The Chelsea painter – on the waterfront

Earlier this year, I spent some time in our archive rooms assisting a photographer who was taking pictures of the oil paintings in our Local Studies collection. He was working for the Public Catalogue Foundation ( ) a registered charity which has been working to create an online catalogue of all the oil paintings in public ownership in the UK. To this end their agents have been visiting institutions all over the country, making lists and taking photographs. They have visited museums, art galleries, educational establishments, hospitals and of course libraries. They’ve been working in collaboration with the BBC’s Your Paintings project and you can see the results on the PCF website and at .

But for me and you and the blog the main result of all this work is that I now have some good digital images of artworks I haven’t been able to photograph or scan myself. I’m going to do a couple of posts featuring some of the paintings. This week the paintings are all from the Chelsea collection. Just as with the Chelsea artists I’ve featured in previous posts, for the painters here the quintessential Chelsea subject is the river.

This is a picture of the riverside at Chelsea looking from the Battersea shore painted by James Webb in the 1880s.  You can see the principal landmark Chelsea Old Church, the old Battersea Bridge and just visible in the distance the towers of Albert Bridge. The painting hangs high up on a staircase chained into position and has probably been there since 1905.  Some good lighting has brought out details which I had never seen before like these:

You can just about read the name of the barge in the foreground. The number and size of the barges show you that this is a working river.

More than a century earlier Thomas Priest painted this picture:

The sky is lighter, the boats are smaller, the Battersea shore is more rural. It’s the same church. There was originally a cupola on the tower which was removed in the 1820s when the “new” church St Luke’s was built. The tower is also visible in the picture below, by an unknown painter.

Here you can see an even quieter day on the river. There really was a windmill on the south shore in the eighteenth century. I can’t say for sure what the building to the right of it is though. It looks like a warm lazy day. Before the embankment and the development on both banks the river was wider and may have flowed slower, or so it looks from our time.

This is the Chelsea bank at high tide. I think the bridge in the background is Chelsea Bridge, the old one which looked a little like Hammersmith Bridge. Just to the left of centre is the curious bent structure (a chimney?) of the Old Swan, an ancient Chelsea tavern much loved by artists.  Here it is again in a painting by Edward A Alkyns showing a barge being unloaded with raw materials for the brew house and some men swimming in the river.

The next picture of the Old Swan is by one of Chelsea’s most famous artists, Walter Greaves.

It shows a livery barge passing the Old Swan with a crowd gathered to see it go by. This may be a depiction of famous river race for barges, Doggett’s Coat and Badge. The Old Swan would have been the finishing point for the race at this time. The Greaves family had a boatyard further down the river which we’ve seen in the posts about James Hedderly and W W Burgess.

Going west past the Old Swan was the Magpie and Stump. Here the river ran close to Cheyne Walk and at high tide was only a few feet from the street.

This atmospheric  picture is by George Lambert.

Further west you came to Lindsay Wharf where the Greaves family worked and where Walter painted this picture called “Unloading the barge”. This is one of his best paintings.

It’s one of those pictures where Greaves leaves behind all the touches of the amateur painter and creates a work as good as any of the artists who have painted Chelsea. St Mary’s Church, Battersea where William Blake was married is is visible across the river.

Finally this week, my single favourite painting in the collection, another view of the river and Cheyne Walk. This one is by Henry Pether.

Pether was one of a family of painters of that name. His father Sebastian and his grandfather Abraham were all fond of night time scenes. This one, “Cheyne Walk by moonlight” captures the still evening atmosphere of old Chelsea. Two lonely figures pass the dark houses and shops and the river laps against the moored barges.  This is a hard picture to photograph. The colour of the original is hard to capture but this version comes the closest yet. With the full moon over our heads it’s a good moment to leave the Chelsea painters.


Thanks to the Public Catalogue Foundation and particularly to Dr Rosie Macarthur.

8 responses to “The Chelsea painter – on the waterfront

  • Michael Gall

    Beautiful post and spot on again David…Thank you again for your blog it is a treasure trove…and what a good idea cataloguing all the paintings that you hold in the borough archives. kind ones from Michael.

  • Louise kahler

    Can hardly wait for your comments…. what incredible images. I Lethem, pls continue…very appreciated

  • Chris Pain

    Fine paintings Dave! I wonder if Thomas Priest was related (son?) to dancer, dancing-master and choreographer, Josias Priest who ran a “boarding school for gentlewomen” in what would later become Milman’s Street by the Thames at Chelsea.

  • Chris Pain

    I came across another fine painting of the embankment the other day:

    This view is from 1784. Unfortunately the original isn’t part of the library’s collection. Apparently it’s in the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.
    The full-size version is a full 6,967 × 3,534 pixels so it looks great on a big TV screen and you can also zoom in and see details such as the horse in the garden at Cremorne House and the cattle grazing on the riverbank.

    • Dave Walker

      Now that’s what you call high resolution. It’s tempting to think Thomas Preist might have been related to Josias Priest who accorfing to the DNB had 12 children but Thomas seems to have have been painting as late as 1790 so unless he was very long lived the dates don’t quite match. Also he painted river views as far away as Greenwich so he might not have been a Chelsea resident.
      The Alan Johnson book does sound interesting so I’ll keep an eye out for it.

  • Osmund Bullock

    Re the view up Chelsea Reach to Old Battersea Bridge (with windmill), this is a copy (probably taken from Lupton’s 1823 print) of Thomas Girtin’s 1800 watercolour ‘The White House at Chelsea’ – Turner greatly admired it, it’s now at the Tate:

    There are several odd things about it, though. First the title itself – the dominant white building shown is clearly not at Chelsea at all, but over the river in Battersea Fields. The building immediately to the right is the Horizontal Mill near Battersea Church – odd again, as Girtin (and the copyist) has brought it way forward in perspective. In reality, from where Girtin was painting (apparently in a boat off the Battersea bank), the Bridge was over a mile away, and the Mill was nearly a quarter-mile beyond that. Finally, from the angles involved, the ‘White House’ can, I believe, only be the gable end of the famous riverside inn of ill-repute, ‘The Red House’, which other paintings suggest could indeed have been white: the title may be Girtin’s little joke. The Red House was demolished when the predecessor of what is now Chelsea Bridge was built in the 1850s, along with Battersea Park – its position was pretty much underneath the present roadway at the bridge’s end.

    The big windmill in the pictures was still there in 1830, according to Greenwood’s (wonderfully detailed) map, which you can see here:

  • Terry Collmann

    “Just to the left of centre is the curious bent structure (a chimney?)”

    It’s the cow on top of a maltings, desifgned to revolve withthe wind

    • Osmund Bullock

      I hope you mean a ‘cowl’ on top of a maltings, Terry, rather than a ‘cow’! Oast Houses had identical rotating vents on top, to speed up the drying of freshly-harvested hops.

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