Why London bridges has inspired artists through the ages

London bridges was a subject that inspired Whistler, Monet, Turner  and even Canaletto and maybe it was the juxtaposition of nature, the flowing river Thames, and architecture that touched their imagination. Many of the bridges are works of art in their own right and photographed as well as painted by both artists and amateurs.

Canaletto – Westminster Bridge, with the Lord Mayor's Procession on the Thames (c.1746-47; Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut)

Canaletto – Westminster Bridge, with the Lord Mayor’s Procession on the Thames (c.1746-47; Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut)

Peter Matthews, a Blue Badge Guide and working for Museum of London has written a wonderful book about London Bridges, but it was not love of the bridges that was his driving force. There was a far more prosaic reason. He was asked by the publisher Shire Books if he could think of any gap in the market and he suggested London bridges, ‘and I was quite taken back when they asked me to write it,’ he says with a smile.

Richmond Bridge

Richmond Bridge

And his love for the bridges grew as he proceeded with the project. ‘There are thirty three bridges in London which each has a good story to tell.’ Asked if he has a favourite, Peter immediately mentions Hammersmith Bridge because of its wonderful colouring in gold and green. A close second would be Albert Bridge lit up at night.

The London bridges stretch from Tower Bridge to Hampton Court Bridge. The oldest is Richmond Bridge which was built in the 18th century but has since been widened. Westminster Bridge also has a story to tell. Part of it collapsed before it even opened during the reign of George II. In order to build it money was raised through a lottery, – maybe an idea for today’s London Mayor- but the money was not enough to cover the costs. The enry Fielding referred to Westminster bridge as the Beridge of Foolsthe buithe the   building of it also caused political controversy as the City did not want it as much money was made on the tolls charged to cross London Bridge.

Hungerford Bridge

Hungerford Bridge

Of today’s bridges most of them have been built or replaced, but strangely enough not a single bridge was seriously damaged during the World War II bombing of London. ‘ They built several emergency bridges  just in case of a hit, but only Hungerford Bridge was hit but the bomb did not explode,’ Peter explains.

The two most recent bridges crossing the Thames are the Millennium Bridge and the Golden Jubilee Bridge. There is planning permission for new bridge for pedestrians and cyclists next to Battersea Railway Bridge and there is also talk of  a garden bridge, again for pedestrians, designed by Thomas Heatherwick, famous for his Olympic Cauldron. Several proposals have been made for a bridge between Tower Bridge and Queen Elizabeth Bridge, ‘but that might take years’ says Peter.

golden jubilee bridge

Golden Jubilee Bridge

Peter is coming to Dulwich Picture Gallery to give a talk about London bridges in the series

Landmarks & Paintings of the Thames to coincide with the gallery’s exhibition Whistler and the Thames. The other two lectures in the series will cover buildings along the Thames and Artists and the Thames.

‘I see the bridges as architectural art,’ says Peter, ‘and so many artists were fascinated by them especially when they were built during the 19th century. Personally, I am very fond of Whistler’s Nocturne picturing Battersea Bridge, even though he has painted it from the wrong perspective.  Still, it’s a wonderfully evocative painting.’

An American in London: Whistler and the Thames
Exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery 16 October 2013 – 12 January 2014

Landmarks & paintings of the Thames. Series of three lectures

Thames Bridges
Wednesday 2 October 10.30 – 11.30 am Lecturer: Peter Matthews

Thames Buildings: From Battersea to Bankside
Wednesday 9 October 10.30 – 11.30 am Lecturer: Dr Alan Powers

Artists and the Thames
Wednesday 23 October 10.30 – 11.30 am Lecturer: Amy Concannon

£10 per lecture, £8 for Friends or series of three £25, £20 for Friends

Tickets available online at dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk
Or through Friends 020 8299 8750 or at Friends Desk in the Gallery

London Bridges by Peter Matthews is published by Shire Books and is available in good bookshops and Dulwich Picture Gallery.


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