Chasing Whistler

March 9, 2013 § 4 Comments

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge (c. 1872-5)

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge (c. 1872-5)

Of all the bridges in London, Battersea holds perhaps the greatest resonance for me. Although I didn’t set foot on it until I’d already been living in London for several years, I already knew it well, through the work of one of my idols, James McNeill Whistler.

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: The River at Battersea (1878)

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: The River at Battersea (1878)

Although the current Battersea Bridge isn’t the vaporous Japoniste fantasy that Whistler conjured up with lithographic ink or with oil paint thinned almost to the consistency of watercolour, I still love it. My boyfriend lives in Battersea and the bus journey to his place from north of the river takes me over the bridge: at dusk or after dark, with the lamps illuminated, it’s one of the most magical places in London.

I’ve been wanting to photograph the bridge and its stretch of Thames ever since I got my Diana, but weather and weekend engineering works conspired against me for months – until a few weeks ago, the morning dawned clear and bright. I had a roll of slide film in the camera, which further upped the chance factor: it’s been cross-processed, and I had no way of knowing what effect it would have on the colour.

A happy effect, as it turned out. I don’t know whether Whistler would’ve approved (I actually like to think he would have made some cutting and witty remark to that effect) but I think it’s my best roll of film so far…

Albert Bridge 1

Albert Bridge 2

Albert Bridge from upriver


Boats below Battersea Bridge


Sky and masts through a buddleia bush

Battersea Bridge 1

Battersea Bridge 2

Battersea Bridge from the embankment

Battersea Bridge 3

Battersea Bridge 4

The bridge from the riverbank. I hadn’t checked the tide tables before I set out, but I struck lucky: the tide was far enough out that I was able to clamber down the steps (warning: stone steps covered with wet algae are treacherous!) onto a pebbly patch of shore.


This one was pure luck – a flock of gulls burst into flight and I just had time to grab the camera and take this before they scattered.

Sands End

Sands End seen through the ironwork on the bridge. Not entirely successful – I’ll have to try this one again!

I had intended to use my last shot in Cremorne Gardens – or what’s left of it. The sprawling, louche pleasure garden where Whistler painted golden rockets shooting across a black sky is still there – or at least, the original gates are, standing in the midst of a quiet, near-deserted patch of green scattered with crocuses, with a cobbled path leading to a pier jutting into the river. The silence was only disturbed by a young family, the two small children toddling around the grass.

Then my eye was caught by the view upriver toward Wandsworth Bridge, and it was so stunning that I ignored all the rules about light sources, pointed the camera right into the sun, and took this shot.

Wandsworth Bridge

Sometimes rules are made to be broken.


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§ 4 Responses to Chasing Whistler

  • dianajhale says:

    This is wonderful – both Whistler (always a favourite especially his Thames views) and your images. Fascinating effect with that camera – is it like a Lomo? I should try it with that name!

    • Thanks so much – pleased you like the photos! The Diana is indeed part of the Lomo family (there are all sorts of expensive ‘special edition’ versions but this is the one I use) – the funky colours are the result of using slide film and cross-processing it.

  • royeastland says:

    Your images of Battersea Bridge are excellent. They reward re-looking.
    I came across them yesterday when I was searching to see if I could find any views of the bridge from the shore. I discovered that little stretch of beach on the south bank on Friday evening. I’d found that I was in Battersea far too early for the opening of the ‘RCA Secrets’ show across the road and so I went exploring and I couldn’t resist the draw of the steps down to the river …and I slipped on that slippery algae and went flying (I think I must have gone through the air like they do on the cartoons) and came back to earth, backside first, across the bottom steps and the shingle beach. Despite the pain, it was actually quite wonderful to be there just noticing the movement of the water and arch of the bridge and all the detail. I suppose the coins that flew out of my pocket must still be there and maybe a future archaeologist will find them and wonder if they were an offering to the river gods.

    You might like the 1958 film: ‘The Horses Mouth’. Some of it was filmed near Battersea Bridge. It’s a great film anyway but now that it’s more than half a century old it’s also become an interesting visual record of that area as it used to be in the late 1950s.

    Roy Eastland

    • I’m glad you liked the photos – and sorry to hear of your misadventure on the steps… I came very close to the same fate! It’s funny that you mention losing your coins in the mud because the only shot on that roll that didn’t turn out was one I took of a patch of mud and its various treasures. I have more to learn about mudlarking with a camera, I guess.

      I hadn’t heard of The Horse’s Mouth but it looks like my kind of film, so thanks for the recommendation – it’ll be interesting to see that area in the period between Whistler and now.

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