Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Whistler's London: Black Lion Wharf

I have an oyster shell beside me on the desk. Worn by the water, it is a relic of an older London, washed up on the shore of the Thames.  I found it on Tuesday as I explored the riverbank below the Tower.  I was searching for Black Lion Wharf, working from a copy of a mid-Victorian map and my memory of the etching that James Whistler had made here in 1859. 
In Whistler’s day this part of Wapping was busy with watermen and dockhands, barges laden with barrels, a web of masts and rigging.  Now Black Lion Wharf has disappeared, the river tidied up and embanked.   Wooden piers are concreted over with barely a stump showing. Only the massive gateposts at the entrance to the docks give a clue to the volume of river-traffic that used to flow through here.  Wapping Basin was Blitzed, and then obliterated by steel-and-glass apartments.  A low-maintenance Memorial Garden reminds those who pass of the livelihoods lost.

Yet there are remnants of the river-life that Whistler would recognise.  At Hermitage Moorings a dozen families have made their home on sailing barges.  From a distance, their spars and sheets resolve into a one of Whistler’s watercolour.  Intrigued by a small sign on a gate, I clatter down onto the pontoon.  Albatros, Ethel Ada, Weatherlight: the working lives of these boats reach back a century or more.  This week there is a Christmas cafe in the floating community hall, and I am welcomed with coffee and flapjack.  A print-maker tells me about her neighbours.  She has been gathering memories from the folk who live by the river.  There are a couple of fishermen, she says, who still come down to set their nets for eels.  One of them writes poems about the water and the changes he has seen. 
It is time to press on before the light fails.  Further along Wapping High Street the new flats give way to Victorian warehouses.  I find a narrow passage between a pub and an early 19th century merchant’s house. This is the way down to Wapping Old Stairs.  The steps are slippery and green.  In the 1850s mudlarks gathered here, waiting for the water to recede.  Unschooled, filthy, ankle-deep in ooze, they scavenged for anything that would make them a penny or two: lumps of coal, a nail, a coil of rope. 
The tide will soon return to cover the stones and deposit more debris on the shore-line.  But for the moment I can step onto the riverbank, and search among the broken bricks for some souvenir of Whistler’s London – some tumbled glass, perhaps. I pick up an oyster shell. The Victorian poor ate them by the barrelful: oysters were plentiful and cheap.  I pocket it, and carry on.
Stark walls of warehouses dominate the riverbank here.  Their names are painted in bold black and white – Aberdeen Wharf, Gun Wharves, Phoenix Wharf.  Inside, the vast storerooms have been subdivided into flats and offices.  At King Henry’s Stairs a new pier has been built, with a couple of luxury river cruisers tied up alongside.  But even here, the Thames is quiet and empty.  A few redundant cranes and gantries jut out over the water.  A century ago, this was the engine-house of Empire, a noisy, jostling, reeking place.  Every new tide brought a wealth of goods, and the wharves were piled high with cotton bales, timber, sugar, rubber.  Small fortunes swung in through the open doors. Dockhands staggered under their weight.  The overhead walkways, joining warehouse to warehouse above Wapping High Street are silent now, laden with little more than a pot plant and a picnic table.  The only noise comes from the buses rumbling over the cobbles of the High Street.  They pass me, and push on towards Shadwell, but I turn North, heading for Tobacco Docks. 
This is where I leave the Thames behind.  When Whistler was here, this road was called Gravel Lane, but it has changed its name and its character since.  Whistler would not recognise the ornate Anglo-Catholic church of St Peter, although he would surely have heard of its founder, Father Charles Lowder who began his mission to the Docks in 1856. A memorial plaque, set up after the vicar’s death in 1880 outlines his story.  Father Lowder’s ritualistic style of churchmanship was provocative.  In a corrugated-iron chapel filled with incense and candle-smoke, the vicar and his tiny congregation would try to live out the beauty of holiness, even when his sermons were being interrupted by dancing prostitutes and small boys throwing stones, or worse.  But by 1860 Father Lowder and his team had established a school, a soup kitchen and a ‘dirty girls club’, caring for the roughest, most vulnerable folk in his parish. Within a decade, they had built a magnificent Gothic Revival church, served by a community of celibate priests and devoted women.
Gravel Lane was grim, a breeding-ground for cholera, a culvert between the transient world of the Docks and the viciousness of the Ratcliffe Highway.  Even today, in the gathering dark, the Highway is unlovely, lined with boarded-up pubs and overgrown demolition sites. I do not feel much like lingering as I walk back towards the City.
Now as I sit at home, I half-remember a description of this area.  It is not too hard to find it in my notes. ‘The Night Side of London’ was written by J. Ewing Ritchie in 1857, just a couple of years before Whistler took lodgings near here.  Whistler’s oil-painting, Wapping, looked at the area with an unsentimental eye, noting the seedy transactions that went on around him.  Like Whistler, the writer of ‘Night Side of London’ was fascinated by the prostitutes and their clients.  He said the women were ‘wild-eyed, boisterous, with cheeks red with rouge and flabby with intemperance’.  He claimed there were hundreds of them ‘decked out with dresses and ribbons of the gayest hue’, encouraging sailors to buy them a drink.  He could not help looking and looking again, even though he found them ‘coarse and insolent’.  By his account these girls are ‘pitfalls’, they are ‘infamous’, they are ‘villainous’. 
Whistler, on the other hand, did not judge the woman he painted nor the sailor who sat with her on the balcony of a pub. Whistler had served his apprenticeship in Paris, and had certainly seen more squalid sights.  He was a young man-about-town, detached, observant, ready with his sketch-book, on the look-out for a subject that would stir the complacent Victorian art world.  Critics over the years have accused Whistler’s work of being effete, concerned only with surface pleasures.  No doubt he dressed like a dandy, and signed his pictures with a butterfly. But wherever he went, in Paris, London or Venice, he drew labourers and shopkeepers, working girls and the demi-monde.  He painted paradoxes.  His canvases were gorgeously coloured, swift and delicate, but the subjects he tackled were often gritty.   Like Father Lowder, Whistler was a pioneer, discovering beauty in the most unlikely corners of London.  They were both divisive figures, who forced their fellow Victorians to face up to their fears and prejudices.
Whistler’s Black Lion Wharf is now lost, overlaid with a century and a half of change.  So is his riverside pub, with the waters slopping against its blackened timbers.  But on my pilgrimage through Whistler’s Wapping, I felt the overlaps between his world and our own, a slippery sense of the past and present co-existing - on the wet foreshore, in the narrow spaces between the blank brick walls of the warehouses, in the faintest smell of incense from behind a closed door, in the pale smoothness of an oyster shell.                       

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this evocative description of Whistler's Wapping. I have just finished your very interesting account of Effie, the 'Model Wife'. I believe Emma Thompson is writing the screen play for a film based on Effie's unfortunate marriage, are you involved in this project too? I also wondered if you are due to give any lectures on this subject, or the Pre-Raphaelites, in the North-East as I would very much like to attend if any scheduled!


I am happy to speak to groups of all sizes. Here are some of the lectures I offer:

Please contact me on suzannefagencecooper@yahoo.com for more details about booking arrangements.

Lecture synopses:

1. Christopher Dresser: Designer for the Modern World?

In the 1930s, Pevsner hailed Dresser as a pioneer of modern design. But is this the best way to account for the extraordinary objects that he helped to create? This lecture considers Dresser’s work as a prolific industrial designer, the impact of mechanization on his products, and the diversity of his influences from Pre-Columbian pottery to botany.

2. Painting and Poetry: An introduction to the Pre-Raphaelites

Victorian painters were fascinated by the interweaving of art and literature. This lecture reveals the complex and very personal responses of artists to their favourite poets, from Dante to Tennyson. In particular it traces the idea of the ‘double work of art’ in Rossetti’s art, and in pictures by his friend Edward Burne-Jones.

3. Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Charismatic and romantic, Rossetti was one of the leaders of the Pre-Raphaelite revolution in British art. A poet as well as a painter, he wove words and images together to create a new landscape of the imagination. When his art was criticized for being too ‘fleshly’, he withdrew into his inner circle of friends and refused to exhibit in public. After his death in 1882, a mythology sprang up around his life and art: Rossetti and his wife Lizzie Siddal became icons of a new generation of rebel artists. This lecture explores Rossetti’s life and art, and considers the tensions between the ethereal and the sensual in his work.

4. New Art for the New Woman

Victorian women like Lizzie Siddal, Julia Margaret Cameron and Evelyn de Morgan, learned to negotiate the male-dominated art world. Many female artists began experimenting with new media, including photography and poster design, to create alternative images of the Victorian world. This lecture shows how, by the early 20th century, women were subverting the traditional feminine skills of book illustration and needlework to develop radical designs for the Suffrage Movement.

5. St Cecilia’s Halo: Music, Sex and Death in Victorian Art

The Pre-Raphaelites are usually thought of as literary artists. But music was also inextricably woven into the fabric of Pre-Raphaelite art. Figures on their canvases are playing music or listening to it; instruments are tucked into unexpected corners, adding an extra dimension of sound to the pictures. This lecture demonstrates the revolutionary intention of this music-making. It shows how the Pre-Raphaelites took a traditional subject, like St. Cecilia, and subverted it. Painting music helped to trigger a broader shift in Victorian art from narrative paintings towards Aestheticism, and its focus on abstract beauty, ambiguity, androgyny and sensuality.

6. The Model Wife: Women in Pre-Raphaelite Art

Who were the women whose faces gaze out at us from the canvases of the Pre-Raphaelites? This lecture explores the private lives of a revolutionary group of Victorian artists, and the haunting stories of their loves – Lizzie Siddal, Janey Morris and Effie Gray.

7. Frederic Leighton, James Whistler and the Cult of Beauty

Leighton was one of the most slippery characters in the Victorian art-world. He managed to walk a social tight-rope: he was an Establishment figure, honoured as President of the Royal Academy, for his portraits of distinguished men. But he also created some of the most disturbingly sensual images of his generation. This lecture considers the art of self-presentation in the lives of Leighton and his colleague in the Aesthetic revolution, James Whistler, as they pursued ‘Art for Art’s sake’.

8. Victoria's Secrets: Exploring Victorian London

The Victorians were well aware that there was a down-side to the great Imperial and Industrial progress that they enjoyed. In contrast to the historical and poetic fantasies of the Pre-Raphaelites, a number of artists, including Herkomer, Doré and Langley drew attention to the sufferings of the poor. This lecture looks at images of urban poverty, through paintings, photography and illustrations that were made to raise awareness of the ‘submerged tenth’ of the British population.

9. Edward Burne-Jones

Burne-Jones’s dream-like images became icons of the Aesthetic movement, disturbing and inspiring his contemporaries in equal measure. This lecture also focuses on the life-long partnership between Burne-Jones and William Morris. They collaborated on an astonishing range of projects, from book design to tapestry weaving and stained glass, flooding houses and churches with light and beauty.

10. Women and the Ideal Home

What is the truth behind the Victorian ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’? This lecture considers the relationship between domesticity and design, looks at the rise of ‘shopping for pleasure’ and the gendered decisions involved in decorating a 19th century home. It also highlights the careers of women who subverted contemporary expectations by turning home-making into a profession.

11. Pre-Raphaelite Art in the V&A Museum

The Pre-Raphaelite collections in the V&A are one of the museum’s best-kept secrets. The paintings, drawings, tapestries, tiles, and even pianos are scattered around the galleries, making it hard to get an overview of the movement. But, as this lecture shows, the decorative arts were essential in developing the distinctive style of these revolutionary Victorians. Rossetti, Millais, Burne-Jones and their colleagues moved easily from one medium to the next, creating objects – like illustrated books and stained glass - that reached a far wider audience than their easel paintings.