Detail of Wapping, 1860-1864, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Of the man and women who participate in Whistler’s Thames pictures and prints, we know little, yet they are nearly always distinctive figures, characterised by sex, pose, class and character.  Sometimes friends posed for Whistler. Ralph and Ralph Thomas (father and son) posed as artist and admiring spectator in the etching The Little Pool (G.79). In other scenes, the local figures are rarely identified. Whistler’s boatman in The Pool (G.49) is not named, nor the dark-skinned boy in Eagle Wharf (G.50) or the handsome young workman in Black Lion Wharf (G.54).

The Lime-Burner [55]

The Lime-Burner, 1859, etching and drypoint (G.55 state 2/2)                                       Colby College Museum of Art (64.2004)

 An exception is WILLIAM JONES of W. Jones & Co., who appears in the centre of his workshop in The Lime-Burner.  The workshops were at 241 and 242 Wapping High Street, backing onto East London Lime Wharf (the Thames is seen beyond the wharf). A flat cap on his head, he wears a dark waistcoat with narrow reveres buttoned over a white shirt, light coloured straight trousers and broad work shoes. He stands with one hand in his pocket, leaning on a couple of barrels. In his other hand he holds a long stemmed pipe – possibly one of the clay pipes that litter the Thames foreshore to this day.  He is looking at the artist, serious, a little tired perhaps, quietly comfortable in his own territory.


Sketch of Wapping in a letter from Whistler’s to Henri Fantin Latour,                                        [January/June 1861] , Library of Congress, Washington DC

FOR Wapping – a vividly impressionistic paintingWhistler employed a succession of models, and changed both the arrangement of the figures and background over several years.  At first he showed three figures sitting and talking on the balcony of the ‘Angel’, a pub in Bermondsey.  The pub is still there, with its narrow balcony leaning out over the swift rushing river, and one can check out the exact position of the figures and the beer. The figure at left was Whistler’s Irish mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, who (according to the 1861 census) was staying in Greenwich with the artist, as his wife. At first he posed her leaning on the railing and looking to left over the river. Then he tightened the composition, showing her seated and turned to right, towards two men, one young, one old. Judging from a sketch drawn by Whistler for his friend Henri Fantin Latour, the men were leaning towards Jo, talking eagerly. Jo was shown as a ‘putain’ or ‘molly’ – as prostitute, mistress or courtesan.  According to Whistler, Jo’s expression was seductive but also rather bored, as if she was winking at them, and implying that she had heard it all before.

Wapping, 1860-1864, oil on canvas,

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

However, then he replaced the central man with a friend, the artist Alphonse Legros, who posed, according to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as ‘a sort of Spanish sailor’.  A boatman or sailor appears at right, identified by Whistler’s biographers, E.R. and J. Pennell, as ‘a portrait of one of Greaves’ men’,  from the Greaves’ boatyard below Whistler’s Chelsea house in Lindsey Row.  Jo, who at first had worn a brightly coloured patterned blouse, posed in a more modest outfit, her dress black velvet, her expression remote and reflective, and her hair, a glorious golden Venetian red.




Video, starring myself, Whistler (see below), and co-curator, Patricia de Montfort!


M.F. MacDonald and P. de Montfort, curators: ‘An American in London: Whistler and the Thames’, Dulwich Picture Gallery16 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 G. Toutziari. Online edition, University of Glasgow. http://www.whistler.arts.gla.ac.uk/correspondence

Glasgow University Library at http://www.gla.ac.uk/services/specialcollections/collectionsa-z/whistlerarchive/

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/

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.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s