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s a young artist, Whistler had the opportunity to be a bohemian student in Paris, and then to spend periods of recovery in the upper-middle class comfort of his half-sister’s home at 62 Sloane Street in London. His first etchings were of his family, who were convenient models, of his mistress Fumette and of working women he encountered in Paris. He decided to publish a set of twelve prints and went on a walking tour in northern France, Luxembourg and the Rhineland to seek additional subjects. The result was Douze eaux-fortes d’après Nature or Twelve Etchings from Nature which the artist always referred to as the French Set, published in 1858. Auguste Delâtre printed the edition of 70 on his press at 171 Rue St. Jacques, Paris: 20 sets for Paris and 50 for London.

Despite the friendships which later developed with the French Impressionists, particularly Manet, Monet and Degas, Whistler saw London as the place for him to make his reputation and his career. During the summer of 1859 the idea of making a series of etchings of the Thames led him to explore the south bank, Rotherhithe and Bermondsey, perhaps the most squalid part of London, where narrow streets and alleyways led down to the river. It is difficult now to imagine the area as it then was, a maze of timber ramshackle buildings, crowded with a population whose living depended on the river, which was a stinking open sewer, thoroughly polluted.

No one in their right mind ventured into this area, as the dangers it harboured were well known, but it fascinated Whistler as it did Charles Dickens. It was here that he gathered material for his last novel Our Mutual Friend, and in August 1859 Whistler decided to settle in Wapping, across the river, for almost two months. He found the subjects for eight etchings which showed the working men of the area set against the river and the decaying buildings on its banks. By this time plans existed to build an embankment to the river and so the old wooden wharfs, docks, warehouses, offices and tradesmen’s workshops and yards, would soon be condemned. There was a recent precedent for the works Whistler planned. Charles Meryon (1821–1868) had made a series of etchings of old Paris which, like the buildings on the banks of the Thames, were to be demolished to make way for a modern city. In formulating his images Whistler was also familiar with the prints of London by Wenceslaus Hollar and William Hogarth, both represented in the collection of his brother-in-law Francis Seymour Haden (1818–1910). Whistler’s admiration for artists of the past fused with his knowledge of photography and of Japanese prints: he was an early collector and enthusiast for Japonisme.

Figure 2. Old Westminster Bridge (1859). Etching. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

In the two earliest plates, Old Westminster Bridge [fig.2] and Thames Warehouses [fig.3],he adopted a long, narrow format, reminiscent of topographical prints. There is little modern about Old Westminster Bridge, but in Thames Warehouses the subject is brought closer to the viewer.

Figure 3. Thames Warehouses (1859). Etching. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

It was the introduction of the figures of working men placed centrally in the foreground which first provided the formula for the arresting compositions of the series of etchings which followed. Whistler’s enthusiasm for Realism and for Courbet would have suggested this bold device, and by drawing the backdrop, contrasting areas of detail and with passages more summarily drawn, the images which resulted expressed a new vision. The copper plates which Whistler etched were made before the subjects. In the case of Black Lion Wharf [cat.7], drawn in reverse, so that the view would appear correctly when printed on paper. The work required close study of the buildings from the river, and he was rowed back and forth to achieve the level of detail he required. In some areas it appears that he has seen and drawn every single brick and timber board.

The working men depicted were not described in the titles: these refer to the location. However he chose for the larger upright plate, exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1860, the title W. Jones, lime-burner, Thames Street, later known as The Lime-Burner [cat.8]. But the first title, revived in Glasgow University’s new website of Whistler’s etchings (see bibliography below) suggests the focus on the figure and his way of life, rather than the place where he stands. The artist’s decision to focus on these ordinary working men distinguishes his Thames etchings.

Whistler’s intention to have these etchings published was not realised until 1871, twelve years after they were made. The earliest impressions were printed on Seymour Haden’s press at 62 Sloane Street, but Auguste Delâtre came to London to print for a show of Whistler’s prints mounted in 1861 at the premises Serjeant Thomas, a lawyer, had taken at 39 Old Bond Street to set up a print shop run by his son. The artist made two small etchings to be used as an announcement for the exhibition: Millbank [fig.4] and The Little Pool [fig.5].

Left: Figure 4. Millbank. (1861). Etching. Right: Figure 5. The Little Pool. (1861). Etching. [Click on images for larger pictures.]

However the set, A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames and Other Subjects by James Whistler, published by Ellis and Green, was printed without Delâtre’s gift for achieving rich and dramatic effects with skillful inking. The Ellis and Green edition of 100 was printed from the copper plates after they had been steel-faced, to prevent wear. The impressions are cleanwiped and lack the quality, subtlety and tone of the earlier proofs.

The set included two subjects which have no connection to the Thames, The Forge and Becquet (The Fiddler), both etched in France. The core of the set is the group of five etchings of wharfs made in the late summer of 1859 which led to W. Jones, lime-burner, Thames Street and Rotherhithe [cat.9]. Billingsgate [cat.4] properly belongs to this group, but it was left out of the set and not published until 1878. In 1879 The Fine Art Society acquired the plates of the Thames Set and had Frederick Goulding remove the steel-facing and print from them. On the price list The Fine Art Society published, they were described as ‘Fine Impressions of Mr Whistler’s celebrated and rare series of Sixteen Thames Etchings.’ The Set, mounted in a portfolio, cost 14 guineas, with individual prints ranging from 1 to 3 guineas. It is not always possible to distinguish between the prints pulled by Delâtre in 1861 and Goulding in 1879, and both printers appear to have used similar papers. An impression of W. Jones, lime-burner, Thames Street is inscribed by Frederick Goulding as being printed after the removal of the steel-facing but is dated 1894, confirming that the edition published by The Fine Art Society was not the final printing of the Thames etching plates. The Thames as a subject provided Whistler with many challenges. Distractions or the weather might interfere with the meticulous etcher, working out of doors in the middle of a busy river. But for a painter trained to work in the studio, capturing the effects of light and weather on the river was equally difficult. This was increasingly Whistler’s concern. The sheer volume of river traffic itself posed practical problems for an artist wishing to reduce what he saw to simple forms, and these were not really resolved until the early 1870s with the Nocturnes.

The solution was to paint the river at quiet times, at night. Whistler would go out in a boat, rowed by Walter and Henry Greaves, sometimes staying on the water until dawn. The stretch between his home at 2 Lindsey Row (now 96 Cheyne Walk) near Cremorne Gardens, near Battersea Bridge and down to Westminster Bridge, became an enchanted world, with the water, buidings and bridges reduced to dark shapes among which lights and lanterns glimmered. He made drawings, but couldn’t work in oils. Instead he committed what he saw to memory so that he could paint it when he returned to his studio. Several accounts of this working method have survived, and the paintings themselves demonstrate his ability to memorize a subject. It was essential to commit the scene to canvas as soon as possible, and he developed a radical technique, using paint which had been thinned with turpentine and linseed oil. He painted on the floor, so that the liquid colour would not run, and the canvases were put in the garden to dry. As Richard Dorment has pointed out, in many respects Whistler’s method was characteristic of watercolour painting, even to the extent that the finished works were framed behind glass. The series of Thames etchings Whistler made in 1861 show a change from the highly detailed works which culminated in Rotherhithe; from the linear to the tonal. The influence of Japanese art is evident in prints such as Old Hungerford Bridge [cat.10] and, most obviously in Battersea Morn [fig.6].

Left to right: (a) Old Hungerford Bridge. (b) Battersea Morn. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

These spare compositions were the precursors of the Nocturnes he painted, and they represent the first attempts at evoking the effects and atmosphere of early morning in a print. After 1863 Whistler made only one more etching until his patron Frederick R. Leyland encouraged him to resume printmaking in 1870. The intervening period saw an end to realism in his work and its replacement by aestheticism. His objective was paintings which were in themselves both poetic and complete compositions. Speke Hall, Leyland’s Tudor country house near Liverpool, and members of the Leyland family were the subjects of most the etchings and drypoints done between 1870 and 1875. However in 1871 he completed one print, Chelsea Bridge and Church [fig.7], which was included in the Thames Set, finally published in that year. It is far removed from the etchings of 1859 in conception, technique and composition.

Figure 7. Chelsea Bridge and Church (1870-71). Drypoint.

The publication of his Thames Set was well received, albeit that most of the subjects were over ten years old. It is in this period that he painted his ‘Nocturnes’, using a description suggested by Leyland.

‘I can’t thank you too much for the name ‘Nocturne’ as a title for my moonlights! You have no idea what an irritation it proves to the critics and consequent pleasure to me, – besides it is really so charming and does so poetically say all I want to say and no more than I wish.’ [An undated letter from Whistler to Leyland in the Library of Congress, Washington DC, J. & E.R. Pennell Collection]

The Thames etchings of the later 1870s show an increasing economy of line and may be seen as an attempt to find equivalents in etching and drypoint for the paintings of the period which culminated in Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket [fig.1], exhibited at the first Grosvenor Gallery exhibition in 1877. The painting was the subject of a review by John Ruskin. He wrote, ‘I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.’ Ruskin was the most influential art critic of his time, and his attack on Whistler’s paintings made them essentially unsaleable. It coincided with the termination of Leyland’s patronage and his refusal to pay the artist for his decoration of the ‘Peacock Room’ at his home in Princes Gate. In September 1877 Whistler was due to sign a contract with the architect E.W. Godwin for the design and construction of ‘The White House’, to be built on Tite Street, Chelsea. It was to be a masterpiece of avant-garde architecture and the aesthetic movement: but financial disaster loomed.

He decided to sue Ruskin for libel. Although Whistler won the celebrated case, he was not awarded costs and only one farthing in damages and, inevitably, he was in time declared bankrupt. Searching for income and intending to defend his artistic reputation, Whistler turned once more to the Thames, the source of his early success in London.

It was at about this time that Ernest Brown came to see him with a view to publishing an etching in an issue of the Portfolio magazine. Whistler gave him the plate of Billingsgate, done in 1859, which had not been included in the Thames Set, and it was published in January 1878. Simultaneously he was encouraged to make prints in a new medium by Thomas Way, a lithographic printer. This enabled him to achieve effects much closer to those in his painted Nocturnes than was possible in etching or drypoint. Way had suggested publishing a group of lithographs in a set to be called Art Notes. With his trial over Ruskin’s libel approaching, its publication might have enabled Whistler to foster interest in and understanding of his new work, but there was little interest in the project from the public. By 1879 Ernest Brown had joined the staff of The Fine Art Society, and, no doubt at his suggestion, the company bought the Thames Set plates from Ellis and Green, and engaged Frederick Goulding to print a second edition. Art Notes having been a commercial failure, instead of further lithographs, Whistler embarked on a series of new etchings of the Thames, Hurlingham, Old Putney Bridge, Little Putney Bridge, The Little Putney, and Old Battersea Bridge [fig.9].

Figure 9. Old Battersea Bridge (1879). Drypoint.

These were to be the last prints Whistler made of the Thames for nearly a decade. In September 1879 he left London for Venice.

In the intervening years other subjects held his attention but in 1896 Whistler made one final print of the River Thames, a Nocturne executed in lithotint of the river from a window at the Savoy Hotel.

Figure 10.Limehouse (1878). Drypoint.


MacDonald, Margaret F. Grischka Petri, Meg Hausberg, and Joanna Meacock. James McNeill Whistler: The Etchings, a catalogue raisonné. University of Glasgow, 2011. Web.

Whistler on the Thames. London: The Fine Art Society, 2013. pp. 7-15.

drawings by Whistler

Last modified 21 May 2014