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“Sweet Thames, run softly”: Constructing a Clean River

David Skilton

This paper explores different modes of constructing the urban scene, and gives examples of how images move between what were once thought of as separate realms, including literary and non-literary texts, literary and non-literary illustration, academic painting, journal articles, and debates on reform and the improvement of the capital. To give coherence, it carries out these tasks in relation to one specific area, and hence also becomes the story of changes to that area, the riverfront between Hungerford Bridge and Somerset House, since the eighteen-twenties. It looks at a number of artistic presentations of the area in question, and in doing so, brings to our attention some of the different ways artists choose to construct a so-called ‘representation’ of a scene, and how their available choices overlap with the choices all city-dwellers make as to what they pay attention to as they move about their environment, and how they construct their own account of what they are looking at. That is to say that I intend this paper as a contribution to our understanding of urban perception, and in particular some of a Londoner’s modes of perception of the urban scene. It builds on an earlier paper on urban perception, ‘Sites Unseen: The Visibility and Invisibility of London Monuments’,[1] in which I argue these matters in greater detail with relation to a number of literary texts, and to the paintings of Leon Kossoff. What follows, therefore, is a story about urban perception, as well as a narrative about the great Victorian clean-up of the Thames and the building of the Victoria Embankment after the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858, and it involves tales of sewers, embankments and underground railways.[2] The meanings produced by the pictures in question are inextricably bound up with the materiality of the London scene over the period in question.

Until Queen Victoria’s reign, if you wanted to travel from Westminster to the City of London, you either walked, since the Strand and Fleet Street were choked with vehicles and riding was not a quick option, or you descended one of the sets of ‘stairs’ to the River and called ‘Oars!’ or ‘Sculls!’; whereupon you were beset by competing watermen, crying ‘Oars!’ or ‘Sculls!’ in their turn. When, on the other hand, characters in Trollope’s novels, The Way We Live Now of 1874-75 and The Prime Minister of 1875-76, wish to make the same journey, they take the Underground railway, pictured here a dozen years later in the American Century Magazine, accompany an article by Henry James, which is nowadays reprinted in his English Hours (fig. 1).[3]


By the 1870s, the watermen were largely a memory, although they had once been vital to the life of the capital. With the fading dominance of the Honourable Company of Watermen and with their picturesque form of transport, there also disappeared the old stairs between Westminster and Blackfriars, leaving the York Water Gate, which once led to York Building Stairs, isolated below ground level in Victoria Gardens at the bottom of Buckingham Street, stranded far from the river by the reclamation of thirty-seven acres of land in the building of the Victoria Embankment.


There might seem to be reasons for the Gate being tucked away out of sight by Victorian improvers. George Villiers and his son, another George Villiers (and, like his father, a royal favourite), were corrupt even by the standards of Stuart England. The dukedom and the estate were swept away at the death of the second Duke in 1687, and their world followed soon after. When the Water Gate was marginalised by the Victorians, a potentially shameful episode of history was suppressed, and even the name of James I’s lover-favourite was eventually partly eliminated, with the disappearance of some of the elements of his name, originally celebrated in George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street, Buckingham Street and Of Alley. – only two of which survive. On the other hand, Joseph Bazalgette’s plans at one time envisaged moving the gate to the new water’s edge, and the decision to leave it almost out of sight may be the result of the already great cost of the Embankment scheme, which eventually totalled £1,014,525.[4]

There is certainly no concealment in John O’Connor’s The York Water Gate and the Adelphi from the River, a highly finished oil, some sixty centimetres by over a metre, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1872 after the building of the Embankment (fig. 3).[5]


Between the painting of a watercolour sketch and the exhibition of the oil, Victoria Embankment has been constructed, along with Hungerford Railway Bridge and Charing Cross Station, and, of course, the underground — the station then, and for a hundred years or so, being called ‘Charing Cross’ and not ‘Embankment’, as it now is. Here Inigo Jones’s structure is presented in all its glory — perhaps more than all its true glory, in fact. And here is a black and white photograph of O’Connor’s watercolour, done in 1861, before the Embankment was built (fig. 4).


The watercolour is now in the National Gallery of Ireland, and a comparison between it and the oil is instructive, as some minor but interesting manipulation has taken place between the two. O’Connor has slightly changed the viewpoint, dropping it so that the Gate seems larger and more imposing in the later version. The extreme dereliction of the steps up from the water has been somewhat mitigated, and a few broken panes of glass made less prominent. As far as costume and the surroundings are concerned, it remains a scene of 1861, albeit somewhat idealised. The biggest change is the inclusion in the oil of a larger extent of the waterfront, so that the eye is invited past the Adelphi, which appears in both the watercolour and the oil, and our gaze is attracted down river, past Somerset House in the background, towards the greatest port in the world, bathed in a brilliant light, so that the sweep of English history and patriotic hints of trade and empire are inescapable. Significantly the painter had waited until work was complete on the new Embankment and the railway terminus, so that, even though the scene had disappeared, the hints of national glory were utterly appropriate to the splendid new scene, a monument, if ever there was one, to Victorian wealth and engineering. Visitors to the Summer Exhibition of 1872 were therefore presented with a canvas which gratified them at more than one level, recreating a rather shabby sight in appropriately new array, while celebrating enterprise and ‘progress’, and promoting the kind of nostalgia which we recognise in the ‘heritage’ industry then and now.

O’Connor also painted a direct celebration of the new Embankment, seen from the terrace of Somerset House, in which a well-dressed mother leans on the balustrade of the terrace of Somerset House to enjoy the new view (fig.5).[6]


To the eye which knows no past, the scene celebrates prosperity in the well-dressed spectators, a modern, well-administered, clean London, and order and empire represented in the detachment of Guards marching along the Embankment. To the knowing eye, it is paired with The York Water Gate in having a narrative: the story of the building of the improvements brought about by wealth, know-how and a readiness to embrace beneficial change. In contrast to the stories generated by so-called Victorian ‘narrative paintings’, the narrative of recent history which O’Connor generates is one which it is still easy to adopt as though it were neutral: the feat of engineering is impressive; the scale of the work equally so; the pioneering development of underground railways still a subject of national pride. The great sewer is, so say those who know it from the inside, a thing as striking in the beauty of its design as in its civil engineering. The narratives of this great engineering work embody an awareness of the shared experience of change, which identifies viewers as part of a community. Moreover, at the time, this set of narratives of development would have generated a shared sense of being Londoners, together with an ideological belief in the qualities of ‘Englishness’, including faith in the supremacy of British engineering and the British economy; and a shared feeling about the turbulent age of the Stuarts and the Buckinghams, as a stage in that account of the progress of the nation which we call ‘the Whig view of history’, and find embodied in Macaulay. Thus, by a little exaggeration and some subsequent manipulation, O’Connor’s image of the York Water Gate becomes a celebration of the present and of ‘progress’, and a grand piece of heritage nostalgia.

There are more important ways in which the image is misleading, such as the couple apparently boating for pleasure. Here is a description from 1858 of the state of the foreshore at Hungerford Stairs:

[A]ll who would have an idea of the extent to which the Thames is used, should visit the landing-place at Hungerford-bridge on a fine Sunday evening. The day had been cooler than some days previously; nevertheless, the stench at different points was frightful, and produced a sickness which lasted until the next morning. Bad as was the state of affairs at the time referred to, the watermen at the landing-places said the air was ‘lavender’ to what it had been. Early in the morning, they continued, when the first steam-packets begin to move about, the smell is enough to strike down strong men.[7]

Punch famously printed a series of cartoons of the stinking River, and prominent in a number of them are the bloated bodies of dead dogs, indicating what became a theme in descriptions of the Victorian Thames. We shall be returning to them. Joseph Bazelgette’s Embankment works were carried out in response to these horrors, and under his new Embankment he ran a modern sewer, a tunnel for utilities and the underground railway. A full appreciation of what was there before these reforms can be obtained from a few more quotations from George Godwin’s Town Swamps and Social Bridges of 1859.

Whilst examining in the summer the north shore of the Thames from the Houses of Parliament to London-bridge (a most unpleasant task), we made a rough measurement at about the time of low water, and are disposed to think that there is an average breadth of 100 feet of the most putrid soil skirting this edge of our great city for some hours each day. We are told by several persons who are employed in this neighbourhood, that in parts the deposit is more than six feet deep: the whole of this is thickly impregnated with impure matter, and at the opening of such sewers as have not been passed into the river below low-water mark, the condition is too bad for description. (p. 52)

The standards of the age were less stringent than ours, as can be seen from the report that ‘[f]ifteen or sixteen years ago the Thames water was not so bad, and persons on the river did not hesitate at dipping in a vessel and drinking the contents. Such a thing would now be like an act of insanity …’ (p. 53) Yet already in 1834 a witness told the House of Commons Select Committee on Sewers that the heavy matter in Thames water imparted to the stomach a particular feeling ‘which we call weight’.[8]

It was held by those who resisted reform that noxious matter was taken out to sea on the tide, but those who lived by the River knew better:

During the discussion of the mode to be adopted in draining London, the assertion that sewage-matter is washed backwards and forwards by the tide, and is long before it gets out to sea, was derided. The fact, however, is unquestionable. Look at the next sketch [fig. 6].


It shows the way in which a dead dog, under our own eyes, travelled. We thought he would get away: however, after a time, and after whirling and resting amongst the posts and barges, the dead dog came again in sight, moving against the tide, but much nearer to the shore; he turns off again towards the sea, and returns this time much sooner than the last; and after describing various circles, as shown by the arrows in the sketch, he is deposited in the slime, together with other specimens of his own and allied families (p. 56).

Here is a second dead dog:

An artist living on the banks of the Thames, near Lambeth, says, ‘I like to look out at the beautiful river, for in an artist’s eye it is still beautiful at many times of the day, and often my pleasure has been marred by dogs and cats: I have seen a dog one morning floating past — he has come back again with the next tide, and for several days I had only to look at my clock in order to know the position of my visitor; he was larger each visit, and at last disappeared.’ (pp. 56-7)

Though dead dogs persisted for many years, much did disappear with Bazelgette’s great works, including the arches under the Adelphi, immortalised in the third of Augustus Egg’s famous trilogy, ‘Past and Present’ (1858), in which the adulterous wife is seen for the last time, in the words of the Athenaeum’s critic, ‘under the dark grave-vault shadow of an Adelphi arch — last refuge of the homeless sin, vice and beggary of London … There was never such moonlight painted as fromt hat loathsome sewer arch you see mantling the yellow river with liquid gold’.[9] The river no longer ran past these arches, which, like the Water Gate, were now fenced in and sanitised.

Bazalgette’s scheme for the Victoria Embankment was not the first by far to envisage embankments along the Thames containing intercepting sewers, and directing the metropolis’s sewage well away from built-up areas. In 1850, John Martin, the ‘sublime’ painter, print-maker and illustrator, estimated that over 160 schemes had been proposed over the years since 1828, numbers, first, and most notably his own, envisaging intercepting sewers more-or-less as eventually built.[10] Walter Besant later gave the whole credit for the idea of the intercepting sewers to John Martin, underplaying Bazalgette’s engineering solutions to problems Martin had not faced, including the material of which the sewers were to be built.[11] Martin illustrated the 1827 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost to great acclaim, and one of his best known illustrations, because he recycled it later as a spectacular oil, depicted Pandaemonium, ‘the high Capital / Of Satan and his Peers’ (756-6), from Book One of this edition (fig. 7).


In Martin’s mezzotint Satan is pictured surveying the scene as the palace of all the devils, or Pandaemonium, rises from the Burning Lake:

Anon out of the earth a Fabrick huge
Rose like an Exhalation, with the sound
Of Dulcet Symphonies and voices sweet … (710-12)

In a review of Southey’s edition of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Macaulay takes John Martin to task for subordinating his protagonists to their setting in all his illustrations, and is particularly displeased with this mezzotint: ‘Mr. Martin has … forgotten that Milton’s Pandaemonium is merely the background to Satan. In the picture, the Archangel is scarcely visible amidst the endless colonnades of his infernal palace.’[12]

John Martin also worked on a very large scale at oil paintings of Biblical and historical scenes, often depicting the fall of great civilisations, such as Nineveh and Babylon. Scenes like this were often interpreted as warnings of the fall of London and the British Empire. All the while, at least from 1828, Martin worked at his proposals for Civil Engineering projects to improve water quality and sewage disposal in the capital. These two activities were closely linked, and it is significant that when giving evidence in support of his scheme to build embankments and intercepting sewers on both banks of the Thames, to the House of Commons Select Committee on Sewers in 1834, he argued the role of bad sewage management in the collapse of agriculture in ‘Egypt, Assyria, the Holy Land, the South of Italy, &c.’,[13] contributing to the collapses of great empires, which he portrayed in his famous canvases. In this he was a direct heir of Volney’s The Ruin of Empires.[14] Not only does his belief that the fall of a civilisation can be prevented by correct government echo Volney’s famous project to convince legislators that reason can produce ideal schemes of government which will enable states and empires to avoid the errors of the past, and so endure for ever, but in his Landscape Classical Composition, he appears to imitate Volney’s famous frontispiece, itself inspired by Robert Wood’s ‘A View of the Ruined City of Palmyra, Taken from the North East’, in The Ruins of Palmyra of 1753, with the addition of evocative jackal and owl to accompany the pensive observer.[15] I am far from attributing to Martin a naïve view that physical improvements to the environment would alone bring about a golden age. Volney himself relied on human perfectability brought about my political liberty and revolutionary principles to realise his vision.[16] Like many of his generation, Martin found Volney a familiar point of reference for the understanding of the ruin of civilisations.

Martin reworked the mezzotint of Pandaemonium as one of his great oils, and exhibited it in 1841 (fig.8), hung next to a companion piece, The Celestial City and the River of Bliss.[17]


When exhibited together, these large canvases represented the two archetypical views of what great cities were or could become: Hell or the New Jerusalem. Like Rome before it, London was in danger of plunging into the inferno, but must aspire to become the heavenly city. William Feaver points out that in the oil of Pandaemonium, Martin has replaced the flambeaux of the infernal palace with modern gas street lamps, in the interest of making the scene ‘appear founded on fact’.[18] We can go further and read the architecture of the palace as a reference to buildings fronting the Thames, so that recast Martin has recast the scene such that the Burning Lake becomes the polluted Thames, with architecture behind equating London with Hell, as well as one of his ancient cities ripe for destruction. What he has done can be understood by looking at the Adelphi arches, which Augustus Egg pictured from within, and the earlier arches which they echo, under Sir William Chambers’s Somerset House. If we take the two sets of arches together, we see a striking resemblance to Satan’s ‘high Capital’. The Adelphi arches are scarcely visible in O’Connor’s York Water Gate, but both sets show up to advantage in John Paul’s Somerset House and the Adelphi from the River, of around 1825 (fig. 9).[19]


John Martin seems to be not only issuing a warning of impending doom, but holding up the ideal image the City of God for emulation.

Martin here adds another dimension to the analogy of London as Hell, which his contemporaries would have known from Shelley’s recently published lines:

Hell is a city much like London —-
A populous and a smoky city;

These are the opening lines of Part 3 of Peter Bell the Third, which Shelley wrote in 1819 but which was first printed in 1839, just before Martin’s exercise on the theme in 1841. The trope actually dates back at least as far as the early seventeenth-century, when the Welsh poet, Tomas Prys of Plasiolyn, wrote a ‘Poem Showing that London is Hell’ — (‘Cywydd i ddangos mai uffern yw Llundain’).[20] The equation of the Thames with the burning lake of Hell made perfect sense by the time Bazalgette started his great work of cleansing. Another great illustrator, Gustav Doré, later in the century, went on from picturing Hell in Dante and Milton (1866) to produce some of the most powerful images of London in his London: A Pilgrimage of 1872, drawing on his experience of Hell in representing London. Martin seems to have taken the opposite course, drawing on London in order to perfect his picture of Hell.

All in all, the glamorous image of the Thames which O’Connor projects in his York Water Gate is a sentimental fiction, but it is simplistic to attribute this to the artist’s original calling as a theatrical scene-painter, when making a saleable picture was probably his motivation. Another canvas by John O’Connor shows him exploiting the painterly potential of pollution, this time atmospheric, in his famous picture Sunset, St Pancras Hotel and Station from Pentonville Road, exhibited in 1884 (fig. 10),[21] and predating Monet’s visit to Whistler in London, and his later, even more famous paintings from the corner balcony of the Savoy Hotel, from 1899 to 1904.


Indeed O’Connor painted his at the same time as Richard Jefferies was extolling London’s atmospheric effects, even while explaining their unhealthy origin.[22]

We find a defining moment in the history of urban perception when the Danish critic, George Brandes, visited London in 1896. One evening Brandes was with his host, Edmund Gosse, in an open cab in London, when the latter exclaimed, ‘Ah, my beautiful London!’ The great Danish critic reports himself at first ‘a trifle taken aback’, and then he recomposes the picture to himself, and comes round to agreeing with Gosse, having selected what he calls a ‘fine, painterly beauty’ as his way of constructing the London scene, rather than ‘an architectonic, graspable beauty’. In this, he explains, he was deliberately following ‘understanding and artistic feeling like Whistler in his Nocturnes from the Thames’.[23] Brandes thereby confirms that seeing London is a learnt skill, and, to the trained observer, choice comes into what one sees. Brandes, though he was never to become an adoptive Londoner, having an early penchant for Paris, showed he was made of the right material. Like a Londoner he chooses from the myriad potential pictures presenting themselves, and the thousand possible narratives which buzz about, ready to be selected or deferred. That is what we do as city dwellers, and how we know that we belong.

I recently came across an intriguing comment by Martin Gayford, the art critic of the Spectator, about the London painter Leon Kossoff, and his series of paintings of the flower and fruit stalls outside Embankment Underground Station in the 1990s (fig. 11)


to the effect that Kossoff’s,

interest in the area around Embankment Station seems connected with a consciousness of its past. There, for example, just round the corner, marooned in Victoria Gardens, is a seventeenth-century water gate, a vestige of long-gone baroque London. But just how this sense of history is related to the paintings is an interesting question. Kossoff, of course, does not paint the water gate. Instead he paints the entrance to the underground station.[24]

I analyse this comment at greater length in another paper, where I propose that not only does it chime in with my reading of Kossoff’s paintings, but expresses something characteristic about life in the metropolis.[25] Of course Londoners don’t normally look at the monuments around them. Just as no man is a hero to his valet, no monument can be unremittingly monumental to those in daily contact with it. Besides, the eye is too taken up with a thousand objects of everyday importance to be able to linger on a building or a statue just because it happens to have grand or historic associations.

The first point to make about the habit of not attending to the vestiges of the past is that the presence of a monument can be aesthetically inconvenient. A monument in a view can take control of that view, and the meanings the monument summons up can take over from, or swamp, all other meanings. For example, an ancient coaching inn is redolent of the past, with remembrances of strolling players acting Elizabethan dramas, and Tom Jones on his travels (fig. 12).


It is quaint, picturesque, and altogether attractive. If it is shown as it actually appeared to the camera in the mid-nineteenth century, things look different (fig. 13).


The scene is now quite unlike the view of our quaint galleried inn, because the dome of St Paul’s, which is looming over the roof, summons up everything else that is London, and brings with it a distinct whiff of decrepitude and squalor.

St Paul’s is a very potent symbol, of course, on the heading of the Illustrated London News and on countless title-pages, and it becomes even more potent after December the 31st, 1940, when Herbert Mason’s famous photograph. of the cathedral apparently unharmed amidst the bombs appeared in the Daily Mail. St Paul’s became a symbol of London’s survival of the Blitz, and as such it simply outperforms all other narratives which try to assert themselves in its shadow. For example, in his 1955 painting ‘A Building Site near St Paul’s’, Frank Auerbach makes sure that St Paul’s is hardly seen in. This is one of numerous such paintings in the the after-war years. As with St Paul’s, so, in due proportion, with any other monument, and Kossoff therefore may have good reason not to show the York Water Gate, which might interfere excessively in his presentation of the texture of everyday life in London. My conclusion is that resident Londoners, unlike transient visitors to the capital, have a choice: they know that there are thousands of narratives and sites of memory around them at every moment, to which they can attend if they wish to; but, in the normal course of life, they choose not to do so. This is part of the mental freedom of metropolitan life. So Kossoff’s pictures of the flower and fruit stalls outside Embankment Station deliberately ignore the memories of the Stuart period which the Water Gate might summon up. Kossoff is, in my opinion, completely expressive of one of the possible states of the urban mind. The York Water Gate is still there, if one knows where to look for it, while London street life goes on regardless. Leon Kossoff, one of the greatest painters of London life, doesn’t paint the Water Gate. Of course he doesn’t.

John Virtue is another painter who understands the virtue of not seeing everything too clearly — though in his case not in the interests of registering the street life of Londoners, but ways of seeing the London scene as ‘landscape’ (as he puts it). He makes artistic use of pollution, which he incorporates as a way of seeing, rather than as a visible fog — London pollution being far less visible nowadays. Associate Artist at the National Gallery from 2003-5, he is not a Londoner, but acclimatized himself very rapidly by walking for four hours a day with sketch pad in hand. He studies the London scene in detail, but excludes the populace, which for Kossoff is so central. Virtue is no new Canaletto either. He half conceals the monuments which we can easily make out, partly because we know they are there, and lets us concentrate on other effects: the rhythmic pattern or grid of London, as he calls it; and the black cloud which acts out our not looking, as well as, so the artist says, conveying unseen pollution which we also know is there (fig. 14).


And the Thames is often there, a silver snake, clearly recognisable to us through the cloud, as it was so often to the Luftwaffe in the Second World War, experiments to make the surface non-reflective coming to naught.[26]

Among the images I have mentioned, Kossoff’s, which omits the York Water Gate is quintessentially metropolitan in its perception of the London scene. O’Connor’s, which purports to represent the Gate, is a painting of something that never was. It is said that a copy O’Connor made of his painting once hung in London’s Grosvenor Hotel, where it appropriately projected an idealised image for the wealthy visitor. John Martin transforms one of his illustrations to Paradise Lost into an image of the Thames as a river of Hell, developing this concept at the same time as his sewage scheme to clean up the river. Whistler, and after him Monet, expanded the range of possible modes of perception available to the viewer, such as Georg Brandes of the London scene, while Virtue is the opposite of Kossoff in his landscapes without figures.

I have found this concentration on a very specific location useful in winnowing out a few of the myriad factors which influence meaning production in depictions of London. I suspect that we could look at almost any street corner in central London and find the same range of options, each associated with a set of facts and stories, historical, mythical and personal, in the City, which is a-buzz with an infinitude of narratives. Not less significant is the interaction established between literary illustrations, academic painting and the material environment of the metropolis, making the study of perceptions of the urban scene of particular interest in the critical study of cultural history.


[1] David Skilton, ‘Sites Unseen: The Visibility and Invisibility of London Monuments’, forthcoming in The Cultural Reconstruction of Places, ed. by Astradur Eysteinsson (Reykjavik: University of Iceland Press, 2007).

[2] When I delivered an earlier form of this paper at the Literary London Conference of 2006 at Greenwich University, it was put to me that most of today’s Londoners do not share with my contemporaries the knowledge of large numbers of narratives about the city they inhabit. In response to this I reply that the boom in factual and fictional publishing on London means that a multitude of narratives is available and being consumed. The difference between Victorian and early twentieth-century knowledge about the city on the one hand and a post-modern knowledge on the other is a matter of either prioritising or not the narratives which abound, and of either assuming a canon of ‘necessary’ knowledge, or floating free on a sea of significances. I was raised in the earlier assumptions, and enjoy the intoxication of the later freedom.

[3] Joseph Pennell, ‘In the Underground Station’; illustration to H. James, ‘London’, Century Magazine 37 (December 1888), 219-39, p. 223.

[4] Stephen Halliday, The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Vicorian Capital (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, [1999], p. 148. Halliday reproduces an artist’s impression of the proposed Victoria Embankment which shows the water gate relocated to the new water’s edge.

[5] London in Paint: Oil Paintings in the Collection at the Museum of London ed. Mirielle Galinou and John Hayes (London: Museum of London , 1996), pp. 218-19.

[6] London in Paint, 220-23.

[7] George Godwin, Town Swamps and Social Bridges (London: Routledge, Warnes, & Routledge, 1859), p. 52

[8] Select Committee on Sewers, 7 July 1834, P.P. (1834) vol 15, 171: ‘It is the putrescent matter which is the most obnoxious principle of common water. It is a matter of common experience, that water, according to its different qualities, affects the stomach with a peculiar feeling, which we call weight.’

[9] [George W.?] Thornbury (anon.), ‘Royal Academy’, Athenaeum no. 1592 (1 May, 1858), 566. I am grateful to the Library of City University for supplying a photocopy of this page of the editorial file of the Athenaeum.

[10] John Martin, Outline of a Comprehensive Plan for Diverting the Sewage of London and Westminster from the Thames (London: Effingham Wilson, 1850), p.3.

[11] Walter Besant, London in the Nineteenth Century (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1909), pp. 331-2.

[12] T. B. Macaulay, ‘John Bunyan’, Edinburgh Review (December 1831); repr. in Critical and Historical Esssays Contributed to the Edinburgh Review 2 vols (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1879) vol 1, p. 133.

[13] Select Committee on Sewers, 7 July 1834, P.P. (1834) vol 15,170.

[14] C. -F. C. de Volney, Les ruines, ou me´ditations sur les re´volutions des empires (Paris, 1791); there were a dozen editions of English translations over as many years, the first in 1792, the Paris edition of 1802 being translated by Thomas Jefferson and Joël Barlow; see Jean Gaulmier, L’idéologue Volney 1757-1820: contribution à l’histoire de l’orientalisme en France (Beyrouth: Imprimerie catholique, 1951), p. 237.

[15] Landscape Classical Composition, sepia, 18.5 x 29.8 cm, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle Upon Tyne, reproduced in Christopher Johnstone, John Martin (London: Academy Editions, 1974), p. 49; Robert Wood, The Ruins of Palmyra, otherwise Tedmor, in the Desert, (London: 1753) Plate I. Volney’s illustrator foreground’s the one palm tree which Wood found still flourishing at Palmyra, where several were still seen in 1691 (Wood, p.5).

[16] See the Avertissement to Les ruines, in which Volney argues that what had previously been an idealistic hope was now realisable, thanks to the enlightenment of the new administration which had come to power in 1790 (led by Robespierre) (pp. ix-x).

[17] William Feaver identifies this painting with a canvas of the soul in flight towards heaven, and showing neither city nor river, so far as can be seen from a rather muddy photograph (see William Feaver, The Art of John Martin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), pp. 167). The title is clearly related to both Martin’s illustration facing p. 95 of Paradise Lost Book 3 (the page on which the phrase ‘River of Bliss’ occurs) and the illustration ‘The Celestial City’, ‘painted by J. Martin, Esq.’, and facing p. 215 of Southey’s 1830 edition of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (London: John Murray, John Major, 1830), which according to Balston was illustrated with images ‘after’ John Martin. See Thomas Balston, John Martin: His Life and Works, (London: Duckworth, 1947), p. 206. This illustration shows the Celestial City in distant prospect.

[18] Feaver, The Art of John Martin, pp. 165-6.

[19] London in Paint, pp. 160-61; for Pandaemonium see The Forbes Collection of Victorian Pictures and Works of Art, Wednesday 19 and Thursday 20 February 2003, 3 vols (London: Christie’s, [2003]), vol 1, p.55.

[20] Tomas Prys of Plasiolyn (1564-1634), ‘Kowydd i ddangos mae uffern yw Llyndain’ (c. 1613?). See Dafydd Huw Evans, ‘Cywydd i ddangos mai uffern yw Llundain’, Ysgrifau Beirniadol 14 (1988), 134–51. I am grateful to P. K. Ford of the Harvard University Celtic Department for supplying a translation of this poem.

[21] London in Paint, pp. 259-61.

[22] See for example ‘Sky over London’, reprinted from his Nature near London (1883), in Richard Jefferies’ London, ed. by Samuel J. Looker (London: Lutterworth Press [1944]), pp. 40-44.

[23] ‘Aa mit smukke London! udbrød min Ledsager. / Jeg studsede en Kende ved Ordet. … Dette var smukt, ikke med en tydelig, arkitektonisk eller haandgribelig Skønhed, men med en fin malerisk Skønhed, somme neppe Nogen har gengivet med den Forstaaelse og den kunsterniske Følelse som Whistler i sine Notturner fra Themsen’ (my translation). George Brandes, ‘Indtryk fra London’ (1896), Samlede Skrifter, 18 vols (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1899-1910), vol 11, p. 304. Brandes is best known nowadays in the English-speaking world as the critic Stephen Dedalus quotes in the Scylla and Charybdis episode of Joyce’s Ulysses.

[24] Martin Gayford, ‘The Crisis of Vision’, Modern Painters, 8 (1995), 23-5.

[25] See note 1.

[26] See C. Bruna Mancini, Sguardi su Londra: immagini di una città mostruosa (Naples: Liguori Editore, 2005), p. 203 n123.

1. Joseph Pennell, ‘In the Underground Station’, Century Magazine 37 (December 1888), 223.
2. York Water Gate and Gordon’s Wine Bar 2004 (photograph by author)
3. John O’Connor, The York Water Gate and the Adelphi from the River 1871 Oil on canvas, 60.8 X 101.2 cm. By permission of the Museum of London
4. John O’Connor, The York Water Gate 1861 watercolour. By permission of the National Gallery of Ireland
5. John O’Connor, The Embankment 1874 Oil on canvas 76.5 X 126.5 cm. By permission of the Museum of London
6. George Godwin, Town Swamps and Social Bridges (London: Routledge, Warnes, & Routledge, 1859), p. 52
7. John Martin Paradise Lost Book 1 line 710. Paradise Lost of John Milton 2 vols (London: S. Prowett, 1827) 4º. Mezzotint. By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales
8. John Martin, Pandaemonium 1841 Oil on canvas, 123.20 cm h x 184.10 cm. By permission of Peter Nahum at the Leicester Galleries
9. John Paul, Somerset House and the Adelphi from the River c. 1825 Oil on canvas 69.4 X 90 cm. By permission of the Museum of London
10. John O’Connor, From Pentonville Road looking West: Evening 1884 Oil on canvas 90.3 X 150.3 cm. By permission of the Museum of London
11. Leon Kossoff, The Fruit and Flower Stalls, Embankment Station 1995 1995. Oil on board, By permission of the artist and Tate Gallery.
12. The Oxford Arms, Warwick Lane looking towards Paul’s 1875 (image modified)
13. The Oxford Arms, Warwick Lane looking towards Paul’s 1875
14. John Virtue: Landscape No. 708 2003-4 Acrylic, black ink and shellac on canvas, 305×305 cm. By permission of the artist. © John Virtue

To Cite This Article:

David Skilton, ‘“Sweet Thames, run softly”: Constructing a Clean River’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 1 (March 2007). Online at Accessed on [date of access].