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London: Westminster Bridge (The Thames, Westminster Bridge under Construction)
Philadelphia Museum of Art: The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928
Richard Wilson (1713/14-1782)
London: Westminster Bridge (The Thames, Westminster Bridge under Construction)
1745
Oil on canvas
81.6 x 137.2 cm
32 1/8 x 54 in.
M1928-1-43
P10A
The view is from Parliament Stairs down to the river along the Westminster side of the Thames, looking north. On the shore an elegant couple, boatmen and bathing boys from Westminster School are seen. To 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, BI 1847 (100), lent Revd H. Palmer; London, Somerset House, July-October 1977, London and the Thames (31)
Robert Palmer (d.1787) London attorney and principal agent to the Duke of Bedford, Hurst Lodge, St Nicholas Hurst, Berkshire and Great Russell Street, London; by descent to 1916; John Howard; McFadden collection, Philadelphia; Philadelphia Museum, 1928
Signed and dated: R. Wilson | 1745
Westminster Bridge was begun in 1739 following the designs of the Swiss bridge engineer and mathematician, Charles Labelye. One of the major civic projects of the century, it was passable to pedestrians and traffic from 21 July 1746 and opened officially in 1750. From its unfinished state here, a date of 1745 for the picture seems accurate. As shown, the bridge 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) one of two proposed statues of river gods, Thames and Isis, appears, 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 portraitist. However, his attention to the broad sweep of scenery surrounding the bridge, and the 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, combining a Venetian veduta with elegant foreground figures, in the manner of Hubert Gravelot (1699-1773). This Parisian draughtsman and engraver worked in London between 1733 and 1746 and played a major pedagogic role at the St Martin's Lane Academy, where Wilson is reported to have been in regular attendance. Slightly postdating P10, this work shows the bridge with some piers and the beginnings of an additional arch towards the right but wooden centering still under the adjoining four arches. The symbolism of its layout, with the bridge reaching out between the seats of temporal and spiritual power on the left and right respectively is difficult to ignore.
Robert Palmer, the first owner of P10A, acquired his country seat, Hurst Lodge, in 1742 and it is possible that the painting was hung there as a visual reminder of his profitable London activities.
C. Labelye, Description of Westminster Bridge, 1751; Roberts, Connoisseur, January 1919, pp. 6-7, repr.; WGC, p. 180 pl. 44a; Solkin 1982, pp. 146-47 under cat. 5
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.
W.G. Constable noted that the signature lay in the original paint film but that the date might have been repainted or reinforced. In 1982, David Solkin noted that the painting was much damaged.
21/01/2021