The summer of 1858 was a bad time for London. Known as the Great Stink, the season’s warm temperatures worked a foul magic on the overflowing sewage situation.
Thanks to the untenable stench, a bill rushed through Parliament in just 18 days funded a massive public works project known as the Thames Embankment.
The waterways improvement system forever reshaped the neighborhoods along the river, including Chelsea.
The poor neighborhood subject to constant flooding was also a magnet for artists, including Oscar Wilde, John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler.
Whistler’s moody Nocturne paintings of the waterfront are well-known, but the Freer Gallery is offering fans of the ex-pat artist a chance to see the artist’s intimate neighborhood etchings of his daily wanderings and observations in the new exhibition, “Whistler’s Neighborhood: Impressions of a Changing London.”
The continuing effects of the Industrial Revolution and of the Embankment project meant Whistler worked at the edge of modernity and watched not just a neighborhood transform, but an entire society.
Gone are the days of the Great Stink and the rag shops in Chelsea. But through thoughtful curation, viewers can once again walk the streets of Whistler’s neighborhood.
Children feature prominently in Whistler’s street scenes. Chelsea Children by James McNeill Whistler, Mid-1880s. Watercolor on paper. Courtesy the Freer Gallery.
“He would walk around his neighborhood and carry these small copper plates in his pocket,” explains the show’s curator Maya Foo. “These are really just quick impressions of street scenes. Many of the streets in this neighborhood were some of the poorest in all of London.”
Without intending to, says Foo, Whistler captured transient moments in a changing landscape.
Storefronts offered up scenes of daily life. Shaving and Shampooing by James McNeill Whistler, ca. 1886-1888. Etching on paper. Courtesy the Freer Gallery.
Fish shops, rag stores and fruit vendors populate his images, along with handfuls of untended young children.
“He became a sort of unintentional recorder of a lot of these social issues that were going on at the time, such as overcrowding,” Foo says.