J.M.W. TURNER R.A.
A View of London and the River Thames from Vauxhall with Westminster Bridge
Private Collection, UK
On loan to the Tate Gallery 2001-2003
London, Tate Gallery, Turner and Venice, 2003, no26
Fort Worth, Kimbell Art Museum, 2004, no 26
Ian Warrell, Turner and Venice, no 26, p. 46, illus. colour
In this airy watercolour the twenty-one-year-old Turner takes up a theme that was to preoccupy him all his life: the River Thames. In 1790 at the age of fifteen he had announced himself as an ambitious young topographical artist by exhibiting, in his debut at the Royal Academy, a view of The Archbishop’s palace, Lambeth (now in the Indianapolis Museum of Art), in which he portrayed a venerable Thames-side building, the Gatehouse of Lambeth Palace, with small boats drawn up at the water’s edge nearby. Here, six years later, he broadens his sights to include not only the Lambeth Gatehouse, which appears at the far right beyond a timber wharf, but the whole expanse of the river as it flows towards Westminster, with the Abbey, Westminster Hall, and the Banqueting House in Whitehall prominent on the farther side. Along the shore in the distance stretches the elegant classical façade of Sir William Chambers’s Somerset House, home at that date to the Royal Academy and its annual exhibitions. Turner’s viewpoint is upstream from Lambeth, and he supplies an unambiguous indication of where we are standing by inscribing ‘Vauxhall’ on the boat in the foreground.
Such views of London from across the river had of course been staple fare for a century or more. By the early 1790s many distinguished examples had appeared, the work of topographical artists like Edward Dayes, William Marlow, and Joseph Farington. Farington’s illustrations to the History of the River Thames were published by Boydell as a series of fine aquatints by J.C. Stadler in 1796, and it was Farington’s drawings, more than any other artist’s, which perpetuated the style and spirit of the greatest eighteenth-century creator of London views: Canaletto. Bringing with him from Venice a love of scintillating panoramas featuring water and architecture under luminous skies, Canaletto endowed smoky London with a brilliant Mediterranean grace and sparkle, while by implication anointing the capital as the natural successor to Venice as a world centre of commercial power.
These ideas were important for Turner, too. He picks them up here in a typically insouciant, gentle way. He emphasises the width of the river and its bright overarching sky, and gives due emphasis to Westminster Bridge, which, as a new feature of the London scene in Canaletto’s day, had figured prominently in his accounts. But, as in his view of the Lambeth Gatehouse, Turner peoples the scene with lively local characters: in particular, we watch the ferrymen at work, hauling in a boat, or taking a party of well-dressed travellers across the water, perhaps returning from a visit to the pleasure gardens for which Vauxhall was famous. Prominent among the other types of craft are the brown-sailed Thames barges that carried goods up and down the river and round the coasts of south-east England. All these details build up into a closely observed and remarkably comprehensive record of the life of the river.
About the time he painted this view, Turner made another watercolour showing the Thames from even farther upstream, near Battersea church (it is in the Turner Bequest, Tate Gallery, TB XXXII A). He seems to have done it from memory, for a pupil to copy; it is a testament to his love of the river, and prophetic of his own end, for the steeple of Battersea church could be seen from the bedroom of the little riverside house in Chelsea where he was to die over half a century later, looking out over the Thames with the same creative excitement that he had brought to it in his youth.