Summary

Westminster Bridge was constructed between 1738 and 1750. Richard Wilson's view of the bridge under construction can be dated to around September 1744. (The picture is signed at he bottom left 'R Wilson 1744'.) It was at this time that the timber framework supporting the arch immediately to the left of the central span was dismantled - an operation clearly visible in Wilson's picture. The painting also shows the first stages of construction of the two arches to the right of the central arch, work which had begun that summer. The balustrade surmounting the central arch, although visible in Wilson's picture, was not completed until the summer of 1745, suggesting that the artist had access to detailed plans or even the designer's model for the bridge. Wilson's view is taken from the Westminster side of the river, from Parliament Stairs, looking east towards the city of London and the dome of St Paul's cathedral, visible on the horizon between the incomplete section of the bridge and the Lambeth shore.

In the foreground of the picture a smartly dressed man and woman promenade down a cobbled walkway towards a waiting ferryboat. Directly behind them a group of boys bathe naked in the river. Between the trees at the left of the picture, beyond Cotton and Speaker's Gardens, is St Stephen's Chapel, then used as the House of Commons, and demolished in the nineteenth century. At the extreme left can be glimpsed the roof of Westminster Hall, which still survives. On the opposite bank of the river, at the right, are the Lambeth timber yards and barge houses.

Wilson was one of a several artists to depict the construction of Westminster Bridge. Others included Antonio Canale (Canaletto) (1697-1768), Antonio Joli (c.1700-77), Robert Griffier (1688-c.1750), and Samuel Scott (c.1702-72), two of whose pictures entitled An Arch at Westminster Bridge, also belongs to Tate (T01193 and N01223). At the time Wilson painted this picture he was still working principally as a portrait painter. However, in its attention to the broad sweep of the scenery surrounding the bridge and its sensitive rendition of light, this picture demonstrates that Wilson was an accomplished landscape painter several years before he turned exclusively towards that genre on his arrival in Italy in 1750.

The style of the present picture, as David Solkin has observed, is typical of the English rococo. It exhibits a combination of French and Italian influences, which are to be found in many artists working within the sphere of the St Martin's Lane Academy in London at the time (Solkin, p.147). The composition is reminiscent of the Venetian 'veduta' or city view, popular among British connoisseurs at the time, notably through the example of Canaletto, who arrived in England in 1745.

It is not known whether Wilson produced this work of his own volition or as a commission. Its long narrow format suggests that it was designed as an overmantel, possibly for someone involved in the bridge's construction. Certainly, a number of individuals who had invested capital in the construction of the bridge may have desired some sort of record or souvenir of its construction. At the same time, the Thames watermen protested loudly against the bridge, which threatened their livelihood. Indeed, as it has been observed, the ferryboat in the foreground and the bridge beyond 'could be seen as a poignant contrast between the old and new ways of crossing the river' (Tate 1986, p.84).

A smaller, damaged, version of this composition, signed and dated 1745, belongs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It differs from the present picture, showing the bridge at a slightly more advanced stage. It also omits the barge in the foreground.

Further reading:
David H. Solkin, Richard Wilson. The Landscape of Reaction, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery1982, pp.146-7
The Tate Gallery 1982-84. Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, Tate Gallery 1986, pp.83-4

Martin Postle
June 2001