London’s silver highway: photographs of the Thames at work

The photographs shown here are from the archives of heritage body Historic England. Rare exceptions to the impeccable condition of most items in this national collection, the negatives are imperfect. But sometimes the gods smile on such flaws, and sometimes the wrinkles and spots not only honour the passage of time but bring out a more nuanced beauty, one layered with history and mystery, than the pristine countenance of unblemished youth. 

Photography is all about light. It’s the blood that runs through the photochemistry. In this 1935 photograph of the Isle of Dogs seen from the north-east, the afternoon sun is still high in the sky, its beams blazing through the fringe of clouds, glittering on the river below and bouncing off the streets, turning them silver.  
By photographing almost directly into the sun, the film is saturated with light. Serendipitously, the light that seeped through the edges of the film’s holder has bleached the margins, and the uneven density in the negative’s emulsion has produced an erratic luminosity, giving the picture a quasi-mythical quality. Sometimes the effect of the damage to the negative emphasises the physicality of the photograph itself, exposing the tenderness of its surface 

Back then, London was an industrial city. The tallest structures on the Isle of Dogs were the factory chimneys. Apart from the cruise liner at berth in the Royal Docks on the left-hand side of the picture, all the craft in the river are freighters and lighters, sailing along or moored in groups. 

Below the Royal Docks is Crescent Wharf, Silvertown, where in 1917 the Brunner Mond munitions factory exploded, killing 73 people, injuring hundreds. Less than a decade after the photograph was taken, the area was flattened in the Blitz. The peninsula projecting from the south, which is now the site of the O2 arena, was filled with factories and gasworks. Greenwich Power Station, visible in the centre of the picture, remains, but little else would be recognisable. 

View over the east end of London towards the Thames estuary, 1934 © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms Collection 

The wider picture of the Thames and its estuary is taken from a greater altitude, and blotches in the negative coat the riverscape in a way that fictionalises the topographical facts, blurring the boundary between document and illustration. 

In the image of the Thames barges (below), the peeling emulsion along the edge of the photograph is almost a metaphor for the loss of a history. Restored with their distinctive red sails, these craft now offer heritage cruises, but in the interwar years, when the picture was taken, they were the lorries of the Thames. A lot of them carried bricks up from the Medway area in Kent, returning downriver with “rough stuff” — coke and ash from London’s refuse bins, to be used as fuel in the kilns. 

The low sun burning through the haze shrouds the composition in chiaroscuro, the dark hulls of the barges as sombre as spectres, an effect heightened by the plethora of little spots (blemishes on the negative) that litter the sky, transposing this daily work into the netherworld of Whistler’s “Nocturne” paintings. Thames barges at Vauxhall, with Vauxhall Bridge in the background, 1920-40 © Historic England Archive 

Sometimes the effect of the damage to the negative emphasises the physicality of the photograph itself, exposing the tenderness of its surface. The frozen riverside photographed from Richmond Bridge in 1895 (below) has weathered the most, seemingly as iced over as the scene it depicts, its scoured and chipped surface covered in fingerprints. It is framed with the impression of the film holder in which the plate was exposed, capturing the moment when the boy in the foreground picked his way along the frozen path, the crunch of his footsteps withheld in the silence of the photograph. The Thames and foreshore seen from Richmond Bridge, showing ice and snow on the river, 1895 © Historic England Archive;




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