Thursday, May 21, 2015

James Abbott McNeill Whistler in Rotherhithe: The Thames Set

"Rotherhithe." Etching and drypoint.
Composed at the Angel Inn 1860.

Victoria and Albert Museum CAI-139
This post is a departure from my usual focus on historic Rotherhithe buildings, ships that were built here up until the end of the 19th Century and very recent fluffy cygnets.  I have a real passion for modern art so it is a great pleasure to be able to post about a very brilliant 19th Century artist and the paintings he did of Rotherhithe and this part of the Thames.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was a superb American-born painter who, although probably best known for his wonderful oils, also produced remarkable etchings and drypoints.  The Whistler Etchings Project describes him as a "controversial figure in the Victorian art world . . . both an influential and outspoken artist, and a meticulous hard-working craftsman."  He learned to etch as a U.S. Navy cartographer but went to Paris in 1855 to train as an artist where he was heavily influenced by Gustav Courbet, other realist painters and newly imported Japanese print work as well as Charles Meryo's etchings of the less obviously scenic parts of Paris.  In 1859 he decided to move to London, where he experimented with new subjects and styles.  His hope was to attract patrons amongst the wealthy ship builders and merchants whose exotic cargoes came into the Port of London from the east.

Shortly after his arrival in London Whistler began a series of etchings and drypoints that captured life on the Thames. Whistler acquired accommodation in Wapping for two months so that he could get to know the river in person.  Between 1859 and 1861 he made sixteen etchings of Rotherhithe and from Rotherhithe towards Wapping, which became known as "The Thames Set."  These demonstrate his consummate skill as a draftsman and his ability to pick out the essentials of life using a minimalist approach.  Quite apart from their artistic merit, they are considered to be a singularly useful record of the Thames riverside in the process of transition.  Instead of focusing exclusively on pretty scenes, of which there were plenty along the Thames, Whistler was particularly interested in the working life of the river, showing the influence of Meryo's own interests but bringing to them his own rather more sparse, direct and less convoluted style.  His focus in these images combines a reductionist linearity with which he managed to convey an almost photographic type of realism.  People familiar with his more atmospheric, intense and Japanese-influenced later works may be surprised at the impact of some these compositions.

Whistler used etching and drypoint techniques used to create prints.  There's an excellent description on the Hunterian Museum's website at, and rather than attempt to paraphrase it, I've simply copied it here:
Whistler with his etching press
(Copyright the Hunterian Gallery)
A thin copper plate was heated, covered with a thin acid-resistant ground, and smoked to produce a shiny black surface. Whistler drew with steel etching needles, which scratched bright copper lines through the ground. Etching is an intaglio process (from the Italian intagliare, 'to incise.') The incised lines were etched with nitric acid diluted with water, which bit down into the exposed lines.

After washing the plate, Whistler checked for scratches and mistakes. Then he could heat the plate, hammer out mistakes, and start again, using 'stopping-out varnish' to protect satisfactory areas. He also worked in drypoint, drawing directly on the plate with a needle, which threw up a metal ridge or 'burr'. Additions and changes were made in etching or drypoint. Each change produced a new 'state' of the etching.

The plate was cleaned, warmed, and dabbed with brown or black printer's ink. Surface ink was wiped off, leaving ink in the etched lines or drypoint burr. The plate, placed on damped paper, was pulled under pressure through the printing press.

The printed image appeared in reverse as fine dark lines. An indent (the plate mark), shows where the plate pressed into the paper. The first prints from a plate are often called proofs; all prints are known as impressions. A set of etchings, limited in number, could be published as an edition, by artist or dealer.

When enough impressions had been pulled from a plate, it was cancelled by drypoint lines or acid, and some impressions printed to prove that it had been cancelled. In a very few cases the plate was later restored and reprinted by other printers. . . . 
The printed image appears as fine brown or black lines on the paper. A slight indent (the 'plate mark') appears round the edge, where the copper plate pressed into the paper. The scene appears in reverse on the paper. Since Whistler usually drew on site, from nature, his views are reversed. He had to write his signature back to front on the plate for it to be readable.

The first prints pulled from a plate are called proofs. Each print is known as an impression; and a defined number of impressions may be printed from any plate

Whistler developed new techniques to add texture and variation in his etchings and drypoints, eventually moving towards using drypoint alone, and found that different papers had an impact on the way in which his works appeared when printed.  As a collection both the etchings and the pure drypoints are remarkable. STYLE.  These were painted early in his career and are remarkable for their strength and energy. 

Little Wapping. From the Angel Inn. 1861.
Fitzwilliam Museum P283-1954
Whistler's first Thames etchings date from 1858 until 1871 and the Rotherhithe and Wapping etchings are notable for their focus on local subject matter - barges loaded with cargo, and lines of sailing shipped moored up along the river, local working men, busy riverside scenes, and wharf-side buildings. Unlike some of his more glamorous Thames oil paintings, these are all about the unadorned reality of the working river, and the monochrome textures of his brush strokes complement his subject matter beautifully.  Writers on the subject of the Thames Set have a habit of talking about the decrepit and decaying buildings that Whistler depicted, but I wonder if he saw them that way.  There's nothing dying about the world he captured - everything is full of life and immediacy.  Whistler captured moments in time, but he did so in a way that collectively endured as a visual narrative of life along the Pool of London.

One of Whistler's favourite spots for these remarkable Thames scenes was the Angel Inn at 101 Bermondsey Wall East, Rotherhithe, SE16 4NB (The Angel was covered in an earlier post).  To ensure that they had maximum impact he kept the etchings concealed until they were published in 1871 as A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames (which subsequently became known as The Thames Set).   They were a great financial success for Whistler.  Many of them were later displayed at an exhibition called simply The Works of James Whistler, Etchings and Drypoints in 1874.  The Hunterian Art Gallery in Glasgow has a project to explore Whister's etchings and has identified over 9000 impressions of them worldwide.  In the UK there are examples at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge and, of course, the Hunterian.  The Hunterian has a collection of both his prints and the original copper plates on which they were made. 

The picture at the top of the page is the most famous of the Thames Set.  It was originally composed in 1860 and shows the Thames from the vantage point of the balcony of the Angel.  Whistler used the same vantage point for his oil paintings Wapping and The Thames in Ice.  It is possible to pick out the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral through the rigging of the ship to the left of the composition. 

The Little Pool, 1871, Fitzwilliam Museum
Another etching and drypoint, printed on old Dutch laid paper, was The Little Pool, which also produced in 1861 (see right) and was used as an announcement card for Whistler's 1861 exhibition.  The men in top-hats are thought to show Whistler working in the company of the gallery's owner and it is thought to have been composed on a pier along the Bermondsey wall.   Between the barges and the rigged ships are rowing boats moving across the river.  The intense dark colour of the figures and the ships in the distance contrast with the lighter and less detailed barges and the lone figure in the foreground.  The sense of immediacy, a moment captured in time, is emphasised by the figures and the rowing boats, but there is a timelessness about the motionless ships and barges, a real sense of an unchanging world that was, however, an illusion.  Although Whistler rarely showed steam ships in his etchings and paintings, preferring to show a less industrialized world, steam ships were a fixture on the Thames at this time.  When Whistler was etching and painting, the world was changing and ships were changing dramatically at the same time.

The second etching from the top of the page, with the caption Little Wapping was done in 1861 and is again thought to have been done from the Angel, facing upriver. It is a rather more static scene than some of the other Thames examples and even though there are figures in rowing boats and lightermen are shifting the barge in the foreground, there is a sense of things at rest.  Note the ships moored down the centre of the river, dividing it effectively into two navigational channels.

Longshore Men 1859, possibly at The Angel Inn
To the left is the etching Longshore Men.  It may have shown a scene in the Angel Inn, because this was a favourite haunt of Whistler's but it could have been another pub in the Rotherhithe or Wapping area too.  Whistler was often not specific about the geographical details of his subject matter.  Longshore men were casual labourers who worked the river and its wharves.  They are often shown in his paintings of general activity on the river, but here they make up the subject matter.  Like all of Whistler's etchings they are a mixture of detail and impressionistic suggestion of shape provided by a few lines.  This is one of the best examples of how Whistler achieved ranges of tone and texture by the skilled build up of individual lines.  They way in which one of the characters looks straight out of the painting gives it an almost photographic sense of a moment caught in time.  In the background a woman and her child give the scene a rather more domestic air than might be expected in a Thames-side establishment.

Steven's Barge Builders, Rotherhithe, 1859
One of Whistler's more impressionistic etchings was Stevens' Boat Yard, done in 1859.  William Henry Stevens was a barge and small boat builder located at 40 Rotherhithe Street.  It is particularly nice to have a scene that shows a local business, and it gives a good idea of what the Thames at Rotherhithe would have looked like before the wooden elements were lost forever.  The scene shows three boys in the foreground next to a barge, various distinctive buildings along the Thames at the right, one of the multiple small boats that crossed the Thames all the time and, in the far distance, ships moored down the centre of the river.

The photograph below, from the superb book "On The River" (reviewed on this blog in an earlier post) shows a photograph of the Angel Public House.  It's not that much different from the scenes that Whistler was painting nearly a century earlier.

Both sides of the river are shown in "Wapping," one of the few of Whistler's
depictions of the Thames to show a steam boat. 1860-64, oil on canvas, 
© National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

The Thames in Ice 1860
The Freer Gallery, Washington DC.

Whistler Self-portrait, 1859
Etching and drypoint.
Victoria and Albert no.19799

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