Saturday Afternoon by the Thames, 130 Years Ago

A wonderful Victorian oil painting of the River Thames has recently been added to the other paintings adorning the walls of Brewers’ Hall. Entitled Sunday Afternoon – East London, the artist is Charles William Wyllie (1853-1923). The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 1887.

Charles (who signed as Charlie) was born in London into a family of painters – his father, older brother and stepbrother were all professional artists. Charles travelled widely and painted landscapes and maritime scenes. The Tate has works by him and by his even more well-known older brother, William.

The picture shows one of the most historic riverside pubs along the Thames – the Angel at Rotherhithe, which has occupied this site for over 500 years and is still thriving today (now a Sam Smith’s establishment). On a warm Saturday afternoon in summer, the Angel is full of patrons, the river is busy with sailing vessels and a small tug dominates the foreground, while boys are jumping into the Thames and skinny-dipping. Other figures are on the foreshore, where a fire is smoking, perhaps for some impromptu cooking. The view looks east towards the Thames estuary. On the side (and, less visible, the front) of the Angel are signs advertising ‘Courage & Co’s Entire’ – entire being a kind of beer (porter) made from the first, second and third mashes, mixed and fermented together. J. & N. Rix, advertised on the small booth at the top of the stairs down to the foreshore, were a firm of ironmongers at Shadwell. Another sign is just legible, for sacks and tarpaulins lent and hired by J. C. Smith of Millwall.

The Wyllie brothers were both great admirers of the work of J.M.W.Turner (William wrote a book on him), widely believed to have painted one of his most famous pictures, The Fighting Temeraire, after visiting this same pub, the Angel at Rotherhithe. The Fighting Temeraire, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1839 and now in the National Gallery, is a poignant scene showing a tug in the foreground towing a large and gallant old sailing ship, a veteran of Trafalgar, down the Thames to be broken up for scrap. In Charlie Wyllie’s painting, fifty years later, the scale and positioning of the tug and the large sailing ship behind it are surely more than a coincidence. They suggest that Wyllie was paying an indirect homage to his hero Turner, as well as presenting the viewer with a river scene full of activity, interest and beauty.

The painting hung in the boardroom of Scottish & Newcastle until the Courage brand was purchased by Charles Wells. This year, following the purchase of the brand by Marstons plc, it was suggested that Brewers Hall might display it so that it could be enjoyed by a wider audience.  It remains on permanent loan from the heirs to S&N, Heineken UK and we are delighted to be able to share it with visitors to Brewers’ Hall.