Mr Menpes on the river

There are several parallels between the work of Mortimer Menpes and Yoshio Markino. Markino brought a Japanese sensibility to the way he looked at London and Londoners, and an outsider’s eye for the unfamiliar sights of his new home. He was particularly fascinated by the river. This fascination was shared by Menpes who published this book, The Thames in 1906 in collaboration with G E Mitton.

00 Thames

Menpes also brought an outsider’s viewpoint to the river. Remember, he was from Australia and had been brought up in quite a different climate and landscape. So it’s not surprising that while Markino concentrated on London’s river, the tidal Thames with its bridges, embankments and fast flowing water, Menpes was captivated by the other Thames above the tide. This was still a world of country towns, lazy river pursuits and long still sunny days -that late Victorian / Edwardian summer epitomised by Jerome K Jerome’s Three men in a boat or Kenneth Grahame’s the Wind in the Willows.

Pangbourne p4

The other thing Menpes shares with Markino is an eye for the picturesque qualities of the new women of the Edwardian era. Sometimes they lounge casually under a parasol with the obligatory small dog who, like his literary ancestor Montmorency is an essential part of the crew for a river journey in a small rowing boat. Sometimes they took the oar themselves.

Pangbourne from the Swan Hotel p64

In this case it looks like the same woman, slightly sad about having to dump her companion but happy to be making some progress at last. The upper Thames had declined as a route for commercial traffic but had seen an enormous growth in boating for pleasure. There were tranquil backwaters suitable for punting.

Dorchester backwater p52

Deserted stretches, given over to wild life.

Goring p62

“Hear the lark and harken to the barking of the dog fox gone to ground.
See the splashing of the kingfisher flashing to the water.
And a river of green is sliding unseen beneath the trees,
Laughing as it passes through the endless summer making for the sea.”

There were plenty of places for river sports, boathouses for the small rowing skiffs and the solitary canoeist:

Radley College boathouse p34

But the river was also a site of mass entertainment. Large gatherings of pleasure seekers attended events like Henley Regatta as they still do today. These events were attended in huge numbers by the new middle classes who had leisure time to fill and the ability to travel to formerly exclusive spots by train and river boat.

Henley Regatte p100

Along with the rowing boats in all sizes there were the giant houseboats, like floating hotels which were towed from one riverside event to another. These were the glory days of the upper Thames. The picture below is of Boulter’s Lock on Ascot Sunday:

Boulter's Lock Ascot Sunday p128

A traffic jam of river craft in the narrow waterway. Below, the area near the lock where larger  boats and  steam launches wait their turn. You can even see one of the luxurious houseboats (gin palaces as one of Jerome’s characters called them) although I doubt if could go through the lock.

Below Boulter's Lock p130

By the end of the day the crowds of fashionable pleasure seekers had withdrawn to their houseboats and inns or just made the journey home and the river was calm again.

Hampton Court from the river p178

All the different kinds of river craft had made their way to a mooring.

Rose Garden at Sonning p72

The very fortunate had a pleasant riverside dwelling to return to as the sun went down.

Streatley Inn p18

The sun hangs low in the sky and the river people are indoors telling stories about their exploits on the water.

Mapledurham Mill p66

“If I had wings and I could fly,
I know where I would go.
But right now I’ll just sit here so contentedly
And watch the river flow.”

Hambleden p102

The picture below is my favourite of Menpes’s illustrations of his river journey. A woman finds a comfortable spot and nods off on a quite summer afternoon. Her parasol slips back, but her face is still shaded by her wide brimmed hat. Her unseen companion sits quietly at the stern so as not to disturb her. Even the dog sits calmly enjoying the same relaxed moment as his human companions.

“Put on a gown that touches the ground
Float on a river forever and ever, Emily “

Sad eyed lady of the lowland

The peaceful moment lives on forever.

“The river flows
It flows to the sea
Wherever that river goes
That’s where I want to be
Flow river flow
Let your waters wash down
Take me from this road
To some other town.”

Postscript

Lyrics by Roger Waters and Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), Roger McGuinn (The Byrds) and Bob Dylan.

Everybody knows Jerome K Jerome’s Three men in a boat but for a modern day version of a river journey try one of my favourite books, Nigel Williams’ Two and a half men in a boat.

We’ll come down to the river again one day I’m sure.

Finally, thanks to Kat for all her work in Local Studies, and for her friendship.


3 responses to “Mr Menpes on the river

  • Roger Staton

    Very evocative images of times gone by. Thanks for sharing them. Menpes deserves a place in the history of book printing in Britain because his earlier 1901 book ‘War Impressions’, with text by his daughter Dorothy, was the first book in Britain to contain three-colour half-tones. It was so popular that it encouraged A&C Black to produce a whole series of colour-illustrated books in the 20-Shilling series, which eventually ran to 92 titles, including your ‘Thames’ book. The quality of the colour reproductions created quite a stir in printing and publishing circles. The colour pages in the early books were printed by an up-and-coming printer called George W. Jones, with whom Menpes went into business. (Information from ‘George W. Jones: printer laureate’ by Lawrence Wallis, The Plough Press, 2004.)

  • william

    Hi Dave
    The 4th painting was viewed from the left hand side, looking north, on the old Caversham bridge (present one built 1926). The structures in the water are eel traps, called eel bucks. The little lane leading down to them is still there called Buckside (Google Earth it). The bucks are long gone but the church in the background is St Peters & of course still there. You can stand on the same spot today via Google Earth, but the church is hidden by trees. Looking down Buckside from main road, the wood framed cottage on the left is the original fisherman’s home.
    Lovely pictures thanks
    William

  • Ron Dryden

    Hi Dave, Two books on travel down waterways that I have enjoyed in the past are “The Unlikely Voyage Of Jack de Crow” by AJ Mackinnon A mirror dinghy from North Wales to the Black Sea and “The Worst Journey in the Midlands” by Sam Llewellyn Welshpool to Westminster in a clinker built dinghy. Both quite funny and enjoyable reads. Have just ordered a copy of 21/2 Men in a Boat, Best wishes Ron

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