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Grappling with Monsters

In the early years of the 19th century, the British romantic artist William Blake painted a very strange and brownish picture he called The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan. For many years art historians have pored over Blake’s work for secret symbols, hidden messages and coded narratives, but this one seems quite straightforward so long as we have the title to guide us through the oddness of the image. The painting’s central character is a golden haired, haloed man who is naked save for a pair of skimpy pants. Despite his state of undress, he is poised heroically as he controls with apparent ease some sort of serpentine, scaly monster. Trapped within this monster’s muscly coils are various naked figures in a selection of helpless poses, some inverted, as they desperately wrestle to free themselves. At the bottom of this circular composition of writhing snake and disorientated bodies lie two figures, one white slumped and one black huddled, both apparently exhausted from the struggle. All around flames lick out as if this some hellish detail taken from The Last Judgement. What can all this have to do with Admiral Lord Nelson?

To uncover the meaning behind Blake’s nightmarish vision we need to turn to history and consider what it was that made Nelson so famous. His two momentous achievements were the British victory over the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, and the defeat of the French and Spanish navies at the Battle of Trafalgar, fought off Cape Trafalgar on the Spanish coast, during which he was killed in 1805. These victories set the scene for what would be a century of British naval supremacy, ultimately underpinning the expansion of Empire. Those are the two main attributes that are conjured up by the idea – the cult of Nelson – naval power and imperialism. So was this Blake’s tribute to Nelson? He certainly worked on the painting for about four years from around the time of Nelson’s death. Meanwhile other leading artists such as John Flaxman and Benjamin West were producing much more sober and monumental pieces to feed the outpouring of national pride in – and grief over the loss of Nelson, the naval hero.

But what Blake has done, as we might expect Blake to do, is to subvert the very idea of these catalytic events, synthesising a personification of the impact of them via Nelson himself. What Blake is saying here is that, at the very least, this extreme hero worship is all highly questionable. So if this isn’t a tribute to a war hero, it an attack on the flabby thinking that implies imperialism is necessarily a good thing. But even if Blake’s commentary is barbed, he still holds Nelson and turn-of-the-century Britain in considerable esteem.

In Blake’s painting we know that the all-but-naked figure is Nelson. There he stands, nonchalantly heroic, holding what, on closer inspection, turns out to be a representation of a thunderbolt. Multi-tasking Nelson also finds time to direct a serpent-like creature, which we know by the title is intended to represent the Old Testament sea monster, Leviathan, here shown wrapping itself around its apparent victims. When Blake showed his painting in a private exhibition in London in 1809, alongside its companion Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth (c.1805), it was number 1, and the accompanying description explained that it is the sea creature that: ‘…in whose wreathings are infolded the Nations of the Earth’.

We can guess that Blake is probably making reference to those nations with which Britain was at war, but they might also be her colonies, here shown caught in a sinister maritime Empire represented by the giant sea snake. Blake most probably would have condemned such an Empire. With this painting and its pendant featuring Pitt, Blake is showing the two leaders as bringers of apocalyptic war, even if Blake appreciated that the campaign against Napoleon was just and righteous. As I have described, Blake’s Nelson stands over the huddled figure of a manacled black man, presumably a slave and highlighting the role of the Royal Navy in suppressing the slave trade after it was made illegal in the British Empire in 1807. It has been suggested that Bake may have seen the modern British Empire as enacting a divine plan for the world, making way for the millennium through acts of regenerative destruction (see F. David Peat (2007) Pathways of Chance [Pari Publishing], p. 127). Here then, Nelson guides a pathway through the chaos of the modern world by controlling a writhing sea monster symbolising an all powerful Britain as it flexes its maritime muscle.

If Blake’s Nelson really is paving the way for the millennium, what if we now turn our attention to another artwork representing the actual turn of the millennium nearly two hundred years later? It is Quantum Cloud (1999) by Anthony Gormley. Gormley’s sculpture stands on the south bank of the river Thames adjacent to the Millennium Dome on the North Greenwich peninsula. Famous for his work The Angel of the North (1998) near Gateshead in Tyne and Wear, Quantum Cloud is actually a third taller at 30 metres. At the time of its unveiling it was the tallest sculpture in the United Kingdom. Constructed from tetrahedral units made from 1.5 metre long sections of steel, the pieces were arranged using a computer model with a random walk algorithm starting from points on the surface of an enlarged figure based on Gormley’s body that forms a residual outline at the centre of the sculpture. In designing Quantum Cloud, Gormley was influenced by Basil Hiley, quantum physicist (and long-time colleague of David Bohm). The idea for Quantum Cloud came from Hiley’s thoughts on pre-space as a mathematical structure underlying space-time and matter, and his comment that “algebra is the relationship of relationships”. The comment was made during a conversation between Gormley, Hiley and writer David Peat at a 1999 London gathering of artists and scientists, organized by Peat. This is all very interesting, but above and beyond the quantum physics, what do we as the audience see in this work? Most people encounter it for the first time when exploring the Millennium Dome (O2) venue, or using the cable car that crosses the Thames nearby and provides a bird’s-eye view of Gormley’s sculpture. To my mind, Gormley’s Millennium Man is just as much trapped inside the neo-modern metallic cloud of his time as Blake’s idea of Nelson, encircled by the writhing leviathan.

Sections of this entry are informed either directly or indirectly by the David Blayney Brown’s entry on Blake published in the exhibition catalogue Artist and Empire [Tate, 2015]. 

On a Tree by a River

Soho Square
Soho Square

Not far from the banks of the Thames opposite my studio at Bow Creek is what is arguably the finest, best-preserved and most ambitious Jacobean mansion in London: Charlton House, and yet it attracts very little in the way of interest. The house was built between 1607 and 1612 with the then fashionable red brick with stone dressing construction and characteristic ‘E’-plan layout for Sir Adam Newton, Dean of Durham and tutor to Prince Henry, the son and heir of James I, and older brother of the future Charles I. Henry, Prince of Wales, died of typhoid fever (or was it poisoning?) at the age of 18.  The diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) lived nearby and he knew both Newton’s son, Sir Henry Newton, and the house which he recorded as being built for Prince Henry.

Charlton House, 1858
Charlton House, 1858

Evidence suggests that the architect responsible for the house was one of the
first professional English architects, Sir John Thorpe, who had served as Clerk of Works at the Palace of Placentia in nearby Greenwich. Sculptor John Wenlock Rollins’ made a statue of John Thorpe – you can find him gazing down from his niche on the external façade of the Victoria & Albert Museum above the hubbub
on Cromwell Road.

John Thorpe, V&A

Around Charlton House itself, hidden in nooks and crannies are clues to its illustrious heritage: the Prince of Wales’ feathers above a door, the royal monogram ‘JR’ for James I somewhere else, and the royal Stuart coat of arms and the Garter and Prince of Wales’ motto , Ich Dien – ‘I serve’, in the east bay. Even more intriguing, in the grounds of Charlton House one can choose to take an architecturally interesting pee in a converted orangery which has been optimistically attributed to the greatest 17th-century architect, Inigo Jones himself. Why Jones was put in charge of designing a summer house here is unclear, but what is there for all to see is a mulberry tree, the oldest of its species, this one planted in 1608 at the behest of none other than James I himself.

All fascinating stuff, but besides its proximity to it, what has any of this have to do with the river Thames? Well, I’ll tell you. In 1877 an extension by way of a new wing was added to Charlton House – rather controversially given its incongruous style – by the Victorian architect Richard Norman Shaw.

Richard Norman Shaw, 1831-1912

This architect’s legacy is huge, as he was indirectly responsible for the design of a ubiquitous variety of suburban housing in England with which many of us are only too familiar. Shaw came up with the design by drawing on ‘Queen Anne style’ and adapting it to a modern, open-plan approach, which he prototyped at place called Grim’s Dyck in Harrow, a house once visited by a bemused John Betjeman in his famous documentary Metro-land.

John Betjeman at Grims Dyke
John Betjeman, 1906-1984

This house was built for the enormously successful Victorian artist Frederick Goodall, but it would later became the home of W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame), who died in the garden lake in an attempt to rescue a drowning girl.

W. S. Gilbert, 1836-1911

Overseeing this tragic incident from an island in the lake stood a statue of Charles II by the 17th-century sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber.

Soho Square
Soho Square showing Cibber’s statues

This statue of Charles II was once the centrepiece of a fountain erected in Soho Square in 1681, each corner surmounted by a statue of a river god allegorising the rivers Thames, Severn, Humber and
Tyne. Over the preceding two centuries the fountain had fallen into disrepair, but in 1875 it was removed during alterations to Soho Square by Thomas Blackwell of Crosse & Blackwell fame. The company had its headquarters at 21 Soho Square from 1838 until 1925. Crosse & Blackwell’s main warehouse in Tottenham Court Road later became the Astoria cinema and dance club, now demolished to make way for Crossrail. For safekeeping, Blackwell gave the statue (we do not know what happened to the river gods) to his friend the artist Frederick Goodall.

Frederick Goodall, 1822-1904

Incidentally, Frederick’s first commission had been for Isambard Brunel: six watercolour paintings of the Rotherhithe Tunnel.  Four of these were exhibited at the Royal Academy when Frederick was sixteen. Goodall’s work received high praise and acclaim from critics and artists alike and he earned a fortune from his paintings, which is why he could afford to have a home built at Grim’s Dyke, Harrow Weald, by Richard Norman Shaw. Here he entertained guests such as the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII).

When Blackwell gave the statue of Charles II from Cibber’s fountain to Goodall, instead of restoring it, the artist had it erected on an island in his garden lake and there it remained to bear witness to the great librettist Sir William Schwenck Gilbert gasping his last in a tragic swimming accident.  In 1938 Gilb
ert’s widow had the statue moved back to its original home in Soho Square, minus the river gods, where it remains today presiding over urban picnickers and the Soho glitterati.Grims Dyke lake


Thames Dreadful

The Illustrated Police News report of the murder of Emily Coombes
The Illustrated Police News report of the murder of Emily Coombes

I am in the process of collecting and collating ideas for a book that will set out to explore the impact of the River Thames on visual culture. Although I am keeping an open mind at this stage, the focus of my research is shifting towards the stretch of the river that flows between London Bridge and the sea. The business end if you like. I am interested in how visual references to the Thames – both its actual physicality and the perception of it, good and bad – have been employed as ciphers for widely held beliefs and notions that have encompassed concepts such as commerce, military power and patriotism to poverty, prostitution and suicide. Here’s something that’s caught my eye [see above]. It hails from the late nineteenth century.

This is the cover of a typical Victorian penny dreadful and it depicts the story of a grisly murder of a mother by her two sons. It’s all a bit grim. There’s a whiff of irony about it too, for when the body was found the police had also discovered a stash of these so called penny dreadfuls, which were to all intents and purposes cheap magazines for boys. However, despite the police and coroner’s agreement that the magazines were at the bottom of the tragedy, there’s something else that might be at play here and I think the illustrator has added a visual clue that has sent me off on a different scent altogether – and this one smells of the Thames.

As Kate Summerscale makes clear in her book The Wicked Boy (Bloomsbury, 2016) it was ‘far easier to blame the penny dreadfuls than to explore the anger and fear that might have prompted a 13-year-old to attack his mother with a knife’. One cause, which emerged in court, was the eldest son’s anxiety about leaving school for a punishing job in a Thames shipyard. Given that the family lived in a small terraced house in Plaistow, east London – just a couple of miles walk from the docks and shipyards of the Thames – this explanation gains plausibility. The shipyards had a terrible reputation and working conditions and pay were dire. Could the model ship on a small shelf above the chest of drawers (which appears in both the illustrated scenes of the murder and the discovery of the body) symbolise this dreaded future employment, the fear of which might have been familiar to boys of a similar age and background at which the magazine was targeted? It may have been a shorthand reference by the illustrator but darker still, if the model ship had actually been there in the room, is it possible the mother had used its symbolic significance to taunt her sons and to threaten them with the kind of maritime future they would be doomed to suffer if they failed to do her bidding? If so, did she push it too far with her sons – aged only 12 and 13? Could they have taken her vivid threats so seriously they believed it necessary to do away with their own mother in order to avoid their perceived fate?

wolfe percival penny B20116 44

London’s river had also inspired stories for other forms of penny dreadful such as this fine tale of derring do published for the London Romance Company entitled ‘Wild Will or The Pirates of the Thames’ (c.1865). Here the maritime protagonist embarks on a series of heroic adventures with his fair maiden in tow.

It’s a million miles from the drudgery of a future condemned to toiling in a Thames shipyard, but another indication of the river’s dominant role in the real and imagined lives of young, working class Londoners in the 19th century.

Drawn by Light…back to the Thames

Water Fountains at Crystal Palace (c.1852) by Philip Henry Delamotte
Water Fountains at Crystal Palace (c.1852) by Philip Henry Delamotte

Wherever I go I seem to stumble across stuff that draws me back to the subject of the Thames.  This is especially true right now as I’ve been spending the last few weeks sifting through material and ideas for a Thames-related book, which means I’m constantly on the lookout for interesting riverine images and histories.  Last week I was mooching around Drawn by the Light – an exhibition of historic photographs from The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the Science Museum, when my curiosity was piqued by this photograph by Philip Henry Delamotte (1821-89) [above].  Delamotte was commissioned to photograph the move of Crystal Palace, after the Great Exhibition had closed, from Hyde Park to Sydenham between 1852 and 1854, and this photograph shows the new water fountains laid out at the new south-east London site.

Crystal Palace - lower terrace

These new pleasure gardens were peppered with statuary, and I already knew that an ornamental lake on the lower terrace was embellished with four figures cast in Portland Stone Cement after models by Raffaelle Monti (1818-81).  These were river gods representing the Ganges, Nile, Amazon – and of course, Thames.  On the opposite side of the terrace an identical lake was ornamented with sea gods – Indian, Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific.  The Crystal Palace was destroyed by fire in 1936 and the site was eventually cleared, with most of the statues sold off in the late 1950s.  It’s difficult to uncover the fate of all the river and sea gods today, but there are three out of eight that I’ve tracked down so far.  First there’s Pacific.  He can be found at the edge of a council estate in Dacres Road, Forest Hill – so he hasn’t travelled too far from his original location.


Pacific is the only sea god I’ve located.  Ganges has made a longer journey, but only as far as Blackheath near Greenwich where he reclines unmolested on an island in an ornamental lake at Brooklands Park – previously part of a private garden.


But most satisfying of all – well, as far as I’m concerned anyway, is the survival of Father Thames.  The Thames Conservancy purchased him in 1958 and sited him at the rather lonely location of Trewsbury Mead, known as Thames Head which is arguably the source of the Thames.  It’s also the official start of the Thames Pathway – ‘from source to sea’.  Unfortunately the statue was the victim of vandalism here – all those overexcited hikers high on Dubbin no doubt.  To put an end to these rude attacks, Father Thames was moved by lorry to St John’s Lock in Lechlade, a town at the southern edge of the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire – and the highest point at which the Thames is navigable.  Here he sits today, resplendent and in full view of the lock keeper.


Delamotte’s albumen print of c.1852 clearly shows Father Thames’ original location, taking pride of place among the world’s greatest rivers, seas and oceans.  If anybody has any idea of what became of Nile, Amazon, Indian, Atlantic and Arctic – please let me know.

Shame about the boat race

Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-race Day (c. 1862) by Walter Greaves
Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-race Day (c. 1862) by Walter Greaves

I was surprised to come across this canvas by Walter Greaves in the current Tate Britain exhibition: British Folk Art.  Greaves was the son of the Thames Waterman who had been responsible for ferrying J. M. W. Turner up and down London river while the artist sketched.  When the American-born artist James McNeill Whistler moved into the street where the Greaves family lived, Walter and his brother Henry performed the same task as their father, by rowing Whistler around while he worked.

Portrait of James McNeill Whistler (undated) by Walter Greaves

Whistler recruited Walter and Henry as his minions – they prepared his canvases and frames and ran errands for him.  Walter showed his own artistic talent which Whistler encouraged, but when Whistler moved house,  he dropped his pupil unceremoniously.

Walter Greaves (1917) by William Nicholson
Walter Greaves (1917) by William Nicholson

Greaves has been ‘discovered’ on more than one occasion in the past, but his works are often dismissed by critics as poor copies of Whistler’s nocturnes.  This disapproval on the basis that Greaves was influenced by his tutor is reductive as works such as Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-race Day (c. 1862) [above] and Old Battersea Bridge (1874) [below] demonstrate.  I have since discovered a great many more works by Walter Greaves, mostly featuring the Thames, that are stashed away in national and private collections – and they deserve more attention.

Old Battersea Bridge (1874) by Walter Greaves
Old Battersea Bridge (1874) by Walter Greaves

I think I may have stumbled upon a whole new Thames research project!



Under the Influence

Under the Influence: John Deakin and the Lure of Soho, The Photographers’ Gallery until 13 July

John Deakin, contact sheet of self-portraits, for Vogue (1952)

I first came across the photographer John Deakin through the various memoirs of Daniel Farson.  Back in the 1960s, Farson was quite a celebrity and made the unusual move to the East End, taking a house on Narrow Street (near the famous Grapes pub).  He then bought a pub on the Isle of Dogs (now one of my local watering holes) and turned it into the place to go – regulars included visiting Hollywood stars like Clint Eastwood and performers included Shirley Bassey and even Judy Garland.  Farson was also known for hanging out with the Colony Room set – a group of heavy-drinking artists, musicians and writers including Francis Bacon, George Melly, Jeffrey Bernard, Michael Andrews, Lucian Freud – and John Deakin.  Farson and Deakin were close mates, although Farson introduces him in his memoir sponging money in the French House, another Soho pub popular with artists and writers.

George Melly described Deakin as a ‘vicious little drunk of such inventive malice and implacable bitchiness that it’s surprising he didn’t choke on his own venom’.  Barbara Hutton said he was ‘the second nastiest man I’ve ever met’, which baffled Deakin’s friends because they couldn’t figure out who could be nastier.  Born in Bootle in 1912, Deakin learned photography in Paris and was assigned to an army photographic unit during the war.

He worked for Vogue twice, but on both occasions he was sacked for losing his equipment.  He washed up in Soho where he wanted to become a painter, but it was as a street photographer he produced his best work.

Portrait of an unknown girl in a café, 1960s
Portrait of an Unknown Girl in a Café by John Deakin

The results offer a uniquely unguarded glimpse of the past, framed by the familiar outline of a wonderfully seedy Soho.

Lunch at Wheelers by John Deakin (1962)
Lunch at Wheelers by John Deakin (1962)

Deakin, a chronic alcoholic, thought little of his photographic talents and was careless with his archives.  Much of what remains of his work was pulled from underneath his bed in Soho after he died in 1972, or found, splattered with paint, on the floor of Francis Bacon’s studio.

Francis Bacon by John Deakin for Vogue (1952)

But it was not by chance that they ended up there. Bacon thought extremely highly of Deakin’s photographic work and some of the artist’s most successful paintings are derived from Deakin’s images. In 2012, Bacon’s Portrait of Henrietta Moraes (1963) sold for £21.3 million.  In 2013, Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969) sold for $142 million, making it one of the most expensive paintings ever sold.

Both pictures were  based on photographs by John Deakin.

I’ll be discussing John Deakin and his work on John Stanford’s radio show, The Serendipitous Compendium, on Sunday 8 June.


Greenwich Riddle

Engraved by John Rogers after George Bryant Campion, pub. 1830
Engraved by John Rogers after George Bryant Campion, pub. 1830

A good friend of mine from Brühl in Germany has just given me this picture, having come across it in an antique printshop in Cologne. It’s a view of Greenwich Hospital – later known as The Royal Hospital for Seamen – which was designed by Christopher Wren and built between 1696 and 1712.  The hospital closed in 1869 and the building became the Royal Naval College in 1873.  This view is taken from Island Gardens on the south-east tip of the Isle of Dogs, which is very near to where I live – ah!

This is a steel-line engraving by John Rogers (c.1800-1882) from an original study by the English watercolour landscape painter George Bryant Campion (1795-1870) – who incidentally was Drawing Master at the Military Academy in nearby Woolwich.  I think the engraving was originally produced for the England’s Topographer series of Kent Views published in London from 1828 to 1831, although it may have also appeared in T. Allen’s Panorama of London (1830) and W. H. Ireland’s The Country of Kent (1832) – but I’m going to check that next time I’m in the British Library.

Anyway, besides all that – and the very intriguing question as to how it ended up in Cologne – is the mysterious juxtapositioning of four handwritten lines above the picture of Greenwich.

Greenwich Hospital 1830 cropped poemIn a slightly unsteady copperplate style, these words are written on the sheet of grey paper to which the print of Greenwich has been messily glued after removal from whatever publication it appeared in.  Has the whole been removed from  a nineteenth-century scrapbook?

The earliest record I can find of this epigram in print is in The New Foundling Hospital for Wit published in 1786, but it subsequently appears repeatedly in other collections of funnies, for example in Elegant Extracts (1816) and The Tickler (1819).   But what is the connection with Greenwich Hospital?  Here’s a scan of the whole page:

Greenwich Hospital 1830Could it be something recorded by a Greenwich Pensioner?  Suggestions on a postcard please!

The Great Dutch Ship Robbery

Stern carving from the Royal Charles, c. 1660

This is possibly one of the most intriguing exhibits (for me) in the whole of the Rijksmuseum’s collection.  These arms of Charles II once adorned the stern transom, or ‘counter’, of the English flagship  the Royal Charles.  During the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Dutch bombarded then captured Sheerness before sailing up the Thames to Gravesend, then up the Medway to Chatham where they burned three of the British navy’s most important ships and other vessels before towing away the Unity and the Royal Charles to the Netherlands where they were broken up.   The counter decoration from the Royal Charles was preserved  to commemorate this remarkable Dutch triumph and the worst defeat in the Royal Navy’s history – and here it is in all its glory some 350+ years later.

Nearby hangs this painting by Willem Schellinks which depicts the extraordinary Dutch naval coup taking place.

Willem Schellinks
Willem Schellinks, The burning of the English fleet near Chatham, June 1667, during the second Anglo-Dutch war (1667-1678)

And this alternative take on it by Jan Van Leyden

Jan Van Leyden, The Dutch burning English ships during the Raid on the Medway, 20 June 1667 (c.1667-69)
Jan Van Leyden, The Dutch burning English ships during the Raid on the Medway, 20 June 1667 (c.1667-69)

I feel a paper coming on…



I finally made it to the refurbished Rijksmuseum.  Here I am outside with Henry Moore’s Large Reclining Figure (1983) on loan from the Henry Moore Foundation in Perry Green.  Made of white fibreglass, Moore’s sculpture is over 9 metres long and weighs 2,000 kilos.

The main museum building was designed by Pierre Cuypers and first opened its doors in 1885.P1060629

But enough about the museum.  Even better is the delicious broodje haring.