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Westminster Bridge under Construction
Tate, London 2014
Richard Wilson (1713/14-1782)
Westminster Bridge under Construction
Dated 1744
Oil on canvas
72.5 x 146 cm
28 x 57 1/2 in.
The view is from Parliament Stairs down to the river along the Westminster side of the Thames, looking north. On the left is St Stephen's Chapel, seat of the House of Commons, and behind it Westminster Hall, separated from the Thames by Cotton's and Speaker's Gardens. Westminster Bridge, still under construction, crosses the river and St Paul's Cathedral appears in the distance beyond Lambeth timber yards and barge houses on the right.
London, Cardiff and New Haven, 1982-83 (5); London Tate Gallery, 1987-88 Manners and Morals (126)
F.A. Durell; by descent to his great-grand-daughter, Joan Durell-Stables; bequeathed 1980 to a relative, by whom sold to Spink & Son; purchased by the Tate Gallery with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund 1983
Inscribed on wall lower left: R Wilson 174[4?]
Wilson painted this view of Westminster Bridge under construction in the early autumn of 1744. It was begun in 1739 following the designs of the Swiss architect Charles Labely. The bridge was passable to pedestrians and traffic from 21 July 1746 and opened officially in 1750. It was one of the major civic projects of the century. From its unfinished state here, a start date of May-September 1744 may be inferred for this picture. As shown it is practically complete on the Westminster side but only the abutment is ready on the Surrey bank. Over the central arch (seventh from the left) a statue of one of two river gods, Thames and Isis, is shown, though neither was actually installed.
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[1] Samuel Scott (c.1702-1772), The Building of Westminster Bridge, c.1742, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven and numerous other versions
[2] Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768) Westminster Bridge, with the Lord Mayor's Procession on the Thames, 1747, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven
When Wilson painted the picture he was still working principally as a portrait painter. However, his attention to the broad sweep of scenery surrounding the bridge and sensitive rendition of light show his profound interest in landscape long before he went to Italy in 1750. The work may be seen as a typical product of the English rococo style, with continental roots, including the compositional formula of a Venetian veduta, plus a pair of elegant foreground figures, in the manner of François Gravelot (1699-1773), a Parisian draughtsman and engraver who worked in London between 1733 and 1746. Gravelot played a major pedagogic role at the St Martin's Lane Academy, where Wilson is reported to have been in regular attendance. The long narrow shape of this painting suggests that it may have been intended originally as an overmantel.
C. Labelye, Description of Westminster Bridge, 1751; WGC, p. 180 (unpublished version of pl. 44a); Solkin 1982, pp. 146-47; The Tate Gallery 1982-4: Catalogue of Acquisitions, pp. 83-84, repr.; P.J. Kerber, Eyewitness Views: Making History in Eighteenth-Century Europe, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2017, p. 123, fig. 125
'Old' Westminster Bridge, replaced in 1862.
The building of the bridge, though much resisted by vested interests such as the City merchants and Thames watermen, greatly increased the convenience of travelling within the metropolis, especially between the north and south banks and Westminster and the City. The architect, Charles Labelye, named the 20 July 1746 as the date when the last arch was keyed, making the bridge passable for pedestrians and horses (Description of Westminster Bridge, p. 75). Evidence of the continuing function of the watermen at this date, however, is obvious from the boats plying the river. By the mid-19th century, the bridge was subsiding badly and becoming expensive to maintain. The current bridge was designed by Thomas Page and opened in 1862.
Visual examination and sampling by Ann Baxter 1982. Glue-relined, original tacking margins removed.
Kate Lowry has noted: Ground is light beige in colour and has a grainy texture. Fine dark grey-brown lines place the forms. Brownish grey dead-colouring. Main paint layers are quite thin. Ultramarine blue found in the sky.