Early in the nineteenth century, Turner’s willingness to include the smoke and fog of London in his paintings was unusual. Alongside his concern with history, he remained fascinated by modern developments, including the industrialisation that others deplored. His view of The Thames above Waterloo Bridge shows the city’s factories and river traffic producing fumes which all but obscure the bridge.
The city of London, and the river at its heart, underwent enormous changes during the nineteenth century. One of the most dramatic was a spectacular fire which consumed the Houses of Parliament one evening in October 1834. Turner was among the crowds watching from the river banks; he filled a sketchbook with studies which provided the basis for the painting in this room.
The new Houses of Parliament, completed in the 1850s, were part of a continuing process of modernisation. New bridges were built at Waterloo, Westminster and Charing Cross, and the river’s mud-banks replaced by embankments. At the end of the century, Whistler and Monet viewed this changing landscape from the Savoy Hotel, itself newly built, while every day the visibility index, showing the degree of smog in the atmosphere, was measured from the top of St Paul’s.