Catalogue entry

T03665 WESTMINSTER BRIDGE UNDER CONSTRUCTION 1744

Oil on canvas 28 1/2 × 57 1/2 (725 × 1460)
Inscribed ‘R Wilson| 1744’ very faintly b.l. on tablet in wall
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid and Miss M. Deakin Bequest) with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund 1983
Prov: ...; F.A. Durell, by descent to his great-grand-daughter Joan Durell-Stables of Offord Hill House, Huntingdon; bequeathed 1980 to a relative by whom sold to Spink & Son, from whom bt by the Tate Gallery
Exh: Richard Wilson, Tate Gallery, November 1982–January 1983, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, January–March 1983, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, April–June 1983 (5, repr.)
Lit: W.G. Constable, Wilson, 1953, p.180, pl.44a (Philadelphia version); H. Preston, London and the Thames, exhibition catalogue, Somerset House, July–October 1977, no.31; R.J.B. Walker, Old Westminster Bridge, 1979, pp.151–65, 282–5; The Tate Gallery 1982–84, Illustrated Biennial Report, p.27, repr. in col.

The view shows Westminster Bridge as seen from Parliament Stairs, more or less as it must have appeared sometime in September 1744. Charles Labelye, its designer and chief engineer, had reported to the Works Committee on 5 September 1744 that the centering on the western 72-foot arch (the one to the left of the middle arch, which was the first to be built) could be struck ‘immediately’ (Walker 1979, p.155). In the painting workmen are shown dismantling it, lowering timbers from the top of the centering. Work on the two arches immediately to the east of the middle arch had begun that summer, and James Vauloué's tall pile-driving engine (repr. Walker 1979, fig. 10) is shown at work on the tenth pier, counting from the Westminster side. On the far side of the river is the nearly completed 25-foot arch of the Lambeth abutment near Stangate, the centering for which had been ordered in January 1744. The last of the centerings of the three cleared arches on the left had been removed by 6 June that year; the centerings supporting the two visible arches next to the Westminster bank (the final abutment arch is hidden from view) were struck in January and February the following year.

Wilson has allowed himself or was asked to use some artistic licence as far as the middle arch is concerned, as the balustrade over it, though contracted for with Jelfe and Tufnell in March 1744, was not completed until August 1745, and the baroque statues of river gods, representing the Thames and the Isis, though initially planned, were never set up at all. It is not known when exactly this part of the design was abandoned, and no drawings or designs for them are known. Canaletto, in his view of the completed bridge with the Lord Mayor's Day procession of 23 November 1746 (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven) also includes them as the focal point of view, so that perhaps until that date at least some hopes of erecting the statues may have remained, before they fell victim to the usual mounting costs and the engineering difficulties that beset the structure after the fifth pier (fourth from the left in this picture) sank 16 inches in 1747 and had to be rebuilt. As far as one can make out, neither Canaletto's nor Wilson's centrepiece resembles the design published in The Gentleman's Magazine in February 1754, and it is possible that they used a lost drawing, or perhaps Labelye's model of the bridge, now also lost, which was known to be one of his most prized possessions. (For the best and fullest account of all aspects of the construction of the bridge, see Walker 1979, on which most of the information given here is based.)

Wilson seeks to give the impression of a hot afternoon in late summer, judging from the near-cloudless sky and the naked urchins bathing on the mud flats at low tide in front of the wall of Cotton and Speaker's Gardens on the left. Behind the trees are the twin turrets of St Stephen's Chapel (demolished in the nineteenth century), then in use as the House of Commons, with the roof of Westminster Hall just visible on the extreme left. The dome of St Paul's dominates the skyline on the right, and the white double pillars of Somerset House Stairs are just visible through the largest of the cleared arches, with parts of the Old Savoy framed by the arch to the left of it. On the far bank are the Lambeth timber yards and the barge houses of the Archbishop, the City Companies, and the nobles who had their houses on the Westminster side.

Begun in 1738, the bridge was one of the major civic projects of the century. It was not finally opened until 1750, and during that period it was painted many times at almost all stages of its construction by most view-painters then working in London, notably Griffier, Joli, Canaletto and Samuel Scott (see T01193). The recent re-emergence of this painting makes Wilson a distinguished member of this group.

Although it is known that Wilson was painting London views as early as 1737 (see N02984), until his departure for Italy in 1750 he practised chiefly as a fairly conventional portrait painter. Yet the handful of English views of the 1740s attributable to him show an accomplished landscape painter who had assimilated all that the British school of landscape painting had to offer at that period. This view, though somewhat dry and old-fashioned in technique compared to Wilson's more impastoed mature style, stands apart from other contemporary paintings of this type in that it treats what is essentially an urban view as an open landscape, placing much greater emphasis on the interaction of natural elements like light and shade, water and the nature of the river banks at low tide, rather than on the delineation of buildings and other topographical details, which are treated in a summary though apparently accurate manner.

A smaller and rather damaged version of this painting, signed and dated 1745, is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (repr. Preston 1977, no.31 and Constable 1953, pl.44a). It shows the bridge with an additional arch completed and has a similar elegant couple going down the landing stage in the foreground, but the ferry boat seems to have been painted out, probably because it bulked too large in the narrower composition.

It is not known if Wilson painted these views as commissions or as a speculative venture, though the long and narrow overmantel shape of the Tate version suggests that it was meant for a specific location. The building of the bridge involved many notable and reasonably wealthy people who may have wished to own a souvenir of this sort. The view-point of this picture, for example, is taken from close to the spot where Andrew Jelfe, property speculator and chief masonry-contractor throughout the building of the bridge, had his earlier house and one of his stone wharves: he might have enjoyed seeing his masonry blocks stacked on the causeway of the uncompleted bridge, as shown here. His son-in-law Captain Griffen Ransom owned a timber yard at Stangate which he offered freely, ‘with kindness and civility’, to the Bridge Committee when the foundations of the Lambeth abutment were laid - a site noticeably prominent in this painting. Wilson may have hoped that the subject would attract higher patronage, and it is worth noting, in view of the important commission received by Wilson in the late 1750s to paint Wilton House for the 10th Earl of Pembroke, that the latter's father, the 9th Earl, had been the chief promoter of the Westminster Bridge project from its inception in the 1730s, until his death in 1750.

The figures which animate the foreground have, as David Solkin rightly notes in his catalogue of the 1982–3 Wilson exhibition, something of the Frenchified rococo elegance disseminated in the 1730s and 40s by the drawing master Hubert Gravelot (1699–1773) at the St Martin's Lane Academy, which Wilson is said to have attended, although this compiler would dispute that the couple must necessarily be patrician, or that the waterman's stance is in any way noticeably subservient. The notoriously independent and surly fraternity of Thames watermen, said to have numbered some 30,000 at this period, was closely linked with the bridge in the public mind, not least through its members' vociferous and sometimes violent resistance to a project which they rightly saw as a threat to their livelihood. Many would have sympathised with their cause, and a certain amount of nostalgia would have attached to their more leisurely and smooth mode of transport (bearing in mind that coaches were still poorly sprung), in which case this juxtaposition of an impeccably turned out ferry-boat, with its correctly and neatly uniformed waterman, and the bridge beyond, could be seen as a poignant contrast between the old and the new ways of crossing the river.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986