According to Lucas (Luke) Alexander Ionides (1837-1924), it was commissioned by his father, Alexander Constantine Ionides, shortly after the Royal Academy show of 1859. 1 Whistler later noted among Ionides' transactions: 'Battersea Bridge - paid 30 gs sold £600'. 2 It passed by family descent to Alexander Ionides (1840-1898). 3 On 17 March 1894 the London art dealer, David Croal Thomson, wrote to Whistler:
'You will be interested to learn that Mr A. A. Ionides has sold to us your picture of 'Old Battersea Bridge' & we gave him a cheque for four hundred guineas. I fear he is very hard pressed at the present for he spoke of getting rid of his whole house & its contents.' 4
'Many thanks for your letter - Curiously enough I am in correspondence (!) with Alexander Ionides about another matter so that I can write and ask to borrow that picture for the Antwerp Exhibition - when he will have to tell me himself! So you need never say anything about your communication -
I must say I can never understand the ways of your "House" in their dealings with my pictures - You buy the Battersea Bridge, and wise you are, in giving £400 - You ought certainly to get 1200 - at least …
Now that you own the Battersea Bridge - will you not lend it for the Exhibition at Antwerp? - You might have as good a chance of selling it there as anywhere - & perhaps better for I understand that it is to be a very swell affair.' 5
When Thomson refused to hand over all the relevant sales information, Whistler was indignant:
'I have a perfect right to ask you, as director of Messrs Goupils business in London, any question about the sale of pictures of mine that are put into your hands - and very curious it would appear if Messrs Goupil's Director made any mystery about it! - Wherefore I ask you again for the name of the purchaser of my "Old Battersea Bridge" - and what he paid for it? - Why should Messrs Goupil try to hide from me the whereabouts of pictures of mine they have sold - as though the transaction were a nefarious one!!' 6
He followed up by writing sarcastically to Ionides: 'the Battersea Bridge I dont know at the moment whether you got 500 or [800?]. You gave me the [old/odd?] £30 for it … Pretty devilish well you have all done with these … cheap excentricities of mine.' 7
According to Falk, D. C. Thomson went to Berlin, hoping to sell the painting to the German Government, but before he could do this, Edmund Davis had bought it. 8
1865: Royal Academy: The Saturday Review praised Old Battersea Bridge to the skies, which was more or less where it was hung:
‘He has a landscape, however – all English grey and damp, in place of Oriental brightness … This view of Old Battersea Bridge has nothing to equal it here – little like it, except Mr. Mason’s work - in its palpable and delightful truth of tone. It is what every landscape should be, rather an inlet into nature through a frame than what we commonly mean by a picture.’ 9
This response – and the comparison with the work of the Rome-based landscape painter George Mason (1818–1872) – was echoed in the Fortnightly Review:
‘The “View of Old Battersea Bridge,” … appears to deserve being classed with Mr. Mason’s work in regard to its tone. There is no splendour about it, hardly even beauty in the grays and browns which almost compose the picture, any more than in the long line of the bridge which crosses the left, or the bank edged with its common-place buildings and chimneys beyond; but it is all the more remarkable for the singular amount of effect which the artist has attained from such unpromising materials. So true are the gradations, so correct the relative tone fixed on for each object, so unaffected the arrangement of the boats, the bridge, and the shore, that one seems to be looking back right into last November, through a little square in the Academy walls. Yet there is no illusion; nothing of the disagreeable dioramic quality, possessed by the interesting scenes from South America, by Mr. Church (exhibited at McLean’s gallery in the Haymarket); the art which is so high as to conceal art, - as in some landscapes by Rembrandt – is excellently illustrated by the painter’s modest truth and mastery over the proper resources of the oil-colourist.’ 10
The Daily Telegraph also linked Mason and Whistler for rendering ‘the feeling of certain poetical moments’ and for their ‘originality … charm of tone or poetry of feeling.’ 11 Mason showed three landscapes, including The Cast Shoe, which shares something of the same restrained harmony of subdued colour as Whistler’s more ambitious panorama. 12 Neither, however, approached the vivid theatricality of Whistler’s fellow-countryman’s panorama - Heart of the Andes by Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900). 13
While critical of Whistler’s Asian subjects and American ancestry, the Daily Telegraph yet considered Old Battersea Bridge ‘by far the most remarkable landscape in the room’:
‘Here the artist has condescended to employ his magical sense of tone on an English scene, and to carry his work at least so far that it combines unity of sentiment and meaning with what he never fails in, harmony of colour. The skill with which the boats, the bridge, and the line of buildings on the river-side are so used as to give value to elements which separately would appear almost without pictorial capability, is not more remarkable than the effect of air and space.’ 14
There were few landscapes exhibited in the Royal Academy in that year, which perhaps helped Whistler's to stand out. His RA exhibits in 1865 show a range of subject matter, and reveal the growing influence of Asian art. ‘Old Battersea Bridge’ hung in the Middle Room, a Japanese subject, ‘The golden screen’ appropriately hung in the East Room; and a portrait of Joanna Hiffernan (b. ca 1843-d.1886), ‘The little white girl’, hung with a painting called ‘The Scarf’ (another Asian subject) in the North Room. 15
1867: Paris. Whistler was not invited to exhibit in the British section at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, his work was poorly hung and disappointingly received in the American section and he was furious.
'For Gods sake what is all this about my pictures in the entry! - Do see that scoundrel and if they are not to be changed, make at least a scene - tell him from me what a d—d fool he is … Have the pictures all taken away if you can - I won't have them hung where they are … how did the Yankee manage to swindle me in this way - Do like a good fellow let me know at once - Could not you see Beckwith and represent to him something of this - and at any rate say that they have in this way actually thrown away their only chance of having an artist among them.' 16
His works were ill-displayed in what Whistler later complained was a 'corridor where they have been more or less damned by every body', but which presumably had its compensations. 17
1883: Galerie Georges Petit. Many years later, in 1883, the painting was again shown in Paris, when Georges Petit (1856-1920) exhibited a large panel of Whistler's work including the Thames painting, which was shown under the title 'Harmonie en gris et brun'; it was described by Alfred de Lostalot (1837-1909) as 'une vue magistrale de rivière, avec pont de bois, fabriques dans le lointain, et, au premier plan, un groupe d'ouvriers; le tout excellemment peint et fort visible à l'oeil nu.' 18
1892: Goupil Gallery, London. The manager of the Goupil Gallery, David Croal Thomson (1855-1930), described the hanging of Whistler's retrospective exhibition, Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, to the artist:
'At the end of the gallery are the Miss Alexander[,] Battersea Bridge & Chelsea Battersea reach being on each side … Battersea Bridge (Mr Ionides') is perhaps my own favourite - it & the Harmony No. III of Mr Huths which is in the smaller room. … To day the public are crowding in (I am writing this during a lull at lunch time) willing to admire & mostly doing so - Mr Whistler is becoming the fashion at least it is becoming the correct thing to pretend to admire him
What a dreadful thing it is that people cannot learn more quickly.' 19
In the entry for Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge in the 1892 catalogue Whistler included a quotation from a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette dating from the previous year, 'Nor can I imagine any one acquainted with Mr. Whistler's works speaking of any of them as "completed".' 20 Presumably Whistler meant the painting to contradict this statement. Fortunately the Pall Mall did not take offense: their critic commented:
'How finely, too, Mr. Whistler can draw in a light which defines every object may be seen from the "Old Chelsea [sic] Bridge" … Those who are not of the extreme Whistlerian cult will regret that the collection does not contain more after this kind. Still it is a notable show, and will lead to the revision of some of the rash judgements which Mr. Whistler has in his playful manner reproduced in his catalogue for the encouragement of critics.' 21
The painting was only occasionally mentioned in reviews (figure subjects tended to have more coverage), though 'An Enthusiast' commended it highly in The Pictorial World of 26 March 1892:
'To enjoy Mr. Whistler's work one must have learnt to look at nature from a pictorial point of view, to look at art with reference to nature, and not to other pictures. Then will the greatness be apparent of such exquisite works of art as "Old Battersea Bridge", with its brown and silver harmonies.' 22
With the exhibition still on, Whistler asked Thomson (as soon as he knew that Ionides had sold it) if he could borrow it for a major exhibition in Munich, but this did not come to pass. 23 And he also suggested it to Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932) for the World's Columbian Exposition, Department of Fine Arts, Chicago, 1893. 24 Again, this did not happen.
9: [P. T. Palgrave], Saturday Review, London, 3 June 1865, vol. 19, p. 665; press cutting in GUL MS Whistler PC 1/19.
10: ‘English Pictures in 1865’, Fortnightly Review, London, vol. 1, 1865, pp. 665-66.
11: ‘Royal Academy Exhibition’, Daily Telegraph, London, 16 May 1865.
12: Royal Academy 1865 (cat. no. 31) ‘The Gander’; (cat. no. 229) ‘The Goose; (cat. no. 240) ‘The Cast Shoe' (Tate, Acc. No. N01388).
13: 1859, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Margaret E. Dows, 09.95. Church’s painting at 168 x 302.9 cm was nearly four times the size of Whistler’s.
14: Daily Telegraph, London, 11 May 1865; press cutting in GUL MS Whistler PC1/15.
15: MacDonald, Margaret F., 'Whistler and the Thames', An American in London. Whistler and the Thames, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Addison Gallery of American Art, Freer Gallery of Art, 2013-14, pp. 20-22.
20: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 31), quoting 'Occasional Notes', Pall Mall Gazette, 1 August 1891, p. 2.
21: 'The Whistler Show', Pall Mall Gazette, London, 19 March 1892; press cutting in GUL Whistler PC 13/20.
22: Press cutting in GUL Whistler PC 13/23.
Last updated: 19th December 2020 by Margaret