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Steamboats off the Tower

Impression: Freer Gallery of Art
Freer Gallery of Art
Number: 156
Date: 1875
Medium: drypoint
Size: 154 x 225 mm
Signed: butterfly at upper right
Inscribed: no
Set/Publication: no
No. of States: 4
Known impressions: 9
Catalogues: K.149; M.147; W.114
Impressions taken from this plate  (9)


barge, boat, castle, port, river, rowing boat, sailors, ship, steamboat, wharf.


There are two radically different forms of the title, for example:

'Custom house Wharf' (1870s, Whistler). 2
'From the Custom House - Thames' (1870s, Whistler). 3
'From the Custom House' (1881, Union League Club). 4
'Steamboats off the Tower' (1886, Frederick Wedmore (1844-1921)). 5
'Steamboats off Tower' (1887, Whistler). 6
'Steamboat off Tower (1890/1892, Beatrice Whistler (1857-1896)). 7

It is not absolutely clear why Whistler changed the title, or which is best. The original title 'Custom house Wharf' could be confused with that of Custom House [179], while 'Steamboats off the Tower' could be confused with Steamboat Fleet, Chelsea [155].

However, 'Steamboats off the Tower' has become the generally accepted title and does reflect the two conspicuous elements in the view (steamboats and the Tower of London).

2: Written on Graphic with a link to impression #K1490101.

3: Written on a later state, Graphic with a link to impression #K1490308.

4: New York 1881 (cat. nos. 131, 132).

5: Wedmore 1886 A (cat. no 114).

6: Whistler to T. McLean, 17 May 1887, GUW #13011.

7: List, [1890/1892], GUW #12715.

Steamboats off the Tower shows the Tower of London as a white building on the right. Confusingly, Custom House [179], also called 'The White Tower', shows the Tower as black. It is quite possible that the records of these two prints have been confused at times.


A river scene, with two people sitting in a rowing boat in the foreground. Dominating the scene, just to left of centre, are two steamboats, The one on the left has two masts and a furled sail, and appears to be getting up steam; the one on the right is a paddle steamer with a single funnel and mast. In the distance, at far left, Thames barges are moored with their sails furled, while in the centre there are several two- and three- masted sailing ships. To right there is a wharf with derricks and behind it, the silhouettes of tall buildings. A number of rowboats are tied along the wharf. At far right is another small skiff with three figures standing on it or on a jetty behind it.


This is a view of the river Thames in London, possibly from Custom House Wharf. The Custom House was on the north bank, on Lower Thames Street. Immediately to west was Billingsgate, and to the east, the Tower of London and St Katharine's Dock.
A tower looming over the buildings to right was identified by Howard Mansfield (1849-1938) as the Tower of London. 8

The view east from the Custom House could include boats off the Tower, and the Tower itself, and the entrance to St Katharine's Dock, which would account for the various titles given to this etching. 9

The spire may be that of the church of St Paul, Dock Street, not far east of the Tower of London, or St Mary's, Cable Street, which is further east. The view is now completely obscured by more recent buildings.

8: Mansfield 1909 (cat. no. 147).

9: Custom House Wharf, Photograph, National Maritime Museum, MacFee Collection, N29700, repr. at http:// (accessed 2008).