Charting the Thames – Royal River at Greenwich

Canaletto London: The Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day, Looking Towards the City and St Paul’s Cathedral, before 1752 © The Lobkowicz Collections, Czech Republic.

Every great city has its own river, and wars are fought and lost around them. London has the Thames, and from the time the Romans forded it, it has been pivotal to the city’s history. Historian David Starkey has taken the river’s royal connections and woven a fascinating tale of how this stretch of water has influenced the city and its people.

Royal River:  Power, Pageantry and the Thames marks the 75th anniversary of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, an opening the Queen attended as a girl of 11, and is a fitting tribute at the time of her Diamond Jubilee (until 9 September). For anyone who may be dubious of the exhibition’s royal connections though, Starkey has kept it very much the portrait of a river.

It opens with a fabulous huge Canaletto, last seen in this country when it was executed 260 years ago, and portraying the splendour of a pageant on the Thames much more magnificent than that seen at this Jubilee. Looking at the hundreds of boats he painted so meticulously in The Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day you wonder how he did it without photographic help. The painting has been in Bohemia, and on its own is worth the entry fee. In the years 1746 – 1752 Canaletto completed many other smaller paintings of the river, similar to his Venetian series, and there are scenes here from Greenwich, Westminster and the Ranelagh Gardens, near Chelsea.

He isn’t the only artist on display. There are paintings by Peter Lely, Holman Hunt and Winterhalter, among others. Intricate maps show the changing London skyline, there’s livery from the guilds, pictures of Nelson’s great funeral procession and frost fairs. The stench of the Victorian river and the ingenuity of achievements such as the Embankment and the sewers are deftly captured. With such a huge subject to cover, Starkey has deftly placed interesting objects as markers for the milestones of the Thames.

Canaletto: Greenwich Hospital from the north bank of the Thames, 1750 – 52 © National Maritime Museum, London

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