boat, bridge, Japonisme, man standing, river, worker.
The subject, Westminster Bridge, figures in the known titles:
'Westminster Bridge (building)' (1870s, Whistler). 2
'Westminster Bridge' (1881, Caxton Club). 3
'Westminster Bridge in Progress' (1886, Wedmore). 4
'Westminster Bridge in Progress', a variation on Whistler's original title, was accepted by all later cataloguers.
Extending right across the top is the curve of a long, narrow wooden-framed bridge, supported on piles. On top of this, at intervals, there are hut-like structures that may support derricks. Through the bridge, at left, two spans of a wrought-iron-framed bridge are visible. A small boat is visible between the nearest wooden piers. Across the river, at far right, are a few buildings.
In the left foreground is a landing stage with a railed wooden walkway extending behind it. A man leans on a bollard to right of the railings with arms and legs crossed, facing right. He wears a long slim-fitting coat and a tall top hat, and carries a cane or umbrella. At the bottom of the plate, to right of centre, is the head and shoulders of a man wearing a low-crowned hat, smoking.
The original Westminster Bridge was a wooden structure designed by but soon abandoned. A many-arched stone bridge designed by the Swiss architect was opened in 1750. London seen through an arch of Westminster Bridge (1747) and Westminster Bridge under Construction (ca 1850), both by , 5 show the wooden framework that underpinned the stone. By the mid-19th century it was crumbling, but, according to The Times:
5: Syon House, Middlesex, UK: www.bridgemanart.com (accessed 2012).; Royal Collection RL 7562. www.royalcollection.org.uk
'the old bridge, at about the cost of a new bridge, was at last made as firm as a rock, and about as sightly ... once this pleasing result was obtained, and it was definitely known that the bridge was safe and would stand for ever, immediate arrangements were of course entered into for pulling it down, and at the same time building a new bridge'. 6
The current wrought-iron bridge was designed by Thomas Page and work commenced in 1854. In 1859, Whistler etched a distant view of Big Ben, and the Houses of Parliament, including the bridge, Old Westminster Bridge 047, as reproduced below.
Although the first half of the bridge was completed by December 1859, management problems in the Board of Works delayed its opening. Meanwhile, asserted The Times: 'The half-ruined obstruction which spans the river at Westminster is an obstruction still, and grows worse each hour by comparison with the gentle curve and broad level roadway of its successor'. 7 By January 1860, three piers at the eastern end still remained to be completed for the new bridge, 'the old abutments being directly in their way', and it was another year before completion of the piers and abutments was expected. 8 The last arch of the old bridge was finally removed on 25 April 1861.
7: The Times, 12 January 1860, op. cit.
The method of construction was to drive massive iron piles into the bed of the river, with iron plates driven down between them, to form a coffer dam, from which the mud was removed, and into which heavy wooden piles were driven. The spaces were filled with concrete, and the whole foundation topped with slabs of granite. These supported the ornamental piers to carry the arches, which started at the low-water mark. 9
9: 'New Westminster-Bridge', The Times, 26 April 1861, p. 5.
The angle from which Whistler drew the bridge is not clear, and Lochnan rightly remarks that it seems to combine more then one view. 10
The new bridge appears to be visible through the wooden scaffolding, at some distance away. However, this may partly be explained by the fact that the side near to the Houses of Parliament was finished before the other side. The gap would eventually be bridged by 'a number of short stay pieces of cast iron', topped by iron plates, and the roadway itself, plus a broad footpath. 11
The current seven-arch wrought-iron bridge, 76.2m long, was officially opened on 24 May 1862. 12
A year after etching Westminster Bridge in Progress
, Whistler painted the scene. The Last of Old Westminster
y039 was probably painted between February and August 1862. It is a view of the nearly completed bridge from a higher viewpoint, the rooms of Walter Severn
(1830-1904) in Manchester Buildings (later the site of New Scotland Yard). It shows the same fan-like array of wooden supports, the piers thrusting out into the Thames, and the trellis-like frame-work above the roadway, as in the etching. The jetty seen in the foreground of the etching may have been the 'ricketty steamboat pier which spanned the mud-bank' below Severn's flat. 13
10: Lochnan 1984[more].
11: 'New Westminster-Bridge', The Times, 27 February 1862, p. 5; Lochnan, op. cit.
12: ibid; see also 'Westminster Bridge', The Times, 22 September 1860, p. 9; The Times, 'New Westminster Bridge', 26 May 1862, p. 9.
13: Severn quoted in Pennell 1908[more], I, pp. 100-1.
In the early 1870s Whistler returned to the site, painting an oil, Nocturne: Grey and Gold - Westminster Bridge y145, and in 1896 he painted a distant view from the Savoy Hotel in a small watercolour, Westminster from the Savoy m1471.
In the left foreground stands a man, an indication of human scale against the broad bridge, who is the typical flaneur, observing and observed.
The similarity between Whistler's etching and Japanese prints has been noted by several writers. Lochnan writes:
'The attenuated horizontal shape of the etching, which is more than twice as long as it is high, recalls the oban format of Japanese prints. The bridge seems to be viewed from multiple vantage points like bridges in Japanese prints. With its slightly arched shape and decorative struts it recalls the wooden bridges of Hokusai and Hiroshige, as well as a woodcut by Shuntosai in one of Whistler's Japanese books entitled Fireworks over Bridge from Cinsen, 1857. Westminster Bridge in progress ... may well have been intended as an experiment in adapting the Japanese method to the drawing of bridges.' 14
Okada Shuntosai, Cinsen (Doban Hosoye Shu)
Whistler Collection, The Hunterian, GLAHA 18792.
A series of views of famous sites of Edo, Cinsen (Doban Hosoye Shu)
by , which was in Whistler's collection, includes two views of a bridge. 15
One scene (reproduced above) shows a bridge from above, with pedestrians and carts on the bridge, ships below, and Mount Fuji in the distance to left.
15: Book, 31 sheets, 130 x 258 mm, prints 68 x 121 mm.
Another (reproduced above) shows the curve of the bridge across the centre of the plate, the roadway crowded with pedestrian traffic, fireworks above it, and boats in the river below, flanked by stylised landscape features, including roofs across the foreground. It is quite possible that this album was kept safe by Whistler at the time of his bankruptcy; it was certainly in his possession at the time of his death.
Other woodcuts that he could have known, but not necessarily at an early date, include The Festival of Lanterns on Temma Bridge
(1824/1834) and Tokaido Okazaki Yahagi-no-hashi
(1827/1830) by Katsushika Hokusai
(1760-1849), which show a rather stylised, decorative composition, centering on the curve of a steeply sloping bridge. 16
The woodcut, Yahagi Bridge, Okazaki (Okazaki yahagi no hashi)
by Ando Hiroshige
(1797-1858) shows a gently curving bridge seen slightly from above, much more like Whistler's etching Westminster Bridge in Progress
16: e.g. Brooklyn Museum 17.109 at http://commons.wikimedia.org/ wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum; B.M. 1937,0710,0.185
at http://www.britishmuseum.org (accessed 2012).
17: e.g. B.M. 1906,1220,0.809