Whistler and the Thames: Personal glimpses

Price's Candle Factory [166]

Price’s Candle Factory, 1876/1877, drypoint (G.166. state 3/13)

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC (1943.3.8486)

WHILE we were hanging the Whistler exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, the local curators and technicians enjoyed identifying sites and situations shown in Whistler’s prints and paintings. One curator said that she and her parents had gone to Price’s Candle Factory, on York Road, Battersea, to buy candles when she was young. Price’s website gives the history of the firm (now based in Bedford) at  http://www.prices-candles.co.uk/history. Early publicity emphasized the quality of the light and ‘aesthetic’ beauty of Price’s candles. Whistler’s fine drypoint shows the array of warehouses, chimneys, and waterfront of the London works on the south side of the Thames. It also includes a barge, a small sailing boat, and – very faintly – three people in a rowing boat (who had apparently rowed away or sunk, or whatever, by the time Whistler completed the etching).

The Pool [49]

The Pool, 1859, etching and drypoint (G.49, state 6/6)

Colby College Museum of Art (2013.474).

WHISTLER’S friend William Michael Rossetti remarked that the artist’s etchings ‘have always shown a marked propensity for shore-life, river life, boat-life, barge-life – for everything which hints of old wharves, jetties, piers, rigging, bow-windows overlooking reaches of the peopled-stream, and that class of hard-fisted, square-shouldered, solid and stolid-faced men, on whom the odour of tar and tobacco is equally incorporate.’ (The Reader, 4 April 1863). Viewers recognised the river men, as vivid and familiar as characters in a Dickens’ novel. When the ‘Thames Set’ was finally published in 1871, an art critic, F.G. Stephens, wrote that ‘in Rotherhithe, ‘a skipper and his mate, smoke sedately, without the remotest idea on conversation’, and in The Pool, ‘a waterman in a lumbering wherry … is evidently sitting with some complacency for his “picture” as the artist willed’ (The Athenaeum, 26 August 1871).

EVEN today the truth of Whistler’s vision is appreciated by the successors of Whistler’s watermen. When he was hanging the etchings in the first room of the exhibition at Dulwich, the senior picture handler – Will Easterling – mentioned that both his father and grandfather had been watermen. His father Ray was a champion rower, winner of the race for Doggett’s coat and badge in 1960, and had competed in the Thames barge races. After seeing the Thames etchings at the Tate in 1994, Ray Easterling commented that Whistler’s etchings were the only ones that gave a true picture of what the Thames bargees and watermen were like – of what it was like to be a waterman working on the river at that time.  He thought the Whistler images were wonderful, giving a real and true picture of life on the Thames.



A video, starring myself (and Whistler, and my co-curator, Patricia de Montfort)!: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ctaRY3TxnU&feature=autoshare

M.F. MacDonald and P. de Montfort, curators: ‘An American in London: Whistler and the Thames’, Dulwich Picture Gallery, 16 October 2013 – 12 January 2014: http://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/exhibitions/coming_soon/whistler_in_london.aspx

Margaret F. MacDonald, Grischka Petri, Meg Hausberg, and Joanna Meacock, James McNeill Whistler: The Etchings, a catalogue raisonné, University of Glasgow, 2012, online website at http://etchings.arts.gla.ac.uk.

 The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, 1855-1903, edited by Margaret F. MacDonald, Patricia de Montfort and Nigel Thorp; including The Correspondence of Anna McNeill Whistler, 1855-1880, edited by Georgia Toutziari. Online edition, University of Glasgow.http://www.whistler.arts.gla.ac.uk/correspondence

Glasgow University Library at


Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow at http://www.huntsearch.gla.ac.uk/Whistler

Freer/Sackler, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC at http://www.asia.si.edu/

Colby College Museum of Art at http://www.colby.edu/academics_cs/museum/collection/whistler/

The Art Institute of Chicago at http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/artist/Whistler,+James+McNeill

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC at http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/


Richard Dorment, Daily Telegraph:


Katherine Tyrrell’s Art Blog:


Eddy Frankel, Timeout:


Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times:


Adrian Hamilton, The Independent:


Martin Ballie, The Art Newspaper:


Ben Miller, Culture24:



About mfmmacdonald

I am an artist and art historian, and my research is focussed on the work and life of James McNeill Whistler. Based in the School of Culture and Creative Arts, University of Glasgow, I am Director of the Whistler Paintings and Etchings Projects. These blogs are informal, and, I hope, interesting and even quirky discussions of individual works and events related to Whistler.
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