Historical Portraits Picture Archive

View of the Thames Estuary 1865c.

Attributed to William Adolphus Knell 

View of the Thames Estuary, Attributed to William Adolphus Knell
Oil on canvas
19th Century
44 x 23 ½ inches 111.8 x 59.5 cm
Of all Britain’s rivers, the Thames is pre-eminent in its association with the capital. London has always been one of the country’s great ports, and for this reason the Thames has long been an artery of trade and communication linking London with the regions inland, and, in the period before reliable year-round roads, the thoroughfare used by inhabitants of the towns and houses along its banks. For these reasons, the Thames as it passes through London is a favourite subject of painters, whether as a facet of ideal landscape as in some many late eighteenth and nineteenth century views of the Thames at Richmond, or as in the example here, the great powerhouse of empire.

These two paintings appear most closely to resemble the work of the great nineteenth century marine painter William Adolphus Knell. They share the same concern shown in his work with the atmospheric effects of light on water and its echo in the sky above, and most notably with the sheer physical presence of ships. The details of rigging are executed with a meticulous attention to detail born of long familiarity with the subject, and to study his paintings is almost to hear the creak of the timbers and feel the swell of the water as his vessels ride at anchor or breast the choppy water. Knell’s drew on all aspects of his subject, and the two paintings here are a complimentary pair each treating a somewhat different incarnation of Britain’s marine tradition.

In the view of Greenwich and its observatory hill, captured by the sun setting to the west, the viewer is reminded by pure resemblance of views of the Venetian lagoon –. The architecture of Wren’s Naval Hospital with its twin domes, and the great blocks that front the river, seen here dissolving into a pink haze, seems lit by a more southern light than is usual in England. But the identification of Greenwich with Venice is more than visually satisfying, and it by reminding us of that former naval empire we appreciate further that, at the date of this painting, Greenwich was the great administrative centre for the Royal Navy. In the second painting the focus is not on the Royal Navy but on merchant shipping, the lifeblood of nineteenth century Britain. The sun is shown rising to the east over the Thames Estuary as it widens to the sea. Here, however, the painting concentrates upon the shipping

more than any landmark. Such is the exactitude of the depiction, that in addition to the sails and rigging we are able to make out the name W S LINDSAY on the stern of the large vessel in the middle ground. This is not likely to be the ship’s name so much as that of its owner, and here there may be a clue to the source of the original commission. William Schaw Lindsay (1816 – 1877) was a merchant and ship-owner who had worked his way from fireman on a collier and cabin-boy on a West Indiaman to ship’s captain by the age of twenty. He retired from the sea in 1840 – after being wounded in an encounter with a pirate the previous year – and took work as fitter to the Eden Coal Company in Hartlepool, which he began to establish as a major independent port with the creation of docks and wharves. When he moved south to represent his company in London in 1845 he combined a ship-broking business with that of coal-fitting and together with his brother-in-law, an iron merchant from Glasgow, established the firm of W S Lindsay & Co., which swiftly became one of the largest shipping concerns in the world. He remained in control of the company until ill-health forced him to retire in 1864.

In retirement Lindsay devoted himself to a political career – he was elected Member for Tynemouth and North Shields in March 1854 – and to writing on naval and trading law, and to producing his great four-volume History of Merchant Shippjng and Ancient Commerce from 1874 to 1876. The prominence with which the name of the company is displayed on the vessel may hint at some patronage by Lindsay or his company, but, equally, it may be that the painter was eager to record one of the great successes of Victorian maritime industry.

William Adolphus Knell was perhaps the most accomplished painter of shipping subjects in the mid-nineteenth century. His painting displays a total ‘feel’ for ships, the complete mastery of the design of vessels and for the details of their fitting and rigging that is evidenced in these paintings, as well as an understanding of the effects of light and the depiction of coast as background. The majority of his compositions are comparable. His subjects are usually placed just offshore and the landscape in the background is displayed both to give narrative context and as an exercise in painting in its own right. His talent is demonstrated to the full in subjects that combine documentary with history painting such as The Destruction of Toulon 1793 painted in 1847 and in two painting executed for Queen Victoria, The Landing of the Prince Regent at Dover and Queen Victoria reviewing the Fleet at Spithead (Royal Collection). The marine painter William Callcott Knell (fl.1848 – 1879), who worked in a similar but less accomplished manner, is believed to have
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