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Whistler In Limehouse & Wapping

June 24, 2024
by the gentle author

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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

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Matilda Moreton permalink
    June 24, 2024

    These are wonderful. I love knowing that he rowed around on the Thames, sketching – my dream! Thank you for sharing. As ever you enrich the start to our days. Matilda x

  2. Bernie permalink
    June 24, 2024

    I would be pleased to be told where Whistler’s prints are published.

  3. June 24, 2024

    It takes one to know one. As I studied the roguish longshoremen here, I recalled a notable self-portrait by Whistler. A cocked hat, arched eyebrow, sly eyes, an all-knowing glance at the viewer. I imagine Whistler striding into the midst of these worldly rough men, making sure he had their full individed attention, dragging a chair into place and pulling out a large sketch pad.
    Whistler inhabited many worlds, and his output reflected his chameleon-like abilities. His sensual paintings of young fresh-faced women wrapped in silk kimonos, languishing on divans, are some of my favorites — yet these etchings of the rough sea men have caught my eye. He was Master of Everything!

    Thanks for shining a light.

  4. Saba permalink
    June 24, 2024

    Exquisite prints (I think, not sure) from one so young. Fascinating to learn about the connection with Baudelaire. I will never again be able to afford travel abroad, but this takes me there in dreams.

  5. Melissa Reid permalink
    June 26, 2024

    These are amazing! Can you tell me where the original prints can be seen?
    Thank you.

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