Or, as I prefer to call it, Old Battersea Bridge, which was demolished well before I was born – or even my grandparents for that matter – but because I grew up a stone’s throw from where the bridge would have been, I have a great fondness for this painting. Actually, if truth be told, I have a great fondness for all Whistler’s paintings, apart from the portrait of his mother, which I’ve never really warmed to. However, this painting, because of its subject matter, is one I especially like. It currently hangs in Tate Britain in London, so I try to make an effort to pop in to see it every so often. A few of my favourite paintings are in there, so it’s a place I may well be found should I ever decide to go missing.
Old Battersea Bridge was a wooden structure that was replaced in 1885 by the stone bridge that now stands, and which was designed by Bazalgette – he of the London sewerage system. In the distance, one can see the recently completed Albert Bridge (again, still there) and Chelsea Old Church on the north bank of the river, framing the glittering fireworks in Whistler’s painting. Whistler painted the bridge as being taller than it actually was to increase the dramatic effect, especially as this was intended to be an atmospheric evening riverscape. It is clearly influenced by the great Japanese artist Hokusai, who also painted a picture of a tall wooden bridge with fireworks.
I love the fact that something so prosaic as a wooden bridge is not only considered a fit subject for an artist essentially at the top of his game – it’s worth remembering that Whistler was roughly contemporary with the Impressionists in Paris – but somewhere as unfashionable as Battersea caught his attention.