Igniting inspiration

The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October 1834 by JMW TurnerThe Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October 1834 by JMW Turner

Our capital city has drawn artists from all over the world to portray its famous river. Join historian Jef Page this month to hear about those for whom the Thames has been a source of delight and artistic inspiration.

For my talk on famous paintings of London this month, I will show a wide range of pictures from the 18th to the 20th centuries.

Giovanni Antonio Canal – better known as Canaletto (1697–1768) – was a star Venetian artist, but he travelled to London to seek even wider fame and fortune, and crucially arrived here with letters of introduction to the highest strata of society. His painting The Thames and City of London from Richmond House (1747) from the Duke's house in Whitehall shows the river's sweep with tiny brushstrokes – still and blue and glassy, ladies strolling along the river's terrace, a Venetian galley having travelled all the way here and distant St Paul's dominating the skyline.

More violent is JMW Turner's (1775–1851) treatment of The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 16 October 1834. The picture is a dazzling, swirling, frenzied riot of colour: yellows, reds and oranges as the fire burned out of control and Turner actually got into a boat to view the fire from different viewpoints.

Artists painted along the Thames and in Trafalgar Square with differing amounts of success. Claude Monet (1840–1926) arrived in London as a refugee from the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). The most famous of the Impressionists, he painted The Thames below Westminster (1871). His London is grey and murky, the river painted in short stabbing strokes. In the background, the newly built Houses of Parliament are lost in the mist of a foggy day, the figures on the wooden jetty are indistinct. As his success and sales grew and he got older, he returned to London from 1900 to 1903 to paint a series of pictures of the Houses of Parliament with the form of Big Ben disappearing into a soft haze of colour. On the steps of the National Gallery, James Tissot (1836–1902) – he anglicised his name from the French Jacques Joseph Tissot – painted a more mysterious picture, London Visitors (1873). At least, it was to the critics who didn't like it.

By contrast to the misty gloom of the capital, Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) portrayed the bright, dappled sunshine of Hyde Park (1890) as it flickers through the trees alongside Rotten Row lined with carriages. The foliage is all greens, oranges and yellows, while the shadows are in soft mauves and pink dabs.

In contrast to these grand scenes of buildings and famous parks, I will also show a quiet suburban scene: Harry Bush's (1925–1994) oil on panel of The Tiled Kitchen (1954). His daughter, Janet, is seen washing up in her SW19 kitchen: the green and white tiled wall, lino on the floor, knobbly old fashioned 1930s-style taps, electric light and kettle and a pantry cupboard full of pots and pans – a real-life kitchen-sink drama.

Jef's talk, which is organised by Vision RCL, will take place on 24 August from 7pm to 9pm at Wanstead Library (free; booking required). For more information, call 020 8708 7400


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