Above: The complete painting which looks east along the Thames.
In the mid-1740s a dramatic painting was made from the walkway in front of Somerset House. The artist was Antonio Joli who was resident in London from 1744 until 1748.
Antonio Joli (1700 – 29 April 1777), an Italian painter, was born in Modena. He studied in Rome before he became a painter of stage sets in Modena and Perugia. In 1732 he moved to Venice and in 1742 he moved to Dresden. He worked in London 1744–48 where he decorated the Richmond mansion of John Heidegger who was the Director of the King’s Theatre, Haymarket. Joli eventually moved to the Bourbon Court of Naples in 1761 and died there on 29 April 1777.
To complete the story, John James Heidegger (19 June 1666 – 5 September 1749) was a Swiss Count who came to England in 1708 and became a leading impresario of masquerades in London in the early part of the 18th century.
As you may have noticed, the painting looks east along the River Thames. From what has already been said, we can date the painting to about 1745. If you stand at Somerset House today you cannot see so far down the river because modern road and railway bridges obscure the view. St Paul’s Cathedral can be clearly seen through one of the arches of the building. The cathedral is, of course, still visible from the same point today. Through the right-hand arch was see old London Bridge in the distance. Today it is impossible to see so far east due to the additional bridges over the Thames that have been built since this painting was made.
We will now explore the features of the painting in further detail:
Above: Detail of the view to the left of the pillar.
Notice, first of all, that the whole picture has a sense of over-dramatisation about it. Remember that Joli was an expert at painting stage sets and this painting almost looks as if it might have been used for that purpose. The small gap to the left of the left-most pillar shows a water gate which could even be part of the masonry of the extensive Somerset House frontage beside the Thames. We can see the grand stairs leading down to the water, used by noblemen when they boarded a boat and needed to be rowed along the river. If the stairs were not part of Somerset House they would have been part of an adjacent property.
Above: The centre section, between the two pillars.
This centre section is the most interesting part of the painting because the buildings can be seen in some detail. Dominating the skyline is the magnificent dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. The view faces almost directly onto the west front of the cathedral. Along the skyline are also the spires of 11 churches, all of which were designed by the same architect who was responsible for the cathedral – Sir Christopher Wren. The buildings beside the Thames are on land that was between the eastern part of Strand and the western part of Fleet Street. None of them are particularly recognisable.
Two small but important details should be noted. (1) The very long causeway leading into the Thames from another set of water stairs. The view obviously shows the Thames at low tide – otherwise the causeway would not be visible. Several people are walking on it and there is a small boat, called a wherry (a ‘taxi’ for the river), waiting at the far end of that causeway. (2) Proceeding up-stream (towards the artist) is a grand ‘state barge’ being rowed by eight or ten oarsmen. The barge was probably conveying a Master of a Livery Company or some similar organisation.
Above: Right section between two pillars. The detail in the upper part of this section has been enhanced and shown below this text.
There are six features that are easy to recognise: (1) Almost certainly The Monument, celebrating the deliverance of the City of London from the Great Fire in 1666. (2) The tower of St Dunstan in the East, a Wren church with flying buttresses on the top of the tower, which remain today. (3) A water tower, mounted over one of the arches of London Bridge. The water power (as the tide flowed out and also when it flowed in) powered water-wheels that pumped water from the Thames up the tower and into a large tank. Pipes led the water away, falling by gravity, and supplying water to nearby houses. (4) The faint outline of the Tower of London. (5) A shot tower on the south bank of the Thames at a location called Topping’s Wharf. (6) The tower of what was then called St Saviour’s church (now known as Southwark Cathedral).
The view between the pillars on the right is fainter and smaller due to the perspective. The main item of interest is old London Bridge, complete with houses. While the general proportions are good, the artist has not taken the trouble to count the number of arches – which was 19. In the picture we see 20 visible arches and there were others which are obscured by buildings to the left and the right. There was, for example another arch under the tower marked (3).
We can see hills towards the right, on the horizon. One of them is Shooter’s Hill. A ‘state barge’ is also to be seen in this part of the picture, travelling up-stream in the same direction as the other one. There may even have been a third barge obscured by the centre pair of pillars. The barges may have been travelling in procession on the Thames, which was quite a common sight in the 18th century.
To our 21st century minds, the idea of a view as far as London Bridge when standing near Somerset House seems incomprehensible. The later addition of so many other bridges prevents a view of more than a few hundred yards today. It is interesting to note that the new so-called Garden Bridge, which is about to be built downstream of Waterloo Bridge, has objectors who are also commenting that it will obscure a 200-year old view from Waterloo Bridge down to Blackfriars Bridge. Perhaps the objectors should offer this painting to the planners in support of their case!
In conclusion we can observe that it is an interesting painting. With such skills as Joli possessed, it is a great shame that he did not complete more scenes to match this one while he was resident in London.