Wyllie's marine pictures give a wonderful feeling of the busy working life of the Thames in its heyday, when London was the biggest and richest port in the world. In images such as this, his first successful work, he combines a strong realist style with a sense of the romance of ships and maritime trade.
Wyllie spent much of his time living on a boat in the lower Thames and painting directly from nature. For some time this picture was thought to have been painted at Greenwich, but has recently been identified as the Pool of London below London Bridge, looking west towards the dome of St Paul's Cathedral in the distance. As Archibald has noted, 'The subject of this picture - tugs working barges - was something of an innovation, as painters had formerly concentrated on the more decorative types of vessels; however Wyllie's obsessive love for the sea and anything that floated on it, embraced every type and size of vessel. It moved him to cover every aspect of the working river and set a fashion that other artists followed.' (Archibald, p.204.)
Wyllie depicts in detail the huge variety of working boats on the river. The flat barges in the foreground, carrying their cargoes of coal and timber, were called lighters. They were towed by tugs and manoeuvred into position with large oars, which also served as rudders. On the far left of the picture the barge with a low mast was called a stumpie, the two-masted barge beside it is a ketch. Behind them are the tall masts of a brig, which has been brought into dry dock. On the far right of the picture, by way of contrast, Wyllie includes the two funnels of a passenger steamer, a symbol of leisure rather than work. The title of the picture is evoked by the contrast between the dirt and toil of the men working on the coal barge and the implied wealth that is generated when coal is converted into steam for industry. The dirt and grime produced by the tugs, belching their fumes into the sky, mingles with the splendour of two full-rigged ships behind them.
Wyllie was best known for his views of the Thames, and in 1884 held an exhibition entitled The Tidal Thames at the Fine Art Society in London. He also painted pictures of other important harbours and seaports in Britain and abroad, as well as ship portraits, sea battles and yachting scenes.
E.H.H. Archibald, Dictionary of Sea Painters, Woodbridge 1980, revised edition 2000, p.204.
Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, London 1999, p.351.