Just over 110 years ago, an American artist living in London died. London has never really forgiven this insult to its character so it has taken 110 years for a major exhibition of his work to go on display.

And now, a collection that is largely exhibited outside London has been brought together for the first time to show off the period in the artists time when he worked largely along the Thames.

The artist in question being James Whistler, who born in the USA, later seemed to somewhat disown his homeland in favour of Russia, spent some time in Paris and also Chile, but spent much of his years here in London.

Although a lot of work was produced during his time in London, it was scattered during his lifetime thanks to a bankruptcy sale and most of it is now held outside the city, as collections were later built up in the USA, Paris, and curiously, Glasgow.

It’s taken the curators at the Dulwich Picture Gallery about nine years to bring his London works back to their place of origin for this display.

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The display is divided into sections, which can be loosly described as drawings of the docklands region, genteel paintings of Chelsea, gloomy Westminster — and an obsession with bridges.

The etchings all in black and white as they were printed in limited editions and sold repeatedly in a clever way of earning money from a single drawing but in a level of miniature detail that they are almost comparable to the slightly later photographs that sit next to them.

Even though the period in the 1860s isn’t that long ago really, the pace of change has sped up now such that they evoke a strange landscape. A rough world where the pencil seems to leave as rough a texture as the world it seeks to capture.

Images of men at work, barges along the river, lime kilns, all capture the working class atmosphere of the area in a way that few artists of the time had tried to do.

The detail in the pictures which is almost photographic lends an air of silence to them, as if the mind, so used to silent movies when presented with an image of the era cannot add in the missing information.

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No so in the rest of the gallery, which is largely dominated by colour paintings, and have a modern vibrancy that makes them chatter as loudly as the colours.

One of his most famous paintings is of the riverside as seen through the window of the Angel pub, which still exists. The lady is his then girlfriend, although the image was repainted from a prostitute to a more genteel representation for the Royal Academy.

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Another of his more famous paintings is of the old Battersea Bridge, which seemed to obsess him for some time judging by how many drawings he made of it. What is fascinating about this painting, is that in the distance you can see the Crystal Palace, and that it was a surprisingly dominant feature on the southern horizon from parts of central London.

That’s one of the great things about paintings of old London, landmarks that today are surrounded by clutter are shown to have been once dominant features.

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His nocturnes — or night time drawings and paintings are here, and the atmosphere of foggy London is more dominant. So dominant to the point that one of the paintings is barely recognisable as much more than a sheet of darkness.

A few other objects are on display, including a replica of a famous item which is now in Glasgow and far too fragile to move.

More artly wise folk say he was a good artist, and influential, and is widely collected today.

I think that this specific collection is a good one for anyone interested in the history of London, and specifically the slice through the city created by the Thames. That the display is a mix of drawings and paintings, and photographs by later people makes it more interesting to see how different areas were represented by different techniques.

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As a display is also compliments the Estuary exhibition down at the Docklands Museum.

An American in London: Whistler and the Thames is on display at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until the 12th January. Entry is £11.

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2 comments
  1. Terry Callaghan says:

    Well, that’s sorted a Chrissie present or two…

  2. Greg Tingey says:

    Dulwich are good at this sort of thing.
    I remember the Arthur Rackham show they did, a few years’ back ….

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