A few weeks ago, we took a boat trip down the River Seine, passing by many of the places painted by a dazzling array of artists. I’m delighted to invite you to join me this weekend on another painterly cruise, this time down the River Thames, in even more brilliant company. Today we’ll aim to get as far as Battersea, in the western parts of London, then tomorrow we’ll pass through the most famous heart of the city and end up in the Thames Estuary.
The River Thames rises in Gloucestershire, not too far from the River Severn, which runs in the opposite direction. After flowing through Oxford, where it’s known as the River Isis, it meanders its way through the posh parts of Berkshire, trending steadily east towards the North Sea.
JMW Turner painted his remarkably early Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway in 1844, only five years after this railway bridge over the Thames at Maidenhead was brought into use. Until the coming of the railway, this had been a sleepy country town; then it came within commuting distance of the centre of London.
The next town downriver is doubly famous, for its royal castle and Eton College.
Alfred William Hunt’s unusual watercolour of Windsor Castle (1889) shows the royal residence from the Eton side of the River Thames, a stretch known as the ‘Brocas’. Painted during the summer of 1889, Hunt visited on day trips by train from London, so that he could remain based at home.
On the eastern side of the castle park and the north bank of the river is another small town, Datchet, where Alice Maud Fanner lived for more than a decade.
Summer Morning – Datchet shows a young woman with a baby in a pram on the bank of the River Thames.
From there we pass Runnymede on our right (the south bank), where the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, and reach the next royal site, Hampton Court Palace. In the summer of 1874, Alfred Sisley accompanied his patron Jean-Baptiste Faure, a celebrated opera singer, on a visit to London. Sisley paid for this trip in kind, providing Faure with six paintings. The two stayed initially in South Kensington before moving out to the Castle Inn near Hampton Court, which provided Sisley with the best opportunities to paint.
Hampton Court had long been a major manor house, which was extended to become a royal palace for King Henry VIII. Despite its fine position on the River Thames, it was then largely abandoned until Queen Victoria opened it and its gardens to the public.
A decade before Sisley’s visit, an iron toll bridge had been placed over the River Thames nearby. Sisley seized the moment and painted one of his most unusual views of a bridge, in his Under Hampton Court Bridge. This carefully aligned projection of the bridge is symmetrical about the centreline of the painting, and the composition is carefully balanced with trees at the left and a building at the right.
Hampton Court Palace is to the east of Molesey, where Sisley painted the Thames.
The most famous of his paintings from this trip to England is Regatta at Molesey, one of the gems of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. This small competitive event had only been established in 1867, and still takes place on the same stretch of the River Thames not far from Hampton Court. This painting was bought by Gustave Caillebotte.
Molesey Weir, Hampton Court (1874) shows a weir close to the palace, and presents an excellent collection of different surface effects of water accomplished by the combination of colour and brushwork. Its horizon is unusually low, and the sky scrubbed in.
At Hampton Court the Thames is heading south-east, as if to make for the leafy lanes of Surrey. It then sweeps to the north and heads up past Teddington to reach Twickenham, places famous for their association with the annual (rowing) Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge, and rugby, respectively.
It was probably here, at Marble Hill (House) that John Lavery painted Boating on the Thames in about 1890. Chinese and Japanese influences in clothing and the parasol were all the rage at the time.
The Thames heads steadily north, with Middlesex on its north/west bank, and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew on the south/east. Along this stretch is a succession of small islands, known as eyots or aits.
Eric Ravilious painted the River Thames, Chiswick Eyot in 1933, with its stylistic influence from Paul Nash.
Although seldom painted, the next stretch of the Thames, between Chelsea on the north bank and Battersea on the south, had one of London’s last windmills.
Thomas Girtin’s famous watercolour of 1800 shows The White House at Chelsea. He chose to look upstream from a location close to the modern Chelsea Bridge. The landmarks shown include, from the left, Joseph Freeman’s windmill (or Red House Mill), a horizontal air mill, the white house close to where Battersea Park is now, Battersea Bridge, and Chelsea Old Church. For once, buildings are the least significant elements in the painting, which is dominated by the sky, water surface, and the momentary light on the white house.
Probably a few years later, the topographic artist John Varley painted this close-up view of the same Red House Mill, Battersea, Surrey, which looks back in the opposite direction.
Journey’s end for today is Whistler’s brilliant pastel painting of Battersea Bridge, painted in 1872-73, by which time that windmill was long forgotten.
Join me tomorrow as we resume our cruise down the Thames through the city of London.