Thursday, May 17, 2007

Whistler Month: The Thames Set, Etching Papers and watermarks

Limehouse (1859)
Print (etching), 12.76x 19.9cm platemark; 14.0 x 21.4cm sheet
James Whistler (1834 - 1903)
Art Gallery New South Wales (purchased 1898)

Whistler was a very gifted printmaker and produced numerous etchings, lithographs and dry-points between the 1850s and the turn of the century. I love drawing but I have no experience of etching or making prints. However I think learning more about this aspect of Whistler (and printmaking processes - see end) will be one of the main benefits for me of this Whistler month - and this blog post is very much a record of my explorations.

I'm also taking the opportunity to find more images of the etchings of the River Thames near my home - with images this time of Limehouse and Billingsgate. Looking at the ways different people have represented the River Thames is becoming a very strong area of artistic interest for me.

The Thames Set - sixteen etchings of scenes on the Thames

I referred to the Thames set of etchings in my earlier Whistler Month blog post "No day without a line". This is an extract from the Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook about Whistler and his Thames Etchings.
In May 1859, Whistler left Paris for London and explored the area bordering the Thames, particularly around the old docks and wharves at Wapping, Rotherhithe and Lime house. He "looked at the banks of the Thames as Meryon had looked at the banks of the Seine hemmed in between the high buildings of Paris". When these etchings of the Thames were published in 1871 as 'The Thames Set', a review in 'Punch' referred to the "tumble down bankside buildings from Wapping and Rotherhithe to Lambeth and Chelsea - where all is pitchy and tarry, and corny and coally, and ancient and fishlike". Like Meryon before him, Whistler had chosen an old and decrepit area of the city with the memories of generations of inhabitants.
Billingsgate (1859)
Print (etching); 15.2 x 22.5cm platemark; 20.0 x 27.4cm sheet

James Whistler (1834 - 1903)
Art Gallery New South Wales (purchased 1938)

"Billingsgate" is featured in Edward G. Kennedy's book, The Etched Work of Whistler, first published in 1910. It features Whistler's signature and the date "1859" in the bottom center.

His compositions involving boats remind me very much of those of John Singer Sargent. He's taken to the water and the prow of the boat he's drawing from is part of the composition. He's alongside and amongst the boats - rather than viewing them from the bankside. The etchings have very strong graphic qualities - as one might expect. The NGA exhibition "An Artist Abroad" essay comments on the influence of Japanese prints thus.
Whistler’s growing admiration for Japanese art can be seen in his adoption of a flatter space, and the silhouetting and cropping of subject matter in several of the ‘Thames set’ etchings.
This is what Greg and Connie Peters' site (a very comprehensive site for anybody interested in historical prints) has to say about the Billingsgate print and the compositional issues.
n August of 1859 Whistler lived in both Wapping and Rotherhithe, close to the London Docks and that busy area of the Thames called 'The Pool'. During the following two months he created eight etchings (including Billingsgate) upon this subject. Each of these path-finding etchings explore then uncharted waters. The docks, barges, ships, workers and adjacent buildings were brilliantly analyzed by Whistler in patterns of both horizontal and vertical lines and spaces. In Billingsgate, for example, the vertical presence of the foreground barge and the standing figures directs our eyes to the tall buildings and masted ships in the background. These very vertical elements are countered by the bridge in the background.

When P. G. Hamerton printed this impression of Billingsgate in 1880 he wasn't quite sure of certain aspects of the composition. Echoing the sentiments of many at this time he wrote,
"The peculiar state in which the artist has chosen to leave the larger foreground figures in this etching has in some instances led to indignant protests... I do not like either the ghostly larger figures or the foreground barge, but the etching contains many excellent passages. The buildings and the quay to the left, with the small figures, are full of curious work, both very observant and very original. There is a harmony in the thin lines of the masts and in the festoons of the converging cables which approaches poetical synthesis." (Philip Gilbert Hamerton, Etching and Etchers, London, MacMillan and Company, 1880, p. 231.)
Many critics thus missed the truly revolutionary aspects of Whistler's art. Beginning with etchings such as Billingsgate, James Abbott McNeill Whistler was the first artist to recognize that the eye and brain cannot focus upon near and distant objects at the same time. In his etched art, this realization led to a complete re-examination between line and form and light and shade. The path that began with these 1859 Thames etchings culminated in Whistler's Venice etchings of the early 1880's, etchings which many scholars now term of the first works of truly modern art.
The National Gallery of Australia also has a wonderful essay on its website about Whistler's Papers that he used for printing and their watermarks and countermarks.
(Whistler) was one of the first artists to exploit the qualities of the newly available ‘Oriental’ papers which were exported to Europe following the reopening of Japan to commerce in 1854. Whistler valued their textural and tonal qualities, and the unique print impressions he was able to achieve with the Japanese papers he managed to secure. He was also obsessed with searching for ‘old’ European papers, particularly those he classed as ‘Dutch’. Whistler liked paper which had already degraded, saying that suitable paper would be recognisable by the smell of the decaying size, which ensured its softness; he even admired and accommodated ingrained surface dirt.
This webpage provides images of the watermarks found on the papers used by Whistler plus a description of what each represented.

Note: And finally........for those who, like me, are still learning about the different processes for making prints here are some links to sites which set out to explain the different processes. I'm just beginning to wonder whether I can manage to do etching given the tenosynovitis problems I have with my drawing hand.
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  1. This is fascinating Katherine. Etching does sound like an entrancing adventure...perhaps you are the one to develop techniques that make it accessible for people with your condition!

  2. Yes, very interesting. I must look him up at the library. My husband's mother came from a family of Thames boatmen and we have a little painting by an unknown artist. Thanks for your comments on my blogs - I did see Ian Paisley and 'his friend' on TV - amazing! though I think it has mostly come about due to vastly improved economic conditions rather than any real care for the other side. Still, my Granny would be astonished. I'd love to meet up if/when you come to Canberra. What keeps your sister out here?

  3. Excellent post, as always, K. Bravo for printmaking! Between your wonderful art, and your tireless research and generous sharing of the results, I never miss this blog.


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