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Old Putney Bridge

Impression: Colby College Museum of Art, Maine
Colby College Museum of Art, Maine
Number: 185
Date: 1879
Medium: etching and drypoint
Size: 200 x 298 mm
Signed: butterfly at bottom (1-5); shaded (6-final)
Inscribed: no
Set/Publication: Fine Art Society, 1879
No. of States: 7
Known impressions: 47
Catalogues: K.178; M.175; W.145
Impressions taken from this plate  (47)


barge, boat, bridge, people, river, rowing boat, sailing boat, tree.


All the titles specify 'Putney Bridge' but with one variation, as follows:

'Old Putney Bridge' (1879, R.A.). 2
'Putney Bridge' (1879, Grosvenor Gallery). 3
'Old Putney Bridge' (1879, Whistler). 4
'Putney Bridge' (1887, Whistler). 5
'Putney Bridge' (1886, Frederick Wedmore (1844-1921)). 6
'Old Putney Bridge' (1909, Howard Mansfield (1849-1938)). 7

The title 'Old Putney Bridge' distinguishes it from the two smaller views of Putney, Little Putney Bridge 186, and The Little Putney 187. The title presumably refers to the age of the structure, because there was at that time no 'new' bridge.

2: London RA 1879 (cat. no. 1233).

3: London Grosvenor 1879 (cat. no. 285).

4: Written on .

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

6: Wedmore 1886 A[more] (cat. no. 145).

7: Mansfield 1909[more] (cat. no. 175).


The wooden bridge runs right across the plate, above centre. On the bridge there are people and vehicles, including a coach or horse-drawn bus with people on the roof. Four of the piers of the bridge are shown, the far left one being the narrowest (possibly beside the Fulham shore), and the far right pier, which Mansfield describes as having two iron columns, being partly visible. 8 A narrow barge, with two small triangular steering sails at the stern, is heading upstream under the widest span, to right of centre. Behind the barge, a sailing boat is seen by the far river bank. The trees of a wood come right down to this bank. Trees and a house are seen on the river bank at the left. In the lower left corner are two rowing boats. A man, his back turned, and a woman facing him are seated in the boat on the left. The artist probably sat in the boat on the right, of which only the bow is visible.

8: ibid.


Putney Bridge spanned the river Thames between Fulham and Putney. Fulham Palace on the north bank was the seat of the Bishops of London. Work started in 1738 to replace an earlier pontoon bridge. It had twelve massive wooden piers, which protruded on each side of the carriageway in v-shaped points into the Thames. With Wandsworth and Hammersmith bridges, it was one of the last toll-bridges over the Thames. By 1880 it was severely dilapidated. It was replaced by a bridge of Cornish granite designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, which was opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1886.
The river was broad, with vigorous currents and a noticeable tide, but it was popular with amateur boating parties as well as small working craft. Whistler drew the view from a boat on the river, with a boatman steadying the boat.

Putney Bridge was a good site for viewing the sculling and boat racing on the Thames, including the University Boat Race, which took place between Putney and Mortlake in April. The river was much cleaner than in the East End, or around the Pool of London, and a Times correspondent noted: 'wonderful accounts of fish being caught at London-bridge, Putney, &c., consequent on the improved condition of the water since the sewage has been carried to Crossness and Barking Reach.' 9

9: John Bartlett, to the Editor, 22 October 1879, 'Pollution of the Thames', The Times, London, 23 October 1879, p. 7.

A few years after etching the bridge, Whistler also painted a watercolour, Putney Bridge m0874.


This is one of several important etchings depicting the Thames bridges, including Old Westminster Bridge 047, Vauxhall Bridge 075, Westminster Bridge in Progress 077, Old Hungerford Bridge 076, Chelsea Bridge and Church 102, London Bridge 172, Old Battersea Bridge 188 and Little Putney Bridge 186. Whistler also explored the subject of the Thames bridges extensively in lithographs, paintings and drawings (see Old Battersea Bridge 188).
It may be that Whistler considered etching the bridges of both Paris and London, and thus competing with or complementing the subjects explored by Charles Méryon (1821-1868), and Whistler's mentor, Auguste Delâtre (1822-1907). However, the only Paris bridge Whistler etched was not completed (Isle de la Cité, Paris 063). Méryon's etching Le Pont-au-Change of 1854 is one of several that would have been known to Whistler, and which are interesting to compare in composition and technique with Whistler's Old Putney Bridge and Old Battersea Bridge.
Marcus Bourne Huish (1843-1904) at first rejected Whistler's etching of Old Putney Bridge as representing a 'tumble down bridge', although that was, undoubtedly, part of its appeal. 10 Whistler was directly appealing to a nostalgic public, and to people who were interested in the history of the Thames. When Whistler etched this site he would have known that the bridge was due to be replaced. He was thus recording yet another site on the Thames before it disappeared.

10: Huish to Whistler, 14 March 1879, GUW #01098.

In Venice in 1880 Whistler continued to explore the theme of bridges, in etchings such as The Bridge, Santa Marta 201 and Ponte Piovan 220. Finally, in Amsterdam, he included several bridges, such as Bridge, Amsterdam 447 and Little Drawbridge, Amsterdam 448.