One of the curiosities of the Isle of Dogs is that it is surrounded by iconic views of London from Canary Wharf to the north, the City of London to the west and the O2 arena formerly the Millennium Dome to the east. However it is the view from the south over to Greenwich which is considered one of the most famous views in London.
Standing in a spot not far the present Island Gardens, the view was judged to be the greatest view in Europe by Sir Christopher Wren in the 17th Century and it is especially associated with the painting of Greenwich from this spot by Giovanni Antonio Canaletto in the 18th Century.
Recently I have come across a number of other paintings that feature the view from the river or the Isle of Dogs which illustrate the importance of this small stretch of water and how the river traffic has changed over time.
Greenwich Hospital from the North Bank of the Thames by Canaletto – Date: 1752 (National Maritime Museum)
Canaletto’s painting was painted around 1752 and resembles the artist’s pictures of the Venice Grand Canal especially with use of craft and people in the foreground. Especially interesting is the large ship being repaired on the foreshore.
Greenwich Hospital by Thomas Lawranson Date: c. 1750 (Government Art Collection)
From roughly the same period is Greenwich Hospital by Thomas Lawranson but provides an interesting close up the buildings.
Greenwich from the Isle of Dogs by Robert Dodd – Date: 1792 (National Maritime Museum)
Some forty years later, Robert Dodd painted a very different scene, the river is bustling with all different vessels. Perhaps most interesting of all is we see the foreshore at the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs, The riverbank is built up and full of people possibly waiting to use the ferries across the river. The ferrymen in the river are transporting passengers. It is worth remembering at this time, much of the Island was used to fatten up livestock.
Hay Barge off Greenwich by Edward William Cooke Date: 1835 (National Maritime Museum)
Into the 19th century, Hay Barge off Greenwich by Edward William Cooke provides an attractive picture of a Thames barge carrying a cargo of hay and other goods. These barges were remarkably stable with a shallow draught and carried hay from as far as Suffolk and Margate to feed the thousands of horses in London. Under the hay they often carried a heavier cargo such as bricks.
The Thames and Greenwich Hospital by Moonlight by Henry Pether Date c.1854–1865 (National Maritime Museum)
A rather different view of the River Thames and Greenwich Hospital is made by artist Henry Pether who like his father, Abraham ‘Moonlight’ Pether of Chichester specialised in moonlight scenes. Henry Pether views of the Thames were very popular and it is easy to see with this attractive serene scene.
HMY ‘Britannia’ Arriving at Greenwich, 15 May 1954 by Norman Wilkinson – Date: after 1954 (National Maritime Museum)
Into the 20th century, the arrival of the Royal Yacht Britannia was the cause for celebration after the Coronation the previous year. This was the first time, the royal yacht had made its way up the Thames and was watched by hundreds of thousands of people all along the riverside. People living on the Island joined the crowds when the yacht made its way around the Isle of Dogs and into London.
In the rapid development of London in the past 250 years, very few areas have been left untouched. However the view from the Isle of Dogs over to the Naval College has changed little over that period. The greatest change has probably been the vessels that have passed one of London’s great landmarks, gone are the great old warships, clippers, steamships, working barges, lighters and ferries that once dominated the river scene to be replaced by the rather limited river traffic of the present day.