Book review: The Wapping Group of Artists: Sixty Years of Painting on the Thames
Who are these folk, this odd collection of people, settling into the mud of the river bank, working their paints with speed, no time to stop because everyone’s so aware of the half an hour left and the tide is rising? London’s docks, wet socks, no time for mistakes or stepping back or even slopping out your wellies because this canvas must soon record the architecture of the Thames at a given moment and the filthy quilt of London river traffic before it eventually changes and someone legislates to clean it up. The Fighting Temeraire was their benchmark, as it hauled its weary hull around that murky bend and on to the ship breakers’ yard but there’s nothing of that calibre now, just working boats and private cruisers, although London’s bridges have always framed the changing spectacle of this working river that fish cough to death in.
Masefield’s Cargoes would be another influence — they’re not all visual. Are you confident enough to capture a moment, with the distractions of a living city tugging at your sleeve? Not easy. On one of the world’s great rivers that runs through a capital city, anything at all might happen. The weather might work against you, flies and random fluff could be drawn to your sticky canvas and boats on their moorings won’t stay put, swinging on new headings as the currents rule them. You’re painting in the open air, so what about the Public? You’ll soon regard them as London’s finest nuisance, when they park their culturally underdeveloped bones between you and your subject or a tourist tries to buy your work when it’s only half painted. Yes, okay take a photo of the painters of you really must be the dust in the corner of an artist’s eye but then hurry away to see the rest; they’ll be changing the guard at three.
Are the paintings any more fascinating than the painters? Weekly allowance saved for a sable brush and yet London has expanded over the years and swamped her working tenement home, transforming it into a goldmine. A fortune in bricks and her lunch is a corned beef sandwich with a bag of pork scratchings. She won’t cash in and move away though. No. Not leave the river. Another, a boat’s length downstream and close to the water. This one can’t stand for long. On more canvas he sits between grasshopper sticks of a camper’s chair that sinks and tilts him sideways. “Drat it!” and yet he paints reality.
Iron concentration breaks as the tide soaks in and only those most pleased with their work cling on to maximise the final minutes. The higher the water mark rises up the painter’s trousers, the more value they placed on getting it finished. If they’ve forgotten something it’s too late to go back. A jumper perhaps, an abandoned cushion, a jar of brushes carried away on the stream, their stalks pointing ever skyward as the weighted ends become their keels. The light’s going as shadows pall on the high-sided banks and the chill breeze stiffens fingers around mugs of tea. The final strokes are made and the weather is calling them in, a painting completed and too late to tinker with. Knowing when to stop is the wisest trick in art. Now, to get it home, through London’s traffic, not to smudge that precious, wetted canvas along the way. A thumb in the wrong place would spoil the day.
Painting en plein air (in the open air) is, for some, the only way. The Wapping Group is the oldest group of professional working artists to regularly meet and paint this way in England. Since its foundation in 1946, having sub-divided from The Langham Sketching Club, the Group has met regularly to paint the changing face of the Thames over the last sixty years. Originally concentrating on the docks, the decline of commercial shipping encouraged the Group to broaden its range, so nowadays their subjects are from Henley to the estuary. Much has changed. The imperial architecture to the glass-fronted dockland apartments, the skyline and the streets, the London barges to the sightseeing vessels.
This is a record of a working society of painters, amateur and professional, a diverse and fluent collection with two hundred colour illustrations, so that’s certainly enough to meet the brief. For those already concerned with shipping, sailing, art or architecture, this collection will tell them what they already know — but will capture it. Many people either live and work in, or visit, the streets of London every year, so this book should open some weary eyes. Are they aware of what’s happening right by them, over the bank? Do they know what’s on the river, passing by? Today it might be a tall ship, a London barge, a brassy steam boat or an old gaffer. I don’t think anyone’s painted a lost soul floating past yet but that’s also in the grime and the sunshine of a river’s experience. Perhaps, if you look hard enough, you might even spot some saddened painter’s lost and bobbing brushes as they coast along on their final journey to the sea. Why do they still meet and do this? Why do they keep searching? Perhaps because they can open their eyes, challenge the tides and see things that the rest of the wicked metropolis is too busy to notice.