"At all costs, St Paul's must be saved."

Sir Winston Churchill, 1940

Painting of the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant - 3rd June 2012

I decided back in February that I was going to paint the Thames Pageant, following a successful commission to paint a view of the City from offices in Lothbury, overlooking the Bank of England.

Thames Pageant The Royal Flotilla Enters the City of London. (Click above to see a larger image.)

The research I did for the bank painting led to a deep interest in the City of London, and, as an ardent monarchist, I looked forward to Sunday 3rd June in anticipation of a celebratory sense of the living history of London and the 'royal river' that effected its creation and evolution.

What I hadn't anticipated was the gloomy and wet weather! I arrived at the Thames to join friends in the morning. It really was a dirty grey day: very uninspiring for an artist normally attracted to big skies and the effects of light on a subject. My only hope was that the colour in the flotilla and the crowds would enable me to bring some life into my painting. Of course, I could have introduced sunlight, but the nimbostratus clouds were relentless for the whole 8 hours or so we spent on the bank of the Thames. Although I have used much artistic license throughout this painting, the flat greyness and rain, I felt, had to be retained in order to capture the atmosphere of the day, and our very British spirit of patience, resilience and good humour - come what may !

The vantage point

The vantage point is an imaginary one, based on sketch studies and reference photographs I made a fortnight before the event from the south bank of the Thames. In fact there isn't a good view across the river to St Paul's Cathedral from the southwest because of a long line of vessels and pontoons anchored on the centreline of the Thames between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge, as shown in my reference photographs. (And indeed these vessels increased in number on June 3rd.)

On the day of the pageant I stood on the north bank, near the stern of HMS President, to join in the fun and get my reference photographs of the flotilla.

Changes to the London Topography

I've removed a few 'carbuncles'. These include Blackfriars' Pier and the works on Blackfriars' Rail Bridge (which otherwise would have dominated the centre of the painting). I've simplified or even removed some of the modern non-descript modern buildings in the City, whilst hoping to retain a convincing cityscape.

I've twisted Unilever House slightly clockwise to bring into view its curved art-deco facade, which on 3rd June hosted a neat row of large and stately union jacks. Some further edits I made in that area of the painting allowed me to bring the Black Friar pub into view - a curious little building both externally and internally, which the poet laureate John Betjeman thankfully saved from demolition in the 60s. (Betjeman is better known for his love of English churches, and he did indeed help save St Paul's, as part of a team of volunteer fire watchers during the Blitz.)

I've brought more of the Justice Statue into view than is usually visible from Southbank. Similarly, I juggled things around a bit to give emphasis to Saint Bride's Church (the steeple on the extreme left of the painting).

I had to 'edit' the shape of the Thames to bring in a glimpse of the south bank and the crowds. And I decided not to paint the trees that compete with the dolphin lamp posts on Queen's Walk.

In general, tackling any 'realistic' painting in a panoramic format presents all kinds of decision-making and technical problems, and it's really an exercise in determining how the human eye takes in a scenario: unlike the camera lens, the eye constantly adjusts and edits: in a fraction of a second it can receive information from foreground, background, left, right, up, down . . . constantly re-focusing and compensating for lights and darks. However I believe it's worth the effort. As an artist I have in this painting, in a single 'realistic' image, depicted details of the boats, the crowds, the city buildings, the river and the sky. The camera lens simply cannot do this for all kinds of reasons (discussed further on my blog). For me, the camera is an excellent tool, but it doesn't have the last word in realism. A traditional painter with imagination and skill can do a lot more.

The Flotilla

The flotilla in my painting is of course 'edited' and transposed reality, partly because, as discussed, the Thames is cluttered with stationary vessels and pontoons. Furthermore, I wanted to give emphasis to the boats of the City-of-London livery companies. Apart from being attractive boats, they really gave the event its link to the great river pageants of the past, not only to the Lord Mayor's pageant depicted in the Caneletto painting, but to events before and since, including Anne Boleyn's Coronation in 1533, and a Restoration pageant in 1662 for King Charles II and Queen Catherine of Braganza. My painting includes two of the "Great Twelve" livery companies, whose history goes back more than 8 centuries. The companies, ancient and modern, whose boats feature in the painting are:

The Salters' Company
The Drapers' Company
The Tallow Chandlers' Company
The Information Technologists' Company
The Scientific Instrument Makers' Company

The commercial, religious and social history of London's merchants and manufacturers is largely the history of its livery companies. Click here if you'd like information on their ancient and contemporary roles: http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk

Naturally, the royal barge Gloriania is depicted leading the flotilla, as she was on 3rd June.

The Depicted Scene

For readers not familiar with London it's worth pointing out that the depicted scene is the City of London, also known as the 'Square Mile'. It is the original part of London, founded by the Romans, and is now towards the east of the great metropolis that is contemporary London.

The backdrop extends from St Bride's Church on the left, to the 'Gherkin' at St Mary Axe and the other skyscrapers that symbolise London's status as the world's principal centre of finance.

Saint Bride's is my favourite Wren church in the City, and has the highest steeple. Located on Fleet Street it is known colloquially as 'the Journalists' Church' or sometimes 'the wedding-cake church'. It has a fascinating 2000-year history: http://www.stbrides.com/history/index.html


The area depicted to the left of St Paul's Cathedral is Blackfriars, from which the bridge takes its name, and so called because it was the site of a Dominican priory until the English Reformation, shortly after which the area became the haunt of some of the greatest names in British theatre, including Shakespeare, Johnson, Marlowe and Burbage. One of Shakespeare's shipwreck plays, The Tempest, was first performed to the public in 1612, exactly 400 years ago, in one of two theatres that were built in the former priory grounds. But the depicted scene reminds me rather of the famous words penned by Christopher Marlowe:

Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Illium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss

St Paul's Cathedral

I placed the cathedral exactly in the centre of this depiction of a royal and nautical pageant. A cathedral is a city throne (from the Latin cathedra) and it's also metaphorically a ship carrying souls through the storms of time, which is why the main body of a cathedral usually resembles an upside-down ship and is called the 'nave' - after the Latin word for ship. The word 'navy' shares the same etymology.

I also like the fact that our alternative name for the Thames is Isis, the Egyptian goddess whose name means woman of the throne (although the etymology of the Latin Thame-isis, which we still meet in the French La Tamise, has long been a subject for debate).

The Diamond-Jubilee long weekend included a thanksgiving service at St Paul's, to celebrate the Queen's 60 years on the throne and position of Supreme Governor of the Church of England. In our uncertain times it seems appropriate that the cathedral should occupy the centre. After all, the Apostle to whom London Cathedral is dedicated, himself no stranger to crises and shipwrecks, tells us to have Hope !

God save the Queen.

Thames Pageant - HMS President

Detail - showing St Bride's Church and HMS President. I'm one of the tiny characters in a soaking red anorak, to the right of the stern of the ship !