Exhibitions: Monet's London: Artists' Reflections on the Thames, 1859–1914

The River Thames
In the nineteenth century, London was the capital of the British Empire and one of the world's most populous cities. The Thames, the tidal river that cuts through the city's center, was essential to its growth and wealth. As the terminus of global trade routes, the Thames received shipments from around the world, stored in a series of massive docks east of the city's center. Barges arrived as far as the Pool of London, whose deep water could accommodate them, and their goods were then distributed upstream and throughout the city by means of lighters (long barges steered with a single sweep oar) and the distinctive Thames sailing barges with sails of red cloth.

Descriptions of the river's waters have ranged from the writer Oscar Wilde's poetic evocation of "a rod of rippled jade" to the novelist Henry James's more realistic accounting of its "brown, greasy current" with "black, sordid, heterogeneous shores."

As early as the eighteenth century, with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, London began to be known as the "big smoke," because of an atmospheric effect often remarked upon: "The Smoke of London, first viewed from a distance, affords a sight which strikes a foreigner with astonishment." By the nineteenth century, the Thames itself had become so polluted with raw sewage and industrial waste that the hot summer of 1858 was dubbed the Great Stink. With over two hundred tons of fine soot entering the London atmosphere daily, one writer in the satirical journal Punch remarked in 1888: "Not only is the obscurity of a London fog a hindrance, the senses of taste and smell are adversely affected by the bizarre mix of coal smoke and the odours of sludge and rotten eggs. Every object feels greasy and viscous to the touch'd."

Massive urban developments were initiated to address these conditions, including the building of underground sewers alongside the river, over which embankments were constructed that allowed for attractive new boulevards and parks. New bridges were built across the Thames and old ones rebuilt. Indeed, much of what the visitor sees in London today is the result of this nineteenth-century building campaign. Some artists documented the reconstruction, considered one of the greatest engineering projects of the nineteenth century and employing nearly twenty thousand people. Others were drawn to the mystery of the fog and to the intriguing colors that, ironically, resulted from the presence of pollutants.

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Exhibition Highlights

David Roberts: The Houses of Parliament from Millbank James McNeill Whistler: The Last of Old Westminster