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Custom House

Impression: Freer Gallery of Art
Freer Gallery of Art
Number: 179
Date: 1878
Medium: etching
Size: 84 x 190 mm
Signed: no
Inscribed: no
Set/Publication: no
No. of States: 1
Known impressions: 8
Catalogues: K.150; M.148; W.128
Impressions taken from this plate  (8)


architecture, barge, castle, city, customs-house, river, sailing boat, port, wharf.


This etching has been given conflicting titles at different times:

'A Riverside Sketch' (1886, Frederick Wedmore (1844-1921)). 3
'Coustom House' [sic] (1887/1888, Whistler). 4
'Custom House' (1890/1892, Beatrice Whistler (1857-1896)). 5
'Customs House, Thames' (1903/1935, possibly Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958)). 6
'The White Tower' (1903, Obach & Co.). 7
'The White House' (1903, Wunderlich's). 8
'The White Tower' (1905, ISSPG). 9
'Custom-House' (1909, Howard Mansfield (1849-1938)). 10
'The White Tower' (1910, Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932)). 11

Both the Custom House and the White Tower of the Tower of London appear in the view, which explains the various titles. The 'White Tower' is clearly visible but looks black in this view, but this really does not help in distinguishing it from another Thames view, Steamboats off the Tower 156, which shows the Tower as white.

Custom House is the preferred title. It is Whistler's earliest title, adopted (with corrected spelling and an added hyphen) by Mansfield, and differentiates it from any other etching.

3: Wedmore 1886 A[more] (cat. no 128).

4: List, [August 1887/1888], GUW #13233.

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

6: Envelope containing copper plate, Hunterian Art Gallery.

7: London Obach 1903 (cat. no. 105).

8: New York 1903b (cat. no. 96).

9: London Mem. 1905 (cat. nos. 128, 301).

10: Mansfield 1909[more] (cat. no. 148).

11: Kennedy 1910[more] (cat. no. 150).


A view of the north bank of the Thames, reading from left to right, includes the Tower of London, the pillared portico of the London Custom House and, at right, the slim tower of a church. Across the centre of the scene, two small sailing boats, several rowing boats and a Thames barge are moored in the river.


At far left is the Tower of London. In front are the wharves of St Katharine's dock on the River Thames. The view is taken from the east, looking west up the Thames (the view being reversed as usual in the printing). The church tower is the church of St Catherine's.
Etching: c_K150_01
The Tower of London from London Bridge, 2011.
Photo © M.F. MacDonald, Whistler Etchings Project.
However, Joseph Pennell (1860-1926) wrote that it was a view of the Tower from near London Bridge on the Surrey side of the Thames, and that the spire was St Dunstan's. 12

It is certainly taken either from London Bridge or from a two-storey building nearby (the view is taken from well above river level).

12: J. Pennell, n.d., draft catalogue (cat. no. 150), Library of Congress, Pennell Collection, Box. 353.

The Tower of London dates back to the 11th century, when William the Conqueror built a massive stone fortress by the Thames. It was extended with walls, buildings, bastions and a moat, particularly under the Tudors, and at various times housed a palatial royal residence, the Mint, the Armoury, a prison, barracks and a zoo, Ordnance and Record offices, the Crown Jewels, beefeaters and ravens. During extensive and controversial restoration and 'mediaevalisation' of the buildings in the 19th century some important buildings were restored, including the Chapel of St John in the White Tower, but in addition some of the original buildings were destroyed to ensure uninterrupted views of the White Tower. The Tower of London became a huge tourist attraction in Victorian times, and by 1901, half a million people a year visited the site. 13

13: See the highly entertaining Tower of London website at (accessed 2011).

It may be that the proposal to build a high level bridge (which is now Tower Bridge) across the Thames near the Tower of London impelled Whistler to record the view before it was interrupted. 14

The Custom House was on Lower Thames Street, London, EC3, on the north (city) side of the river Thames. It was built, burnt, replaced, collapsed, repaired, blown up, rebuilt, bombed, restored, and extended over several centuries. The sixth incarnation was built by David Laing between 1813 and 1817 and extended between 1825-1827 by Robert Smirke (1781-1867), who added the central pillars that are conspicuous in Whistler's etching.

14: 'Proposed High-Level Tower Bridge', The Times, London, 25 March 1878, p. 4.


In 1859 two tourists, Samuel Carter Hall and his wife described it on a trip along the Thames:'The long facade of the CUSTOM-HOUSE next attracts the eye, with its noble esplanade, adjoining Billingsgate Market ... Here is transacted the principal business of our enormous London trade, and no more striking picture of the vast importance of our city can be given than this always busy scene presents'. 15
The Tower of London and the Custom House represent the ancient political power of London, and its contemporary economic and mercantile power.