A View of Westminster Bridge and Montagu House
A View of Westminster Bridge and Montagu House
A View of Westminster Bridge and Montagu House
A View of Westminster Bridge and Montagu House

WILLIAM JAMES (worked c.1751-c.1771)

A View of Westminster Bridge and Montagu House

18th century England

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There is little known about William James’ life – like his date and place of birth and death for example – apart from that, according to Edward Edwards in his “Anecdotes of Painters” published in 1808, he studied under Canaletto when the latter was living in London in 1746. There is a copy of Canaletto’s “The Fête at Ranelagh” which was done by James.

By the late part of the 17th century and into the 18th, artists such as Jacob Knyff, Jan Griffier, Thomas Wyck, Hendrik Danckerts and Johannes Vorsterman followed a little later by Pieter Tillemans, Jan Siberechts, Leonard Knyff and Pieter Andreas Rysbrack the Younger were in residence here and were being commissioned to paint panoramic views of country houses and estates as well as towns and views of London from the Thames. Printed guides started to appear in the early 1700s with engravings county by county and the number of architectural books published in Britain between 1715 and 1800 exceeded that of the whole of Europe in the same period. There was a seemingly almost insatiable desire to have a record of man’s achievements in developing the built environment and bringing order to nature.

In the 1740s topographical art in Britain received an invigorating influence from Italy, a consequence of the increasing popularity of the Grand Tour. The most famous of the Italian artists were Canaletto and Antonio Joli and the former’s paintings had started to reach these shores in the late 1720s. Canaletto himself arrived in London in the summer of 1746. George Vertue, in his Notebooks in the Walpole Society writes: “…came to London from Venice the Famous Painter of Views Cannalletti …the Multitude of his works done abroad for English noblemen and Gentlemen has procurd him great reputation and his great merit and excellence in that way, he is much esteemed…” His “Whitehall and the Privy Garden from Richmond House” and “The Thames and the City of London from Richmond House”, both magnificent paintings and now at Goodwood, had a marked effect.

The English painters Samuel Scott, William James, Joseph Nicholls and William Marlow picked up on this style and there were several others of varying ability such as Samuel Wale, Francis Harding, Thomas Priest and Herbert Pugh who were commissioned to paint views of a city rapidly expanding in size, influence and wealth. There is evidence though that Scott was already painting topographical views of London before the arrival of Canaletto with a drawing of Westminster Abbey and Hall from the River in the British Museum confidently dated to 1738 providing the evidence for this. There is also speculation that some of these painters utilised a camera lucida or other such optical devices which would explain some of the occasional distorted buildings, even apparent in an artist of Scott’s ability.

Despite the apparent instruction from the renowned Master, the oeuvre of William James is closer to the style of the English Samuel Scott although James’ technique is slightly looser and the colouring is a little stronger. The subject matter though is similar to that of both Canaletto and Scott reflecting the strong and appreciative market for such views. Indeed, this view of Montagu House is very similar to Scott’s “A View of Westminster Bridge and Parts Adjacent” painted and engraved in 1758 and now in Tate Britain although there are variances, particularly in the boats, indicating that it was not a straight copy. Samuel Scott himself painted several versions of this composition (see R. Kingzett, A Catalogue of the Works of Samuel Scott, Walpole Society, 1982, vol. XLVII, pp. 60-62, nos. A-E, pl. 19a).

William James is probably best known for his views of mid-18th century London, especially along the Thames and scenes in the Parks, some of which were of considerable size. However, he also painted some general landscapes and depicted views in Egypt which were almost certainly worked up from sketches done by another artist who had visited that country.

He exhibited eight times at the Royal Academy between 1769 and 1771, sending them from addresses in Bedford Street, Covent Garden and May’s Buildings in St Martin’s Lane. Between 1761 and 1768, he showed nineteen works at the Society of Artists of Great Britain. Titles of exhibited works include: “Some ancient Ægyptian Temples as they are now standing in the Upper Ægypt”, “The Temple of Ozymanduas at Luxor”, “The Temple of Serapis at Dendera, with a grand Portico, at Medinet Habu, near Thebes”, “A View of the Serpentine river in Hyde Park”, “A View of London Bridge, as lately repaired”, “A View of London from the Windmill a little above Vauxhall”, “View of the Parade in St James’s Park”, “A View of Westminster from the Adelphi buildings in Durham Yard” and “The west end of Westminster Bridge”.

Examples of William James’ paintings can be seen in: Leeds Museums and Galleries (Horse Guards Parade); Beecroft Gallery, Southend (London Bridge); Guildhall Art Gallery (Mansion House): Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston upon Hull (Somerset House and Westminster Bridge, Evening);Victoria and Albert Museum (drawing after Canaletto) and the Royal Collection in Kensington Palace holds several examples.

This painting shows the North bank of the River Thames at Westminster with the newly completed Westminster Bridge which had replaced the old stone bridge. There was fierce resistance to the building of a second bridge as the citizens of London regarded its construction with jealousy even though it was to be some way upstream from London Bridge. It took an act of Parliament in 1736 to secure the necessary authorisation for the building, although this was not obtained without great opposition from the City of London as well as from Southwark and the watermen and bargemen of the Thames. (Until the bridge was built, the only communication between Lambeth and Westminster was by the ferry-boat near the palace gate.)

The original design was for a wooden bridge but this was abandoned after the severe frost of 1739-40 when some of the piers for the wooden bridge were carried away. A bridge of Portland stone was then decided upon and the expenses were defrayed by public lotteries and Parliamentary grants.

The bridge was opened in 1750, having taken eleven years to build at a cost of £389,500. It measured 1,223 feet in length and 44 feet wide with thirteen large and two small semi-circular arches. Between each arch at street level was a semi-octagonal recess which provided cover for pedestrians (and places of ambush for cut-throats and robbers). It was originally held to be an engineering triumph. However, after the removal of Old London Bridge and the resultant stronger tidal current, several of the supports of the piers of the bridge were eroded over time and eventually washed away. After many years of repairs and expense the old bridge was finally demolished and building on the current bridge started in 1855.

On the bank, from left to right, are Manchester Court, Dorset Court and Derby Court. These Courts contained several houses, the most expensive being those on the riverfront. In the foreground are ferries and rowing boats transporting gentlemen and cargo. Montagu House comprised two buildings in Whitehall and was on the site of what at one time had been the location of Whitehall Palace and its gardens in the time of Henry VIII. These gardens were always known as the “Privy Gardens” until the 19th century when they became Whitehall Gardens. When the area had been part of the Parish of St Margaret’s, Westminster, the authorities, in order to assert the parish boundaries, used to “beat the bounds” by taking a boat at Parliament Stairs, rowing to a mark in the centre arch of old Westminster Bridge, and then proceeding to Privy Garden Stairs where they landed and “passed before Montagu House to the House of the Earl of Louden”.

John Montagu, the 2nd Duke of Montagu, decided to leave his residence in Bloomsbury in 1731, building his new home on the aforementioned site in Whitehall replacing the former London residence of the Archbishop of York. John Monatgu’s Georgian residence was in turn replaced in the late 1850s by a very grand French chateau style building, commissioned by the 5th Duke of Buccleuch and designed by William Burn. This house was taken over by the Government in 1917, becoming offices. It was later demolished and the place that it occupied became incorporated into the larger Ministry of Defence complex.

Manchester House in Cannon Row, had been the London residence of the Earls of Manchester and had “a very fine court which hath a handsome freestone pavement”. It had been divided up into tenements in the time of Queen Anne and leading east from there one came to Derby Court, named after the Earls of Derby whose town house adjoined it. It had been built in about 1598 and was sequestered by Parliament during the Civil War who used it for committee meetings. Following the Restoration, it became the office of the Lord High Admiral.

Dictionary of British Landscape Painters - M H Grant
Dictionary of British 18th Century Painters - Ellis Waterhouse
British Landscape Painters of the 18th Century – Luke Hermann
Painting in Britain 1530-1790 – Ellis Waterhouse
A Dictionary of British Marine Painters – Arnold Wilson
Old and New London Vol III – Edward Walford
Period frame
Private Collection, England; purchased from Leggatt’s early 1970s
Height 51.00 cm (20.08 inches)
Width 76.20 cm (30.00 inches)
External Height 65.00 cm (25.59 inches)
External Width 90.30 cm (35.55 inches)
Oil on canvas
John Bennett Fine Paintings

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