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Limehouse

Impression: Freer Gallery of Art
Freer Gallery of Art
(1888.33)
Number: 48
Date: 1859
Medium: etching and drypoint
Size: 128 x 204 mm
Signed: 'Whistler' at lower right
Inscribed: '1859' at lower right
Set/Publication: 'Thames Set', 1871
No. of States: 6
Known impressions: 82
Catalogues: K.40; M.39; T.39; W.37
Impressions taken from this plate  (82)

KEYWORD

barge, barrel, harbour-master, ironwork, public house, riverscape, sailors, sailing ship, worker.

TITLE

There are minor variations in title, as follows:


'Curtis Gin' (1861, V&A). 1
'The Thames near Limehouse' (1861, R.A.). 2
'Limehouse' (1863, Whistler). 3
'Vue des bords de la Tamise' (1863, Salon). 4
'Limehouse' (1871, Ellis & Green). 5
'Limehouse' (1874, Ralph Thomas, Jr (1840-1876)). 6
'Limehouse, on the Thames' (1881, Union League Club). 7


The earliest titles, 'Curtis Gin' (taken from a signboard on a warehouse at right) and 'The Thames near Limehouse' are not certainly Whistler's; the first may have been suggested by Francis Seymour Haden, Sr (1818-1910) when he sold the etching, and the second is a descriptive title, possibly suggested by an exhibition organiser at the R.A..

Whistler's preferred title was 'Limehouse'; it was published in the 'Thames Set' under this title, and this was accepted by the majority of later cataloguers.

1: V&A Register of Prints, p. 32.

2: London RA 1861 (cat. no. 975).

3: Whistler to W. H. Carpenter, 3 August 1863, GUW #11109.

4: Paris S-d-RefusÚs 1863 (cat. no. 2756)

5: A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on The Thames .

6: Thomas 1874[more] (cat. no. 39).

7: New York 1881 (cat. no. 55).

DESCRIPTION

To left of centre there are three massive buttressed timber mooring posts and behind these, numerous boats, one with sail partly unfurled, and three figures at work on them. In the right foreground is a large barge, with a man kneeling at work on the bow; it is moored in front of a warehouse at the right, beyond which extends a row of Thames-side buildings, one with the sign 'CURTIS GIN'. Behind this are the masts and rigging of a large two-masted sailing ship, and to left, in the distance, sheds and shipping. A man stands in the doorway of the warehouse at right, hands in pockets, in front of a large barrel on a trestle. Beyond this is a bow-fronted building, with a small balcony, and, around the top, the partial lettering, '...UR MAS...' (that is, the central part of a sign reading HARBO]UR MASTER). In front of this, a woman is climbing steps from the barge to the wharf.

SITE

Limehouse Reach on the River Thames in London runs all the way from Shadwell to Millwall. Limehouse itself is an area on the northern bank of the Thames opposite Rotherhithe. It lies between Shadwell to the west and the Isle of Dogs to the east, and centres roughly on Narrow Street, which runs behind the Thames wharves.
Whistler was looking east away from Wapping, with the harbour master's house closest to him (hence the '...UR MAS...' on the building) then the pub and in the distance Broadway Wharf itself. The Harbour Master's house was demolished in 1923 but eventually replaced with a building that has a similar bow-fronted fašade. 8 The view is, as usual, reversed in Whistler's print.

8: J. G. Birch, Limehouse through five centuries, London, 1930. p. 98, house repr. f.p. 100.

The harbour-master's house was at No. 37 Fore Street, Limehouse, between the pub, The Bunch of Grapes, at No. 36, and William Shelbourne lighterman, at No. 38. Fore Street then ran between Limehouse Bridge Dock east to Three Colt Street, the Regent's Canal Dock Office and Dockmaster.
Curtis Gin Distillery Co. Ltd., whose signboard is visible in the distance in Whistler's etching, had premises on the Mile End Road in Stepney. Charles Curtis, distiller, was listed as resident at 6 Assembly Row, on the Mile End Road, in the London Post Office Commercial and Professional Directory for 1851. The firm was a London-based distiller well into the 20th century. A 1950s poster reads :
'THE GIN without a Parallel / Those who KNOW ... know Curtis Gin the world over'.
Limehouse, the Harbour-Master's house and the pub were popular subjects in art and literature well into the 20th century. The Bunch of Grapes featured as the pub called the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters in the novel Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (1812-1870) (1864-65), where it was described as 'A tavern of dropsical appearance… long settled down into a state of hale infirmity ... the whole house impended over the water'. 9

Views include Percy Noel Boxer's 1910 etching Wharves at Limehouse, Charles Napier Hemy's painting, The Harbour master's house, Limehouse of 1901, and Joseph Smith's watercolour The Harbour Master's house, Limehouse, 1934. 10 Broadway Wharf was also painted by Hemy, etched by W. L. Wyllie and appeared in a Wills cigarette card of about 1900! 11

9: See The Grapes website at http://www.thegrapes.co.uk or try the bar menu.

10: Peter Marcan, Artists and the East End. A survey and catalogue of twentieth century artists representing the East End of London, High Wycombe, 1986, pp. 20, 21, 33, 59.

11: i.e. Hemy, The Limehouse Barge Builders and Limehouse Hole, 1870s. Thanks to Martin Hopkinson for exhaustive research on this site.

DISCUSSION

The National Maritime Museum commented that '[Whistler] worked directly with his subjects and by doing so, succeeded in highlighting the existence of a working-class maritime community in the city of London.' 12

12: http://www.nmm.ac.uk / collections (accessed 2008).

It is possible that Whistler could have known the painting A Thames Wharf by Samuel Scott (1702?-1772) 13 which was on sale in London in 1865 and acquired for the young Victoria and Albert Museum in 1866, originally attributed to both Hogarth and Scott. The complex composition, with its straightforward depiction of dockers, a cluttered wharf, carts and shipping, as well as the higgledy-piggledy brick and board buildings, makes an interesting comparison to Whistler's etching. 14

13: V&A FA.249[O] at http://collections.vam.ac.uk (accessed 2012).

14: Samuel Scott , Bicentenary catalogue, Guildhall Art Gallery, 1972, cat. no. 39. Again, thanks to Martin Hopkinson for this reference.