View of the Thames, Blackwall Reach and Greenwich Marsh from One Tree Hill

This is a rare view of the Thames and Greenwich Marsh looking due north from One-Tree Hill in Greenwich Park, about 1725, where an elegant company are enjoying the prospect with an artist (perhaps Tillemans) sketching the scene shown. Large houses, including a formal garden, at the end of East Greenwich are visible below the hill and ships on the river beyond include a naval frigate and sloop-rigged royal yacht going downstream. Greenwich Marsh (now North Greenwich or the 'Greenwich Peninsula') is entirely fields and hedgerows. To lower right, the isolated building with a jetty to the river at the modern position of Lovell's Wharf/ Granite Wharf is the Greenwich powder magazine of 1694, otherwise known from a print of 1738 by W.H. Toms (PAD2175). Above it on the river edge towards Blackwall Point can just be seen the (empty) gibbet from which the bodies of pirates, hanged at Execution Dock, were suspended in an iron cage to rot as a warning to passing seafarers. A fence at bottom right probably marks the line of the old Woolwich Road: in his diary, Samuel Pepys, who walked frequently along it between Greenwich and Woolwich in the 1660s, twice mentions hearing nightingales singing on the way (22 May 1663, 22 April 1664), though perhaps from the woodland on the south side where the ground started to rise rather than from the hedges seen here.

The composition is artfully adjusted: One Tree Hill has been moved rather north of where it is and the slope to the river foreshortened. Blackwall has apparently been elided with Bow (which should really be further left behind the tree, the main tower shown probably being that of St Mary’s church) and the waterfront there shows no obvious trace of Blackwall Yard – which by this time was a major shipyard, though there may be a ship being built half way to the mill to the east. However, this is shown very small and details may have sunk with age. It is none the less an unusual subject, since views from the heights of Greenwich Park usually look north-north-west up the ‘Grand Axis’ or are angled further west to include London. In 1750, when Astronomer Royal Bradley set up a new Greenwich Meridian he put a sighting marker due north of the Observatory on the high ground shown here in the distance, and this view is practically up the meridian. The image also shows the Park before it became ‘public’ in the modern sense and still reflects Robert Burton’s line in the 'Anatomy of Melancholy' (1621) about the view from (now) Observatory Hill as ‘one of the best prospects of Europe, to see London on the one side, the Thames, ships and pleasant meadows on the other...’. This shows the latter aspect: Tillemans’s view of the former is shown in print PAI7093, of which the original oil painting is one of three Thames views that the artist did for the Earl of Radnor: this is still in private hands though there is another version of it in the Bank of England collection [acq. no. 0576(i)].

Tillemans (c.1684–1734) was born in Antwerp but came to England in 1708 and remained for the rest of his life. His work was varied: though he called himself a 'landskip' painter he had early success with several prestigious figure commissions. Around 1720 he began to specialize in sporting subjects (horses etc.) but from 1723 also did a number of notable Thames views. This small example is from that period. It probably shows One Tree Hill early in its history with that name, based on the young tree shown, which was presumably only planted fairly shortly before 1700. Other images suggest it was probably an oak or chestnut, which appears to have died before it was blown down in a gale on 21 August 1848 (according to a note in the Greenwich Local History Collection): A.D. Webster's History of Greenwich Park (1902), p.8 and facing says only August 1848, reproducing an 'old print' of c.1800 showing it dead. [PvdM 7/14]

Object Details

ID: ZBA6714
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Tillemans, Pieter
Date made: circa 1725; circa 1730
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Painting: 327 mm x 650 mm; Frame: 472 mm x 789 mm x 54 mm; Overall: 7 kg

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