This is another version of Wyllie's Royal Academy exhibit of 1895 (no.611):- The opening of the Tower Bridge. 'Obedient to the Prince's touch, the ponderous bascules, like the arms of a giant awaking, reared themselves into the air, and the craft adorned with flags innumerable, crowded through in a long triumphal procession, whilst the roaring of hoarse-throated sirens, the clang of bells, and boom of cannon proclaimed the great Tower Bridge open.'
The original of this renowned and widely-reproduced painting is held in the collection of London's Guildhall Art Gallery and the work offered here is another version, painted at a slightly later date. Whilst there are differences to the foreground of this picture compared to the Royal Academy exhibit, it is substantially the same composition.
Straddling the Thames like some latter-day Colossus of Rhodes, Tower Bridge forms not only the natural gateway to London but is also one of the most familiar and instantly recognizable structures on the planet. Despite its late-Victorian origins, it exudes an air of quasi-medieval permanence which somehow suggests to the citys visitors that it was built many centuries before.
The idea of a permanent river crossing below London Bridge had preoccupied the Corporation of London for much of the nineteenth century but it was not until 1879 that the first serious proposal was put forward. That design, by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, was rejected because of insufficient headroom for ships heading into the Pool of London. However, Bazalgettes scheme attracted public attention and other architects soon followed with their own designs, several of which were fanciful in the extreme. By 1884, Sir John Wolfe-Barrys suggestion for a bascule bridge (i.e. with rising sections) had been adopted and Sir Horace Jones was appointed architect. The Act of Parliament authorising its building was passed in 1885 and this stipulated not only an opening span 200 feet wide and 135 feet high, but also that the structure was to be in the Gothic style and complementary to the Tower of London alongside it.
The first stone was laid by the Prince of Wales in 1891 and, despite the death of the architect the next year, building continued apace until it was completed in the early summer of 1894. As he had laid the foundation stone, the Corporation invited the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) to open the bridge to public use and the date chosen was 30th June. The event proved a triumph in every respect; the weather was perfect and every conceivable vantage point on both banks of the river was crammed with thousands of spectators. The Prince of Wales was aboard the Admiralty yacht Irene and William Wyllie, commissioned to record the event for The Graphic Magazine, had been given a place on the gunboat H.M.S. Landrail, part of the spectacular waterborne cavalcade. When Wyllie exhibited the finished painting at the Royal Academy in 1895, the Art Journals reviewer wrote:
The day was glorious, the sun hot enough to raise a tremulous golden haze over river and land, the breeze brisk enough to keep colour sparkling and the landscape clear. Mr Wyllie found here all that his heart could desire the close-packed flotilla of shipping, the race of the mighty river tide, the avenue of unpaintably brilliant and varied flaunting bunting, which led up to the mighty bridge standing white midstream in the westering sunlight, and the great fleet of craft of all sizes and rigs, headed by the Admiralty yacht Irene, passing under its vast uplifted arms. Here was a subject for an historical painter, and in that sense he has conceived and executed it.