IN THE YEAR 1860, during the reign of Queen Victoria, the expatriate American, James McNeill Whistler, sat down by the London docks to sketch a crowd on a ferry boat. The result, a small etching called Penny Passengers, Limehouse is one of Whistler’s rarest works. It is currently on view in the exhibition An American in London: Whistler and the Thames at the Freer Gallery of Art. The frequent ferry boats from Limehouse would take passengers, for a penny, upriver or across the river Thames. The price was low: twelve pennies made one shilling, and twenty shillings, one pound sterling (£). A penny would buy, for instance, a loaf or two of bread. The wages for these passengers and sailors could well have been between 20 and 25 shillings a week, although many earned much less.


THE ART CRITIC Frederick Wedmore said that they were ‘standing in a large ferry-boat, or little steam packet, that is to cross the River’ but since the boat itself is not visible, the people could be standing on a pier awaiting the ferry. It is a vivid sketch, unfinished (at least there is a lot of space left empty) and it is likely that it was the quick record of a scene that changed completely within minutes as the ferry set off across the broad river.  



Penny Passengers, etching and drypoint (G.71)

Image credit © Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution

(Acc. No. 1898.299)


ONLY FIVE impressions of Penny Passengers, Limehouse are known though Whistler may have planned more. It is little known and has rarely been exhibited. Thus it is a treat to see it at the Freer/Sackler in the context of Whistler’s studies of the river. and the men and women who worked by or on the river, or crossed it daily on their way to work. The river was a vital highway, the lifeblood of what was then the busiest port in the world. This etching shows barges, a side wheel paddle steamer, small sailing boat and masses of larger sailing boats moored in midstream.

THE FIGURES are as varied as the boats. There are women in summer bonnets trimmed with ribbons and lace, one carrying a parasol, and men in the extremely tall top hats of the period. Two men wearing caps may be sailors. Finally one man has a low-crowned, wide-brimmed straw hat, of the sort Whistler wears in his self-portrait, Whistler with a hat of 1859 – drawn a year before the Penny Passengers.




Whistler with a hat, drypoint (G.44)

Image credit © Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution

 (Acc. No. 1898.289)  

HOWEVER, in one photograph Whistler is seen in the sort of headgear associated with London clerks and businessmen: a bowler hat. A photograph, taken about this time, shows him with curly locks barely suppressed under a slightly rakish bowler.  It’s a great photo and not surprisingly, Dan Sutherland chose it for the cover of his excellent new biography of Whistler, A Life for Arts Sake (Yale University Press, 2014). The controversial Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (Detroit Institute of Art) acts as a fantastic backdrop to the artist, who looks as if he has just spent a long night in the pleasure gardens, watching the same rockets.





AND a final note: When the Whistler show opened at the Freer Gallery in May, there was a preview one evening featuring Victorian dress (a lot of crinolines and bonnets) and moustaches and bowler hats were given out to the visitors. Rejecting the moustaches, my colleague Patricia de Montfort and I sported dapper bowlers. Our companion, Howard Kaplan, entered thoroughly into the spirit of the evening, while researching a Whistler blog for the Freer : see his Mother’s Day blog at http://bento.si.edu/from-the-collections/american-art-from-the-collections/mother-knows-best/


Whistler 2014

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.


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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