Samuel Scott

An Arch of Westminster Bridge


Not on display

Samuel Scott c.1702–1772
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1357 × 1638 mm
Purchased 1970

Display caption

This work celebrates an important event in the history of London: the building of Westminster Bridge. The bridge, shown near completion, was the first to be built over the Thames in over 600 years. During the 11 years of its construction it was painted by many artists, including Canaletto and Richard Wilson. The arrival of Canaletto in England in 1746 may have stimulated Scott to compete by producing similar views of London scenery, particularly along the Thames. Like Canaletto, Scott has included lively figures, shown here swimming, drinking ale and peeping through the balustrade.

Gallery label, November 2016

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Catalogue entry

T01193 An Arch of Westminster Bridge c. 1750

Oil on canvas 1355×1640 (53 1/4×64 1/2)
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1970
PROVENANCE Perhaps painted for Sir Lawrence Dundas, but more probably purchased by him at the artist's sale, Langford's, 4 April 1765 (74, ‘a large piece - of part of Westminster Bridge’); Dundas sale, Greenwood's 30 May 1794 (16 as ‘View through one of the arches of Westminster Bridge looking towards Blackfriars, with boats and figures bathing’, 52×56 in) 34 gns bt de Grey (?Annabel de Grey, who succeeded as 5th Baroness Lucas, 1797); by descent to the 9th Baroness Lucas (also 12th Baroness Dingwall), who d. 1958, having married, in 1917, Colonel Howard Lister Cooper from whom bt by the Tate Gallery
EXHIBITED RA 1934 (252, Commemorative Catalogue, pl.XXXIII); 100 Years of British Painting, 1730–1830, BC tour, Lisbon and Madrid 1949 (40); Paintings and Drawings by Samuel Scott, Agnew 1951 (23); Samuel Scott Bicentenary, Guildhall Art Gallery 1972 (31)
LITERATURE Waterhouse, 1953, p.117, pl.95b; Kenneth Sharpe, ‘Westminster Bridge by Samuel Scott’, 1964 (MS in author's possession, copy in Tate Gallery catalogue files); R.J.B. Walker, Old Westminster Bridge, 1979, p.159; Kingzett 1982, pp.62–4, version E, p.64, pl.23

Until the construction of ‘Old’ Westminster Bridge (later so-called, after its demolition to make way for the erection of the present bridge, 1854–62), London had only one bridge (London Bridge) over the Thames; the city's rapid growth had, long before 1700, made this inadequate. After much discussion over the point at which the river should again be bridged, on 20 May 1736 the ‘Act for Building a Bridge across the river Thames, from the New Palace Yard in the City of Westminster to the opposite Shore in the County of Surrey’ was passed, and Commissioners were appointed to select its builder. Designs were submitted by Nicholas Hawksmoor (then in the last year of his life), by the Swiss-born engineer Charles Labelye (who had already assisted Hawksmoor with calculations), by John Prince and by Batty Langley. The Commissioners selected Labelye as designer and engineer, confirming his appointment on 10 May 1738, at a salary of £100 a year, with subsistence of ten shillings a day.

On the afternoon of 29 January 1739, ‘the first Stone, which weigh'd upwards of a Ton weight, for building the Main Arch of the new Bridge, was laid by the Right Hon. the Earl of Pembroke... with great Formality, Guns firing, Flags displaying, &c.’ On 14 November 1747, Labelye declared that the Bridge was ‘completely finish'd, and the whole was performed in seven Years, nine Months, and sixteen Days from the laying of the first Stone’ (quotations are from Walker 1979, pp.60, 95, 172). But settlement of the piers was soon found to have damaged several arches, making immediate repairs urgent; and the bridge was not finally opened to traffic until 18 November 1750.

Scott made many sketches of the bridge, from various viewpoints, during the various stages of its construction, later composing paintings (of which there are in most cases several versions) from his sketches, and, as Walker notes (1979, p.232), ‘juggling with the time sequence of his paintings, building them up from appropriate pages of his sketch-books’. None of these views should therefore be read as documentary records, accurately depicting progressive stages in the bridge's construction; and some of them may have been made years after the completion of the activities they depict.

Sharpe (1964) suggests that the composition of T01193 reveals the influence of Canaletto, who had arrived in England in 1746; in particular he cites one of Canaletto's drawings which shows a similar viewpoint (fig.49, in the collection of the British Museum, 1905–5–20–1, repr. Walpole Society, IX, 1921, pl.XIIIA). Walker (1979, p.235), commenting on Scott's and Canaletto's treatment of the view, notes that ‘the loving care with which he [Scott] cherished the subtle colour combination provided by Labelye's use of Portland and Purbeck stone shows a perceptiveness which the great Venetian sometimes missed in his English views’.

Canaletto's drawing, though taken from a little further back, shows the landing-stage from which Scott must have made his studies for this subject, and helps to establish the fact that, of the fifteen arches in Old Westminster Bridge, Scott's view in this composition is of the second and third arches (technically described as west 52' and 56') from the bridge's Westminster abutment. The view through the arches is of the northern bank of the Thames, from Westminster towards the City of London; reading from left to right, one can see, under the second (left) arch, the Fishmarket Wharf, Montagu House and the houses of Mr Joshua Smith, the Duke of Portland, Mr Andrew Stone, the Countess of Portland and the Earl of Pembroke, and the York Buildings Water Tower; and, under the third (right) arch, the Savoy, with St Mary-le-Strand behind it, and a glimpse of old Somerset House and its gardens.

Four other versions of this view are catalogued by Kingzett: A, 895×1180 (35×46 1/2), National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin; B, 895×1015 (34 1/4×40), Lewis Walpole Library, Farmington; C, 270×397 (10 5/8×15 5/8), Tate Gallery N01223, see; D, 1060×1180 (41 1/2×46 1/2), Yale Center for British Art, Walker 1979, p.261). All are probably based on one or both of two drawings in Scott's sale, Langford's, 13 January 1773 (33, ‘Two views of Westminster Bridge ...’; see Sharpe 1964). Since these studies include the domed turrets on top of the piers (recessed on the inner sides of the bridge to offer rest or shelter to pedestrians), they may well have been drawn between 21 February and 14 November 1747, when this work was completed; this part of the bridge was not affected by the settlement which made repairs above other piers urgent, delaying the bridge's opening (see the contractors' journals and letter-books, BL Add. MS. 27587, extensively used by Walker 1979). But Scott's painted versions may have been made months or even years after the bridge's opening, though it may be noted that the Dublin picture (version A, fig.50) shows the wrought-iron lamp standards which were erected (though not in fact over these two arches of the bridge) just before the bridge's opening.

Each of the five versions shows variations in the arrangements of boats, figures, etc., but as Sharpe points out, the major difference between versions A, B and C, considered as one group, and versions D and E, considered as another, is that the first three all fail to depict the underside of the arch on the right. The Yale Center picture and T01193 (versions D and E) show a deliberate and visually very satisfying squaring up and tightening of the composition, and their inclusion of the view of the underside of the right arch is surely a ‘correction’ that makes these two later than the other three.

Most of the versions seem to celebrate - in T01193, perhaps, most satisfyingly of all - the moment when the masons have put the final touches to the stonework of the domed turrets, pausing on their apparently ramshackle yet practical enough wooden platform (a detail perhaps inspired by Canaletto) to share a flagon of beer. Kingzett particularly applauds the ‘monumentality’ of the composition of T01193, adding that here, after Scott had watched and sketched the bridge throughout its construction, ‘it seems that almost deliberately he chose the final moment when the last touches were being added to the parapet.’ Certainly the impromptu drinking seems like a well-earned celebration, and as such provides, as Kingzett notes, a ‘characteristically human touch in Scott's work’. One should however note that the stonework on the left-hand turret is still apparently unfinished (unless Scott has deliberately falsified its appearance into ‘flatness’ to reduce too prominent a feature on the extreme left of his picture, as in the smaller Tate Gallery version, C), and that work may yet remain to be done on the rest of the bridge's fifteen arches.

Published in:
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth: British Painters Born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery Collections, II, London 1988

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