In this painting we can we Blackfriars Bridge in the background reaching across the River Thames with smoke billowing up into the sky behind. On the far right the unmistakable, and instantly recognisable, silhouette of St Pauls also breaks the sky line of the city. Finished in the early 18th Century, St Pauls has been a noticeable addition to the London cityscape ever since.
This work by Wilkinson depicts ‘The Pool’ of London, a stretch of the River Thames from London Bridge to below Limehouse. As part of the Tideway of the Thames, the Pool was navigable by tall-masted vessels bringing coastal and oversea goods to the wharves that originally made up the Port of London. In 1909 the Pool came under the jurisdiction of the Port of London Authority. The docks here thrived until the late 1950s, despite suffering from extreme bomb damage during the Second World War.
The tall-masted ships that Wilkinson has depicted here are perfect examples of traditionally rigged sailing craft of the time. They differ from modern sailing vessels in that they did not use newer materials (such as aluminium and steel) and have more complex rigging as a result. The term tall ship later came into widespread use in the mid-20th century with the advent of Tall Ships’ races. Here, incredible attention to detail has been applied by Wilkinson in the accurate depiction of the various ships rigging, specific attention being given to the ship in the left foreground.
Smoke arises from the city, blending into the clouds. The juxtaposition of the steam ships hint at the unavoidable dominance that steamships would eventually have over the favoured sail ships. Indeed, while sails provided supplementary power to ships with oars, as sails were not designed to sail to windward, steamships’ complete independence from the wind gave them the ability to take shorter routes internationally. The new ability to pass through the Suez and Panama Canals made sailing ships uneconomical.
Wilkinson was born in Cambridge, England, and attended Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire and St Paul’s Cathedral Choir School in London. His early artistic training occurred in the vicinity of Portsmouth and Cornwall, and at the Southsea School of Art, where he would also later teach.
At age 21 he studied academic figure painting in Paris, but was already interested in maritime subjects. Indeed, although early on he studied figure painting in Paris, further study with the river and coastal painter Louis Grier in Cornwall reinforced Wilkinson’s growing belief that he should concentrate on marine subjects, of which he became a master.
Norman Wilkinson was a successful marine painter and illustrator. He was also responsible for developing the concept of “dazzle camouflage” for British warships during the First World War. But it was as a poster artist that he reached his highest artistic level. In 1905, Wilkinson was commissioned by the London and North Western Railways to produce a poster advertising their rail/steam link to Ireland. Recognising the opportunity to create a new approach to railway poster design, he depicted the product as just one element of a broader landscape.
It was the first time this had been done and its revolutionary concept was an important influence in the development of the pictorial poster. He went on to organise the celebrated commissioning of poster designs from members of the Royal Academy for the London Midland and Scottish Railway company in the 1920s. Wilkinson believed that art should play an important part in advertising. His posters were well-planned and executed in broad tones of colour with a skilful use of black to strengthen the design. He was, in his words, “the father and mother of the artistic poster on English railway stations”
His career as an illustrator began with a first acceptance by the Illustrated London News in 1898, a publication with which he was long associated. He travelled widely abroad, in Europe, the Mediterranean area and in North and South America. In both world wars Wilkinson was important in the development of camouflage techniques, and he presented a big series of pictures concerned with the war at sea to the nation.
Wilkinson’s works are on display in the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Academy, the Royal Society of British Artists, the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, the Fine Art Society and the Royal Society of Artists. The Imperial War Museum has over 30 ship models painted in the variety of dazzle schemes by Wilkinson, mostly fro 1917.