. August 13, 2022

    Goodness……Was there ANY thing that this gent did not excel at? (bad sentence structure, but you know what I mean) I’ve had the singular pleasure of standing inside the Peacock Room surrounded by all that teal and gold; and just that alone would have been a lifetime achievement.
    And yet he did all those stunning paintings of women in kimonos, the ubiquitous Mother, and now these astounding engravings. Dare I say: these might be my top favorites of all his many accomplishments. And that is saying a mouthful.

    (Hey, don’t mess with Lowell, Mass, baby. It was good enough for Kerouac. )

  7. Helen Breen permalink
    August 14, 2022

    Lynne Perrella, TOUCHE!

  8. W.H Amos permalink
    August 15, 2022

    With respect, the last image is surely looking downriver towards Rotherhithe around Hanover Stairs, is it not?

    Pedantic perhaps.

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