Senior reporter Harry Cockburn chooses his favourite paintings of London
London is central to western art. It may not have been as pivotal as Paris was in modern art history or Rome before that, but after a bit of a rubbish start, London’s importance as an art centre has grown hugely.
But none of that matters much, that’s just a bit of intro before we plunge into what this piece is all about – looking at some great paintings of London. Here they are in all their glory. Well, not in all their glory, as your computer screen is unlikely to be as big and well framed as the actual artefact, but you know what we mean. Either way, let’s look.
Canaletto – Greenwich Hospital from the north bank of the Thames
Canaletto Arrived in England in 1746 and stayed for ten years, raising the prominence of landscape painting, which was largely seen as being inferior to religious painting and portraiture. In this image Canaletto depicts Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor’s buildings, now known as the Old Naval College, which became the UK’s first UNESCO World Heritage site.
Paul Sandby – Bayswater Road at the Turnpike Gate, 1806
Look at Bayswater Road back in 1806, it’s a bloody disgrace. No tarmac, no Porsches. Sandby lived in a house in nearby St. George’s row in 1772 and lived there until his death in 1809 at the age of 78. Sandby was a spectacular watercolourist, and one of the founding members of the Royal Academy. Cheers Paul.
Constable – the opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1832
This monster painting is a whopping seven feet wide. Admittedly, it’s not as big as Waterloo Bridge itself, which can be seen for real less than a mile from where the painting lives at Tate Britain, but nonetheless, it is still a big ‘un.
It took Constable 13 years to plan, and it depicts the opening of the bridge, which Constable had witnessed (though he did so two years before beginning to paint the scene). The opening of the bridge was on the second anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, on the 18 June 1817. Constable first exhibited the picture in 1832.
JMW Turner The Burning of the Houses of Parliament – 1834-5
This astonishing eruption of colour is Turner’s dramatic depiction of the conflagration that brought down the Houses of Parliament in 1834. Turner was in the crowd on the night of the fire, and even hired a boat so he could get a better gander at the scene, which he first sketched, and then turned into two paintings. In the one above, we see the view from alongside Westminster Bridge.
William Holman Hunt – London Bridge on the Night of the Marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales, 1863
Perhaps the least famous of the original pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, Holman Hunt was in the crowd on the occasion of the Royal wedding in 1863. The picture is unlike his more famous works, which have more overt symbolism in them, and goats.
Camille Pissarro – Fox Hill, Upper Norwood, 1870
Norwood doesn’t instantly scream ART! these days, but things were different when Pissarro moved to Britain to escape the Franco Prussian war in the 1870s. Back then it was all smoking chimneys, snow and top hats. He also painted several pictures of nearby Sydenham, which are equally unbelievable when you look at what is there today.
Claude Monet – Waterloo Bridge, 1903
After completing his paintings of the façade of Rouen Cathedral, Monet, who was in his 60s, headed to London, where he painted four series of paintings, including the Houses of Parliament, Waterloo Bridge, Westminster Bridge and Charing Cross Bridge. Here is a picture of Waterloo Bridge he completed in 1903. Possibly spurred on by Turner’s inventive use of colour, Monet’s swirling fog scenes challenged global perceptions of London as a grey industrialised dump.
Andre Derain – Westminster, 1906
After Monet’s successful stint capturing the colours and various fogs London had on offer, Derain was told to go to London and do pretty much the same thing a couple of years later by his art dealer, Ambroise Vollard. Derain returned with a clutch of colourful fauvist landscapes that cemented his artistic legacy in Europe.
Oskar Kokoschka – London, Waterloo Bridge – 1926
Another picture of Waterloo Bridge! Artists just can’t get enough of it. But just look at this one. It’s amazing. He doesn’t give a damn that the bridge is curling backwards as though it’s being dragged downstream.
And look! There’s the famous purple dome of St. Pauls. And there’s some boats wriggling about like worms.
Like many of Kokoschka’s intricately wrought cityscapes, the blend of control and energy on display equals a rich harmony that does weird and enjoyable things to the brain.
LS Lowry – Piccadilly Circus, 1960
The British artist painted just five pictures of London. He was mostly interested in bleak northern scenes. Nonetheless, he braved the hubbub of central
London to paint two images of Piccadilly Circus. This 1960 painting shows his trademark black stick figures dwarfed by the billboards advertising products including Coca-Cola, Bovril, Max Factor and Wrigley’s chewing gum.
Frank Auerbach – Primrose Hill, 1968
Auerbach completed more than 50 drawings of Primrose Hill for this work, which he then spent a year completing. You have to see it up close to witness how much paint there is on the canvas. It’s absolutely loads. The leafy North London hummock is a favourite subject of Auerbach’s along with nearby Mornington Crescent, where Auerbach’s studio is.
Leon Kossoff – Willesden Junction, Morning in October, 1970
Bridges, chimneys, sky, wiggles – possibly railway lines – it’s hard to tell exactly what is going on in Willesden Junction on this October morning in 1970 – but that’s the way Willesden has always been. Kossoff was born in Islington in 1926, and he studied art at St. Martin’s College under cubist/futurist painter David Bomberg – a key figure in the Vorticist movement of the 1910s. Kossoff moved to Willesden in 1966, and continues to live and work there today.
Did I miss any spectacular London paintings? Hit me up on Twitter @HarryCockburn