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

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Planning proposal for outdoor pool on Greenland Dock, with photos

Southwark Borough Council’s leisure contractor Fusion wants to install a permanent floating heated swimming pool, 40m x 20m, at Surrey Docks Watersports Centre in Greenland Dock.

The documentation for planning application 15/AP/1752 is on Southwark Council's website at  This will place it immediately opposite Tavistock Tower and the dock-facing houses and apartments of Russia Court East.

Here are some of the artist's impressions shown in the above documentation.  My initial reaction was dubious surprise.  Now I have I seen the artist's impressions and I believe that it will be incredibly noisy as the sound of screaming kids carries over the water, and that the shower blocks will be incredibly ugly.  Around 10 years ago the Watersports Centre erected a crane and ran bungie jumping from it - incredibly loud and intrusive and seriously annoying.  That was refused permission to set up on a permanent basis because it was so anti-social and I don't see this being any better and any less anti-social.  I live opposite the Watersports Centre and this plan really doesn't make me a happy bunny.

It's not exactly heritage-friendly either, and will spoil not only the peace of the dock but its appearance too.

It's not exactly a sympathetic use of a major piece of Rotherhithe's heritage. The image below shows an aeriel view.  The pink dot marks the Moby Dick pub, and the blue rectangle is the proposed swimming pool.  It really is quite enormous.

In so far as traffic is concerned, I am concerned about the impact on the one-way system and Jamaica Road.  In addition, it will probably cause parking problems for the residents of the area surrounding the Watersports Centre, as there is an amazing amount of new residential building going up there at the moment, which will put additional stress on both the roads and the parking situation (the Planning statement says that all homes being built have their own dedicated parking - but what about home owners with more than one car?).

The planning statement says that it will accommodate children between the hours of 10am and 6pm but will be open earlier and later than these times for adult usage.  They say that "it will be a great sight within an already amazing dock."  Quite how that shower block translates into "a great sight" I have no idea.

And anyway, does Rotherhithe need a swimming pool with Seven Islands and its big pool literally just down the road? And what impact will this have on what I have heard is the promise of an eight lane Olympic style swimming pool and aqua centre in the soon to be announced masterplan vision from British Land?

The application was received 15th May 2015.  You can send in your comments either in support or in opposition at the following page (the case office is Dipesh Patel) but there is no indication of when the ability to feed into the planning process expires.  One to keep a very close eye on.

So much for our Borough Open Space!  Thin end of the wedge?

Thanks to the newsletter for this information. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Surrey Docks Farm Spring Fair this coming Saturday 16th May


Saturday the 16th of May 2015

The Surrey Docks Farm is one of our best local facilities for adults and children alike.  Their Spring Fair is one of the biggest events that they put on throughout the year. It’s always a great family day out with loads of fun on offer.  By popular demand they will be holding live sheep shearing demonstrations throughout the day, which should be brilliant.

Here are some of the day's activities
  • BBQ chill, and grill.
  • Fun for all the family, young and old.
  • Local food stalls.
  • Live sheep shearing throughout the day.
  • Surrey Docks Farm produce.
  • Mangalitza pigs – ever seen one? We have four!
  • Bottle fed lambs and lots of baby animals.
No need to book - just go to the Farm on the day. Entry is Free to all and they are open from 11am.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Cygnets and other birds on Greenland Dock

Having checked out the swans in the old lock at the top end of Greenland Dock a couple of weeks ago, tending to their unhatched eggs (pic below) I was so glad to see that seven of them have hatched and are doing a wonderful job of negotiating the waters around their nest.  Both parents were in attendance, and the little family looked as though they were doing very well.

A couple of weeks ago


There was also coot nesting in a rather strange corner of a neighbouring pontoon, the main part of which featured a number of abandoned unhatched small eggs.

There were a number of grebes around, but all appeared to be single, and there were numerous juvenile seagulls around.

At the top of the dock there were a pair of crows scavenging in the mud at the edge of the Thames, one of whom took the opportunity to enjoy a very muddy bath.

On the way back, crossing the old cut that lead into Norway Pond (now the Lakes), there was another coot settled on a very sad attempt at a nest.  There was plenty of nesting material floating nearby so hopefully that will become a rather more robust effort soon.

Walking back down Greenland Dock I passed a set of photographers apparently gathered with their gear.  According the staff at the Moby Dick pub they were taking pics for a brochure for the new development over the road.  Very dull!  I was expecting something far more exciting when I saw them there :-). 

Monday, May 11, 2015

HMS Taunton 1654, the first ship known to be built on Rotherhithe for the Royal Navy

London in the 1600s, showing a mainly rural
Rotherhithe at far right
Rotherhithe was a major ship-building centre from at least the 17th Century until the late 19th Century.  The superb shipbuilding heritage of Rotherhithe is often forgotten, but it was the main industry in Rotherhithe for 150 years and defined the Rotherhithe peninsula during that time.  The fact that its shipbuilding heritage has vanished so completely from Rotherhithe's landscape and memory is so sad.  There are of course traces - inlets here and there along the Thames frontage that mark the places where shipbuilding docks once operated, and the still intact Nelson Dock, where both naval and commercial ships were built for over a century.  But most of the story of Rotherhithe's shipbuilding past lies in the records that remain of ships built along the foreshore, their careers, the people who served on them, the battles in which they served and the places with which they traded.  With England at war throughout much of the 18th Century, all parts of the country were impacted, and it is easy to forget that war and warships were front-line activities for London shipbuilders.

HMS Taunton is one of a handful of 17th Century ships built in Rotherhithe of which I have been able to find a record.  She was the first warship known for certain to have been constructed at Rotherhithe and was launched by William Castle in 1654 and lasted for a truly impressive 65 years, seeing considerable naval action during her lifetime. Brothers William and Robert Castle appear to have been well established by the time that Taunton was built.  HMS Taunton is the first of their ships to be recorded in Rotherhithe, but others were also built at the yard including three 8-gun yachts, Monmouth, Navy and Kitchen in 1666, 1666 and 1670 respectively, a 25-gun fireship called Griffin in 1690 and the 10-gun ketch Hart in 1691.  The exact location for the shipyard remains elusive.  The Castle Shipbreaking site has this to say on the subject:

The first we learn of the Castles occupying land on the Thames at Rotherhithe is from a map belonging to the Earl of Salisbury dated 1610. The exact location of the Yard is not easy to pinpoint but it is known to be a shipbuilding facility which William Castell was operating.  Most of the land shown on the map is located to the east of the Neckinger thus placing it fairly close to the site of the well-known Cherry Garden Stairs. It is certainly clear that the family were probably active in the shipping business during the late Elizabethan era.

Research has shown that William Castle was born in 1590 and was probably responsible for building up the business at the Rotherhithe site.  His father John who may have negotiated the terms of the tenancy in the early 1600s more likely achieved the acquisition of the site.

HMS Taunton or HMS Dover, both built by
William Castle
This description is consistent with the 1600s maps of Rotherhithe (see, for example, the Blome 1673 map at the top of this page), which show all the Thames frontage activity at Rotherhithe village or upriver from it;  downriver there appears to be very little activity at that time.

The Castles were well attested in records of the time, and are mentioned several times in the diaries of Samuel Pepys, who considered William Castle to be an expert in the production of 3rd Rate ships of the line.  Although perhaps most famous for his diaries, Samuel Pepys was Chief Secretary to the Admiralty, and his opinion mattered.  William Castle's warships were characterized by the unusual feature of having one more port on the upper deck than the lower deck.  The Castles were deeply embedded in the London shipping scene, and very well connected. William Castle married the daughter of Sir William Batten, Surveyor of the Navy.  For more about the Castle shipbuilding and breaking family see the Castles History Project website. 

HMS Taunton was originally designed as a 40-gun two-deck 4th-rate 545-ton full-rigged frigate, a ship of the line built in 1654, three years after the end of the English Civil War, a year into the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell and a year after the outbreak of the First Dutch War. She was one of the ships ordered in the "Thirty Ships Programme" issued by the parliament in 1652.   HMS Taunton was 104ft long (measured along the keel), with a 31ft 8in beam and a hold depth of 13ft.  She cost £3484 (according the the National Archives Currency Converter, in 1650, £3,484 0s 0d would have the same spending worth of 2005's £263,251.04). Like most ships of her time she was modified during her career, with alterations that significantly changed her vital statistics.  Ships are often described in terms of the classes to which they belonged, a designation that refers to specific designs made by often famous ship designers, and Taunton was a Ruby Class ship.  The first Ruby Class ship was HMS Ruby, built by Peter Pett II in Deptford in 1651.  Taunton was the ninth of the Ruby Class Fourth Rates.  The model of her above is a photograph from Riff Winfield's "British Warships in the Age of Sail 1603-1714" and is probably either HMS Taunton or HMS Dover.  It shows an additional port on the upper deck mentioned above, a characteristic of William Castle's warships. 

This painting is actually from 100 years after Taunton was
sunk and shows the Battle of Chesapeake, but is a  useful
illustration of how ships engaged in the line of battle
The First Dutch War was fought mainly with small ships, with only 11 out of 103 having ships of over 50 guns.  Most had between 30 and 44 guns. Ships of the line were rated from 1 (the biggest, most prestigious, heavily armed and expensive, but also the most ponderous and least manoeuvrable) to 4 (5th and 6th rates were never used as ships of the line).  The rating system was based on the number of men that a ship could hold.  Ships of the line all had the same basic job, which was to present arms in the so-called the line of battle. As with many land battles, this was a tactic of open confrontation.  Warships on opposing sides lined up from bow to stern to present their broadside guns to each other.  The first single-deck frigates built in Britain were constructed in the 1640s in response to a need for smaller, faster ships, but were found to be too small to accommodate sufficient men for battle conditions and in the late 1640s and early 50s some were given an extra deck.  After the First Dutch War it was determined that larger ships were far more advantageous in battle, and in the future bigger and stronger ships were commissioned which were better able to withstand the stresses of battle and were more difficult to board. 

The Battle of the Texel, 11–21 August 1673 by Willem van de Velde I
The Protectorate lasted until 1959, when it was dissolved, but the commonwealth only lasted another year and in 1660 the monarchy was restored to power under Charles II. Presumably in celebration, Taunton was renamed HMS Crown. Under her new name HMS Crown participated in a number of placements and engagements, listed by Riff Winfield in "British Warships in the Age of Sail 1603-1714" as follows, under a number of different commanders.  I've listed them just to show how a warship of the period was deployed:
  • With Sandwich's squadron at Tangier 1661
  • With Lawson's squardon in the Mediterranean in 1662
  • With Allin's squadron in the Mediterranean in 1665
  • At the Four Days Battle  in 1666, with 8 killed and 15 wounded
  • At the Battle of Solebay in 1672
  • At the Battle of Schoonveld 1673
  • At the Battle of Texel, also in 1673
  • In the Mediterranean 1674
  • In the Mediterraneqan in 1680
  • In home waters in 1685
  • In the Turkey convoy in 1687
  • Rebuilt at Woolwich in 1689

By 1666 she had been fitted with a further eight guns to take her up to a total of 48 and was manned by a crew of 170.  She was rebuilt again in 1689.  In 1704 following the outbreak of war in 1702 she was refitted at Deptford by shipwright Fisher Harding, and relaunched as a 552 long tons 4th-rate ship of the line with 50 guns, again a fourth-rate ship of the line.  She was 126ft 8in (measured along the gundeck) with a 34ft 5.5in beam and a hold of 13ft 6in (4.1m) deep.  She was again full-rigged.  She sailed from Deptford under Captain Thomas Lyell and again travelled widely under a number of different commanders:
  • In the North Sea 1704
  • In Barbados 1706
  • In 1708 with Baker's squadron on the Dutch coast
  • In the Channel 1709, and from there to Lisbon and then Jamaica in the same year
  • In Jamaica 1710
  • Back to England in 1711
  • In the Mediterranean in 1712
  • Major repair at Woolwich in 1717 costing £2007.
  • Recommissioned 1718

There is some confusion about who commanded HMS Taunton during which periods. Different accounts from the period place different commanders in charge of her simultaneously.  It seems clear that she was launched under Captain Richard Lyons and was soon under the command of Captain Thomas Vallis when she was at Tunis with Blake's fleet in the Mediterranean.  She came under Lyons again in 1655, after which he resigned and was than assigned once again to Blake's fleet under Capitan Nathaniel Brown.  She was back on the Thames in 1656 but was once again under Blake, this time taking part in the Battle of Santa Cruz in 1657.  She had numerous other commanders in her 65 year history, some of whom are listed on the threedecks website.

HMS Crown was "bilged and sunk" (Riff Winfield 2009) on 21st January 1719 under St Julian’s Fort at the entrance to River Tagus in Portugal.  At 65 years of age she had a long life, always a challenge for a wooden warship in active service. She was awarded battle honours, and had a successful and worthy career.

The Four Days Battle of 1666, in which Taunton (by then HMS Crown)
took part.  By Pieter Cornelisz van Soest.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Low tide at the Thames foreshore, Rotherhithe

Taking advantage of the late morning low tide yesterday, I took two friends down into the foreshore mud.  They had never ventured onto the Thames foreshore before, and we had for a thoroughly enjoyable few hours fossicking around.  We descended the stairs at the Surrey Docks Farm, crossed in front of Nelson's Dock at the Hilton Hotel (Cuckold's Point) and walked as far as the river would let us before climbing up the stairs at Columbia Wharf and walking to the Old Salt Quay for a bit of refreshment. After that we went for a potter along the foreshore at Hanover stairs, where the houseboat is moored, and where there were three Egyptian geese at the edge of the water, looking distinctly exotic and out of place.  We went to look at the old ships timbers that still lie near Clarence Pier before going for a wander along the water's edge.

Having seen what people pull off the foreshore at Greenwich and much further upriver I know how spectacular and fascinating some of the finds can be, but Rotherhithe produces much more modest offerings. The nicest piece of the day was a beautifully decorated piece of clay pipe bowl, with what looks like a climbing rose on the bowl itself and a traditional leaf pattern along the seam.

We picked one piece of pipe stem that was marked with the word PLUMSTEAD.  On the other side it reads very clearly H. DUDMAN.  A bit of pootling around on Google reveals that the maker was one Henry Dudman of Plumstead, Surrey, who was manufacturing clay pipes in the 1800s.  He lived at 71, Bloomfield Road, Plumstead, and pipe manufacturing was his livelihood.

The Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiacus) were lovely.  Originally from sub-tropical Africa, they were introduced into English country estates in the 17th Century for their ornamental properties.  Unsuited to the climate, they had a tough time surviving our winters, particularly as they breed in January, but eventually adapted and began to breed successfully.   They settled in Norfolk and although I've never seen them before have apparently spread extensively into the London area following a population explosion due to milder winters and the survival of more chicks.

The Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiacus)

We wandered by the side of Surrey Basin and through Russia Dock Woodland, which looked lovely in the sun.   Huge thanks to Jeanette and Elaine for a great day.

The old path that crosses the muddy foreshore
to the former Cuckold's Point ferry

The foreshore at Hanover Stairs