In the 17th-century, the visual image of the river Thames was, on the whole, limited to the defining feature of topographical views, the site of carnivalesque frost-fairs or simply the backdrop for pictorial representations of architectural magnificence. By contrast, during the 18th century the Thames became a respectable subject for art in its own right, and was treated as an increasingly celebratory site which reflected the great changes in London as the city evolved into the centre of a commercial empire. Paintings and prints celebrated the growth and prestige of the port, with the Thames itself held up as a symbol for London, the world capital of trade.
Though 18th-century imagery of the river Thames is widely known, this tends to be confined to a very select and narrow range of fine art, above all the oil paintings of Canaletto and Samuel Scott and scenes depicting royal events and pageants which are almost always confined to the section of river between St Paul's and Westminster. Less attention has been given to the abundant visual imagery, particularly in printed form, of what is referred to as the 'commercial' river below London Bridge. My research is focused on a rich aspect of the National Maritime Museum collections: the imagery relating to the river Thames during the long 18th century, particularly the lower 'commercial' reaches from the Pool of London downstream towards Gravesend. Artists whose works celebrate the commercial river include the Cleveleys, John Boydell, Francis Holman, Nicholas Pocock, William Anderson, Richard Paton and William Daniell. Of particular interest are the highly detailed images made by Robert Dodd and published by John and Josiah Boydell, for example the Launch of the 'Bombay Castle' a 74 Gun Ship, 25 March 1789, (PAH9724) (detail reproduced below).
Blackwall... at the launch of the 'Bombay Castle' a 74 Gun Ship. Built at the Expence of the Honble East India Company and presented by them to his Majesty.. (PAH9724)
This triumphant image, with finely dressed spectators, enthusiastic crowds and energetic hat-waving, presents Blackwall in all its glorious pomp and ceremony at the launch of the great ship, Bombay Castle, which was actually floated out seven years before this print was published. In his A View of the Royal Dockyard at Deptford, 28 March 1789 (PAH9746) (detail reproduced below) Dodd presents another fantastically detailed scene with a carefully balanced view which takes in the full sweep of the river from the shoreline, where lighters and a rowing boat busily carry barrels to and from the ships, to the Dockyard itself where ships on the stocks are in various stages of completion. On the shoreline two ladies dressed in fine clothes promenade beneath a parasol and a gentleman raises his hat to them, suggesting to the viewer that this is a polite space and a source of national pride.
A View of the Royal Dockyard at Deptford, 28 March 1789 (PAH9746)
In the process of researching these and other images and sifting through the archives, as part of my doctoral research, a rich assortment of contemporary works depicting the working Thames by lesser known (or unknown) artists and engravers have come to light. Studied collectively these visual records represent a distinct pattern of demand for, and supply of, images of the downriver reaches of the Thames and a fascinating insight into the way the commercial river was represented and imagined in the 18th century.