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The Thames Set

Whistler’s second print set, “A Series of Sixteen Etchings of the Thames,” known as the Thames Set, published a dozen years after the French Set, brought together plates that were mostly executed at the time of Whistler’s arrival in London, in 1859.

His subject matter was the dodgy and dirty life in the Docklands area along the south bank of the river Thames. The docks and industrial sections of Rotherhithe and Bermondsey were the most squalid and dangerous parts of London. Whistler settled in nearby Wapping for almost two months. He became immersed in the life along the river. “On the Thames, he worked tremendously,” said his friend Thomas Armstrong, “not caring then to have people about or to let any one see too much of his methods.”

"Black Lion Wharf," 1859, Etching on paper, Rosenwald Collection, Courtesy National Gallery of Art

"Rotherhithe," 1860, Etching and drypoint on paper, Rosenwald Collection, Courtesy National Gallery of Art
"Thames Police," 1859, Etching and drypoint on paper, Rosenwald Collection, Courtesy National Gallery of Art
"Old Hungerford Bridge," 1861, Etching and drypoint on paper, Rosenwald Collection, Courtesy National Gallery of Art

"The Lime-Burner," 1859, Etching on paper, Rosenwald Collection, Courtesy National Gallery of Art

Click on image to advance the slides.

The characters he drew represented the everyday life he had learned to embrace in Paris. He wanted to portray the docks, warehouses, workshops, barges and bridges along the decaying banks that would soon be torn down. Whistler looked at them in much the same way Charles Meryon (1821-1868) did when that artist made a series of etchings of old Paris, soon to be demolished for the modern city planned by Napoleon III and his architect Baron Haussmann.

The areas around Wapping and Rotherhithe fascinated Whistler, as they did Charles Dickens, recounted in his novel, Our Mutual Friend:

The wheels rolled on and rolled down by the Monument and by the Tower, and by the Docks, down by Ratcliffe, and by Rotherhithe; down by where the accumulated scum of humanity seemed to be washed from higher ground, like so much moral sewage.

Whistler was prescient in his choice of subject as there was a strong market for pictures of the Thames. When the Thames Set was finally published in 1871 it received positive reviews and sold well. The magazine Punch, declared the etchings “all the more precious because the beauties they perpetuate are dying out … Whistler has immortalized Wapping, and given it the grace that is behind the reach of anything but art. Let all lovers of good art and marvelous etching who want to know what Father Thames was like before he took to having his bed made, invest in Whistler’s portfolio.”

Whistler thought so highly of the prints in the Thames Set that he included one, Black Lion Wharf, in the background his 1871 masterpiece Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother. Others thought highly of it as well. Frederick Wedmore, the most important critic of contemporary printmaking in London during the 1870s, wrote “The portfolio opens with a characteristic specimen, Black Lion Wharf–a work decisive and precise in execution, emphatic where emphasis is needed, brilliant in contrast of dark and light, delicate in the handling of unobtrusive passages, slight and sketchy in the treatment of episode.”

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