I love a bit of history, so I was thrilled to be asked to paint the Greenwich waterfront. Interestingly, my client did not want a contemporary view but how the area looked circa 1930.
I had a small watercolour to go on but for the greater detail, I would need to do a fair bit of research.
For this I sought the help of the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust and the good people of Greenwich via Twitter and Facebook.
That said, any errors are entirely my own.
Planning the painting
Once I had gathered all my research and interviews together, I set to work on my initial drawings. To do this I first placed myself on the opposite side of the Thames on the Isle of Dogs and took in the view. Of course, I was walking in the steps of giants such as Canaletto and JMW Turner. They had once stood on the same spot musing on how to plan their paintings.
I worked-in loose ideas, deciding very early on to exaggerate scale and perspective (I do this in all my paintings), as I like to aim for an interpretation rather than a near photographic representation. I also wanted a slightly elevated view. Google Street View is an ideal companion here and as usual, I used it as a steer rather than a trace-off. Canaletto would have loved Google Street View.
Once the broad idea was set, I worked into a detailed drawing of each building. Doing this was rather sad in some ways as it seemed a great pity they aren’t there to be enjoyed today. I am sure the people who live and work in the modern buildings on that same site would much prefer their predecessors.
But there was no time to fret, I got right on with a preparation watercolour. With larger paintings these small watercolours can be invaluable. They really help make the decisions on the broader colour and tonal values.
At last, I could begin the 110cm wide painting. At this point I was grateful for all the preparation work undertaken to get to this stage. Like many artists, I began with the sky first. Not only is it handy as it sits in the background, but it also sets the mood and colour palette for the whole picture.
Painting the Greenwich waterfront
From here it was the ‘simple’ task of working through each building and from there, the Thames. I wanted the river to look choppy, cold, and muddy too, just as it really is. Canaletto couldn’t help himself and painted The Thames as a warm, calm Venetian canal.
Finally, the rivercraft. Here I wanted to reflect the times, depicting industrial craft and those used for pleasure as well. Below, I have listed the main buildings and rivercraft of interest.
Vanbrugh Castle (unchanged today)
The home of Sir John Vanbrugh. Sir John designed the castle himself which was modelled on the infamous French prison The Bastille where he was imprisoned in 1690. You’d think he would want to forget about the place, wouldn’t you?
Sir John later went on to design many notable buildings including Blenheim place for the Duke of Marlborough.
Old Woolwich Road School (now Meridian Primary School)
Built in 1888 and extended in 1903. Damaged during enemy bombing during The Blitz.
Trinity Hospital (unchanged today)
Originally built in 1613-14 by Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, these almshouses were set up in 1613 for 12 ‘poor men’ of Greenwich and eight from his birthplace in Norfolk, hence the name Norfolk College by which the almshouses were also known.
That said, just any-old poor man wouldn’t do, They had to be at least 56 years old, not a beggar, drunkard or ‘whore hunter’ and possess an ability to recite the Lord’s Prayer unaided.
Today it is a retirement home where I assume you can be all of the above, apart, paradoxically, from being poor.
Thames Barge (CABBY-Still sailing today)
A Thames sailing barge is a sailing boat used for commercial purposes and were once common on the River Thames.
They have a flat bottom, with a very shallow draft and leeboards to help steer in shallow tidal waters and tributaries, so perfectly suited to the conditions on the Thames and the Thames Estuary.
These were the river workhorses for hundreds of years. They could be adapted to carry almost anything. With an average weight between 80 to 150 tons. A Thames barge could float in a meter of water and if left high and dry by a receding tide, would not heel over.
These boats were used well into the 20th Century when over 2000 were still on the registry.
With the advent of oil powered engines, their numbers started to steadily decline and the last wooden barge built was The Cabby launched in 1928. That said, the SB Cambria (restored and owned and operated by the Cambria Trust) was still working the Thames under sail right up to 1970.
With global warming I wouldn’t be surprised to see a version of the Thames Barge coming back into use at some point. Wind is the future!
Sun XII (Scrapped in 1969)
The Sun XII is an example of a typical London tugboat. These where the heavy lifters and shifters of the London docks, being a ubiquitous sight during the dockland’s heyday in the early to mid-20th century. This example was built by W H J Alexander Ltd in 1925.
In 1940 Albert Barnes, then aged just 14 was part of the crew of the Sun XII when it was one of the many vessels requisitioned to take part in the Dunkirk evacuation.
On the 2nd of June Sun XII set off for Dunkirk with two sailing barges in tow, one laden with ammunition, the other with fresh drinking-water. After delivering its cargo the Sun XII played a supporting role in the rest of the evacuation.
Meanwhile Albert’s mother didn’t know where her son had gone and was most pleased when, two weeks after he departed Albert knocked on the door of the family home.
“Where the hell have you been?’ my mother asked. I said ‘I’ve been to France’. “She looked amazed and said ‘You’ve never been to Dunkirk?’ and I said, ‘Oh that’s it, that’s the place.’ ‘Oh my God’ she said.
On returning to work the tugboat’s owner, Mr Alexander, inspected Sun XII and grumbled that the paintwork was dirty. That’s grateful for you!
In 1947 he left the Navy and became a bus driver in central London – a job he held for the next 43 years.
It is thought that Albert Barnes was the youngest civilian caught up in the rescue. During my research I discovered that as of 4 June 2019 Albert Barnes 93 and still with us.
The Curlew Rowing Club (since demolished)
This weatherboard building was once home to the Curlew Rowing Club, said to be the oldest rowing club on the tidal part of the river and in 1787 the club took part in the first ever Thames Regatta.
The club has since relocated to a new building a few hundred meters further upstream.
Crown and Sceptre Pub (since demolished)
A 19th century pub with fine picture windows. It later became the local Conservative Club until it was demolished in the 1930s.
The Three Crowns Greenwich (since demolished)
This was a typical Thames side pub and made the most of potential custom with entrances on the street behind and on the foreshore. It was a lovely old clapboard pub with bay windows giving great views of the Thames.
The very last landlord at The Three Crowns was Henry Lewis Plowman. He was drafted into the army in 1914 and served for four years only to die of wounds May 1918. The pub never reopened and was demolished in the 1930s.
Corbett Boats (original buildings still there though Corbetts is no longer there)
The Boat House was owned and run by J Corbett and Son who had been building boats from the mid-nineteenth century.
On this site they maintained, stored and built boats, many of these for the myriad of local rowing clubs. They also had a boat hire business so locals of all ages and fitness abilities could take their lives into their hands and row onto the industrially busy, and brutally tidal waters of the filthy Thames. Must have made great views from The Three Crowns.
I have placed some of these fine adventures in my painting.
The Yacht Tavern (Still there though massively renovated)
There has been a pub on this site for over 300 years. It was originally known as The Barley Mow when it was changed to The Yacht in the 18th Century. It is two floors now though pre-WW2 it had three floors though has lost a floor due to enemy bombing during The Blitz.
Since the refurbishment the interior has been designed to resemble a lounge bar from the ocean liner Queen Mary.
The Greenwich Yacht Club was also briefly based in the building next door, although they left in 1908.
Sundowner (Yacht Marina, Ramsgate)
This being a rich man’s motor yacht and launched on 28 June 1930, after which did its first sea trials on The Thames.
Sundowner became the property of Charles Lightoller, who was formally the second officer of RMS Titanic and the most senior officer to survive the sinking in 1912.
At the age of 66 and retired, you’d assume that Lightoller’s sea adventures would be at an end, however, in in 1940 Sundowner was requisitioned by the Admiralty to help with the evacuation of Dunkirk.
Lightoller volunteered to sail her. Also volunteering was his eldest son Roger, and Gerald Ashcroft, an 18-year-old Sea Scout! This rather odd set of heroes did their duty and saved 130 British soldiers from capture or worse.
On the hazardous trip back to England I suspect Lightoller kept it quiet about him being first officer on the Titanic!
The Trafalgar Tavern (unchanged today)
The Trafalgar Tavern, designed by architect Joseph Kay, opened in 1837, having been built on the site of ‘The Old George Tavern’. Presumably the name was coined to curry favour with the navy veterans of the Battle of Trafalgar who were then living in The Royal Hospital next door.
It was familiar to novelist Charles Dickens, who used it as the setting for the wedding breakfast in Our Mutual Friend.
Royal Hospital Greenwich (unchanged today)
In 1692 the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich was created on the instructions of Mary II. Though called a hospital, it was really a retirement home. Architect, Sir Christopher Wren and his assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor gave their services free of charge of the new Royal Hospital.
Wren didn’t live to see the hospital finished so Sir John Vanbrugh and others finished the project.
Architectural highlights include the Chapel and the Painted Hall. The Painted Hall was painted between 1707 and 1726 by Sir James Thornhill. The hospital closed in 1869
In 1873 the then empty buildings were converted to a training establishment for the Royal Navy.
The Royal Navy remined here until 1998 when the site passed into the hands of the Greenwich Foundation for the Old Royal Naval College.
Today it is home of The National Maritime Museum, a function venue and a site for film locations such as Les Misérables, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, The King’s Speech, Thor II: Dark World, James Bond’s Skyfall, The Crown and so on.
Royal Observatory Greenwich (unchanged today)
King Charles II gave the go ahead for the original part of the Observatory in 1675. Sir Christopher Wren, Britain’s finest architect of the era, was commissioned for the project. The observatory was the first purpose-built scientific research facility in Britain.
The site is the location of The Greenwich Prime Meridian where global time is measured from.
The orange ball on the top of the building was winched up in the morning of each day to be dropped at exactly 1pm so, the captains on the Thames could set their chronometers prior to leaving port to help them ascertain an accurate longitude on their charts.
These days the observatory buildings at Greenwich house the Museum of Astronomical and Navigational Tools. The exhibits include John Harrison’s pioneering chronometer, known as H4, for which he received a large reward from the Board of Longitude. You can also stand on the Meridian Line and have one foot in the West and the other in the East.
The waterfront that I painted only takes a few minutes to walk end-to-end but tells a fascinating story of the life, times and culture of pre-war Britain. The whole of the Thames is like that, and on both banks too.
The original painting now hangs in The Trafalgar Tavern.
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