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The Two Ships

Impression: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Number: 143
Date: 1875
Medium: etching and drypoint
Size: 207 x 133 mm
Signed: butterfly at lower left
Inscribed: no
Set/Publication: Fine Art Society
No. of States: 5
Known impressions: 17
Catalogues: K.148; M.146; W.116
Impressions taken from this plate  (17)


barge, boat, port, river, sailing ship, sailors, ship, wharf.


Whistler's original title is not known, but published variations include the following:

'THE TWO SHIPS' (1880, Dowdeswell's). 3
'Die beiden Schiffe' (1881, Berlin). 4
'St Catherine [sic] Docks' (1881, Union League Club). 5
'Two Ships' (1886, Frederick Wedmore (1844-1921)). 6
'The Two Ships' (1909, Howard Mansfield (1849-1938)). 7

Whistler must have known about the Dowdeswell's title even if he was actually away in Venice when the etching was published, but he does not seem to have objected to it. 'The Two Ships' is therefore assumed to be the title approved by Whistler and later cataloguers.

3: Printed brochure, [January 1880], GUW #02856.

4: Berlin 1881 (cat. no. 713).

5: New York 1881 (cat. no. 135).

6: Wedmore 1886 A (cat. no.116).

7: Mansfield 1909 (cat. no. 146).


A couple of two-masted ships, sails furled, are seen from the stern, moored by a wharf and warehouses at the right. A small row-boat lies to left of the outer ship. Behind them, further to the left, is the faint outline of a sailing barge and in the centre, another sailing ship. In the distance the masts and rigging of shipping are indicated with a network of vertical and horizontal lines. There are a few figures roughly indicated, two on the wharf and others on the decks of both ships.


Samuel Putnam Avery (1822-1904), in his catalogue for the Union League Club in 1881, mis-spelt the site as 'St Catherine Docks' but Frederick Wedmore (1844-1921), in 1886, asserted that the scene was the St Katherine Docks, which is the correct spelling. 8 These were commercial docks built by Thomas Telford in 1824-28. They were part of the Port of London, in Wapping, on the north side of the river Thames, east and downstream from the Tower of London.

8: New York 1881 (cat. no. 135); Wedmore 1886 A (cat. no. 116).

As planned, the area would consist of three basins, surrounded by seven-storey blocks built right up to the wharf, with open arcades on the ground floor, and separating the three docks, wharves with lower, two-storey warehouses, also open at ground level. 9

9: City of London, (accessed 2008).

A print of the first ship entering the new docks on 25 October 1828 shows, on the right, a six-storey building enclosing an arched arcade opening onto the wharf, and, on the left, a long two-storey building with a central tower, and with a covered arcade along the front, fronting onto the wharf, and sheltered by a sloping roof. St Katharine Docks were not large enough to accommodate big ships and were amalgamated with the neighbouring London Docks in 1864. In 1909, the Port of London Authority took over their management. Badly bombed in the second world war, they were closed in 1968, and later sold to the Greater London Council. The area adjoining Tower Bridge has now been completely rebuilt. 10

10: wiki/ #StKatharineDocks (accessed 2010).

All that can be seen in Whistler's etching is a fairly low, roofed building on the right, and a lot of distant ships. The low buildings dividing the three basins of St Katharine Docks may be what appears, rather summarily sketched, in Whistler's print. However, the distant ships in Whistler's etching really look too far away, and it may be that it was actually drawn from a boat on the Thames itself.