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Black Lion Wharf

Impression: Freer Gallery of Art
Freer Gallery of Art
Number: 54
Date: 1859
Medium: etching
Size: 153 x 229 mm
Signed: 'Whistler' at lower right
Inscribed: '1859.' at lower right
Set/Publication: 'Thames Set', 1871
No. of States: 4
Known impressions: 104
Catalogues: K.42; M.41; T.35; W.40
Impressions taken from this plate  (104)


barge, barrel, brewery,fishing boats, man seated, river, sailing ship, ship, shipping, stairs, warehouse, wharf, worker.


This has basically always been known by the name of the wharf that appears at far right in the etching: however, the variations in spelling are numerous, as follows:

'BLAC- LION W--RF' (1859, Whistler). 2
'Thames – Black Lion Wharf' (1860, R.A.). 3
'Black Lion Wharf' (1863, Whistler). 4
'Black-Lion Wharf' (1871, Ellis & Green). 5
'Blac Lion Wharf' [sic] (1874, Ralph Thomas, Jr (1840-1876)). 6
'Black Lion Wharf' (1886, Frederick Wedmore (1844-1921)). 7
'Black-Lion Wharf' (1909, Howard Mansfield (1849-1938)). 8

Thomas explained his eccentric spelling by referring to the signboards as etched by Whistler: 'On the Thames: to the left we have "Hoare's Wharf;" the "Downe's Wharf," with this notice, "Old Shipping Clippers to let Every Day: Glasgow, Andrews, Inverness," ... and the wharf from which the plate takes its name "Black Lion Wharf," the k having dropped off.'
However, Whistler's title, 'Black Lion Wharf' as stated in 1863, with the 'K' and other letters in place, is the definitive one.

2: Etched on the copper plate, with some letters missing or concealed by rigging.

3: London RA 1860 (cat. no. 902)

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

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

6: Thomas 1874[more] (cat. no. 35).

7: Wedmore 1886 A[more] (cat. no. 40).

8: Mansfield 1909[more] (cat. no. 41).


In the foreground is a young bearded man sitting on a barge. He wears a jacket with many buttons, and a cap on the back of his head. He faces right, resting his left arm on the side of the barge. Behind the barge are several skiffs, one with a man standing at the stern, and, to right, a man rowing on the river.
On the far side a landing-stage juts out from the bank into the river at left. Barges and boats are moored beside it, and in front of it, near the centre, is a barge loaded with barrels.
One the far side of the river, at left, a three-masted sailing ship is moored in front of a five-storey warehouse with signboards reading 'HOARES WHARF.' and 'HORES WHARF.' To its right, a warehouse bears two signboards, 'DOWNES' to left, and to right, 'OLD SHIPPING CLIPPERS / TO LET EVERY DAY / GLASGOW INVERNES[S] / GRANGEMOUTH PETERH[E]A[D]'. There is a tall chimney behind it, derricks and mooring poles in front. Next come several ramshackle houses with goods piled in front, and a three-storey building with people on the wrought iron balconies, and, at the top of the wall, a sign reading 'ST. ANDREWS.' A narrow flat-roofed building with a large first-floor window comes next. Finally, at far right, a Thames barge with furled sail and men working on the deck lies alongside the bow of a larger sailing ship, in front of a wooden building bearing the lettering 'BLAC LION WHARF' (the 'K' omitted). A much higher black building, with a weather vane on top, stands behind this.


The man seated in the foreground has not been identified. He is a good-looking young man, sturdily built and dressed in working clothes. He was probably associated with the shipping, warehouses or the associated businesses along the wharves. Wedmore calls him a 'long-shore man' that is, a man working on odd-jobs on the shipping and riverside. 9

9: Wedmore 1886 A[more] (cat. no. 38).


In his Thames etchings Whistler mostly focussed on the sweeping curve of the north bank of the Thames, covering the wharves from East London Lime Wharf in the east to St Katharine Docks and the Tower of London in the west.
Moving west from East London Lime Wharf (at 241-2 Wapping High Street), this stretch of river-bank included the entrance to the Thames Tunnel, Tunnel Steam Packet Pier, Wapping Dock Stairs, Wheatsheaf Wharf (at No. 233 Wapping High Street), Shap's Wharf, Execution Dock Stairs, Phoenix Wharf, the Thames Police Station, Aberdeen Steam Wharf (at No. 257), Baltic Wharf (Tyzack Whitely & Co. at Nos. 266-267), Eagle Wharf (at No. 269), the entrance to Wapping Basin, Hermitage Wharf (at No. 343), Watson's Wharf, Hore's Wharf, the entrance to Hermitage Basin and London docks, then past Downes Wharf, Black Lion Wharf, Carron Wharf, and many more.
The signboards etched by Whistler indicate several of these wharves, though the spelling is not always correct. Whether this was Whistler's or the sign-painter's fault is not clear. Reynolds & Son were wharfingers at St Andrew's Wharf (No. 316 Wapping High Street). Downes & Son were wholesale tea-dealers at 135 Upper Thames Street. The sign advertising tea clippers was probably at the Old Dundee Wharf (No. 338 Wapping High Street). Finally, Hoare's wharf was at No. 354 Wapping High Street, where Peter Hore was wharfinger (the name is variously spelt ...). 10

10: Street directory, London Postal Directory, 1859.

According to Lochnan, the image was reversed on the copper plate (in which case it is unique among Whistler's etchings):
'the image in Black Lion Wharf, which was made to the east of the St Katharine's Dock, was reversed so that it appears to be the right way round in the etching. This can be determined by comparing the location of Black Lion Wharf which is to the left (west) of Hoare's Wharf in Whistler's etching, with the relative locations of these two sites on Standford's map. The etching must have been made looking across the river from the South Bank, probably from the Horselydown New Stairs. While most of the area has been demolished, the great Hoare & Co. warehouse still stands, with its old painted sign clearly visible just east of the renovated St Katharine Dock. ... The wharfs named in the etchings have all disappeared; only a few rotting and picturesque wooden piles remain.' 11


Etching: c_K042_01

Mezzotint after Whistler's Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother y101, 1878.
Whistler Collection, Special Collections, Glasgow University Library.
Black Lion Wharf was very important to Whistler, and a framed impression appears hanging on the wall of his house in Lindsey Row, behind the figure of his mother in Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother y101. 12 A detail of the painting is reproduced below.

12: M. F. MacDonald (ed.), Whistler's Mother: An American Icon, London, 2003.

Etching: c_K042_02
Wedmore described the etching as a 'fascinating plate' and said that the houses were 'the real interest of the picture'. 13 Mansfield called the houses 'picturesque'. 14

13: Wedmore 1886 A[more] (cat. no. 40).

14: Mansfield 1909[more] (cat. no. 41).

It is possible that Whistler was influenced by photography in his composition and technique, with the distance being in focus, depicted in fine detail, and the middle distance less focussed, drawn with scratchy, looser lines. Lochnan, as well as discussing the actual site, examined the spatial composition :
'While the composition appears to recede, it also reads as a flat two-dimensional pattern, and hangs in a tense and delicate balance between two and three dimensions. It is divided into three horizontal zones running parallel to the picture plane, representing foreground, middle ground and background. The background appears to recede largely because of repoussoir devices. The composition is anchored in the foreground using a large figure seated on a wharf or in a boat. The middle ground, against which the figure is silhouetted, is unworked, and reads as water. The horizon line with its warehouses is raised almost two-thirds of the way up the picture space ... areas etched in great detail alternate with areas which read as "blank" space. The eye is led from one patterned zone to the next, and from one "blank" zone to the next. The use of diagonal directional lines helps to link the three planes, and introduces a dynamic element into the composition.' 15
Chambers also discusses the compositional structure, the detailed depiction of 'smoke-blackened brick, sagging tiled roofs, rotting timber house fronts and wharves and rusting wrought-iron balconies', which represents a threatening urban environment, but is distanced and kept at bay by the low viewpoint and cluttered surroundings that emphasize the importance of the forground figure. She adds: 'The neatly lettered signs which identify the wharves and their owners also operate to fix meaning and function, to control the chaos of unregulated line.' 16

16: Chambers, Emma, An indolent and blundering art?, Cambridge, 1999, pp. 142-143.