The Riverside, Limehouse signed with initials and dated 1914 (lower right) oil on canvas 123 x 183cm (48 7/16 x 72 1/16in).
PROVENANCE: with the Fine Art Society Sale, Christie's, 17th May 1923, lot 155 for £157.10.0 (F.A.S vendor), acquired by Gooden and Fox William Hesketh Lever (Lord Leverhulme) Bolton Museum and Art Gallery, acquired November 1925 sale of the contents of Rivington Hall, Horwich following the death of Lord Leverhulme, Knight, Frank & Rutley, lot 1105, p 68.
EXHIBITED: London, Royal Academy, 1914, no. 369 London, Royal Academy, 1922, Winter Exhibition
LITERATURE: Royal Academy Pictures and Sculpture 1914, illustrated p 82.
The name Limehouse comes from the lime kilns established there in the 14th Century and used to produce quick lime for building mortar. In 1660, Samuel Pepys visited a porcelain factory in Duke's Shore, Narrow Street, whilst the Limehouse Pottery, on the site of today's Limekiln Wharf, was established in the 1740s as England's first soft paste porcelain factory.
Limehouse became a significant port in late medieval times, with extensive docks and industries such as shipbuilding (which was established in the 16th century and thrived well into the 19th century), ship chandlering and rope making. By the Elizabethan era many sailors had homes there and by early in the reign of James I about half of the population of 2000 were mariners. Limehouse Basin opened in 1820 as the Regent's Canal Dock. This was an important connection between the Thames and the canal system, where cargoes could be transferred from larger ships to the shallow-draught canal boats. As the age of steam led to bigger ships, the facilities at Limehouse became inadequate. However, local ingenuity found a highly successful alternative: many of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution's lifeboats were built in Limehouse between 1852 and 1890. Though no longer a working dock, Limehouse Basin with its marina remains a working facility. The wharf buildings that have survived, are now highly desirable residential properties. Taylor Walker began brewing at the site of today's "Barley Mow" pub in 1830. This stretch of the Thames was known as Brewery Wharf, whilst from a little further along the embankment, the first voluntary passengers left for Australia.
From the Tudor era until the 20th century, ships crews were employed on a casual basis and would be paid off at the end of their voyages. Inevitably, permanent communities of foreign sailors became established, including colonies of Lascars and Africans from the Guinea Coast. From about 1890 onwards, large Chinese communities at both Limehouse and Shadwell developed, established by the crews of merchantmen in the opium and tea trades, particularly Han Chinese, creating London's first and original Chinatown. The resulting opium and gambling dens soon attracted a wider clientele than visiting Chinese sailors, luridly described by, amongst others, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde. Like much of the East End it remained a focus for immigration, but after the devastation of the Second World War many of the Chinese community relocated to Soho.
The Hemy family set sail for Australia when he was 10 years old and, as he later recalled, 'I can remember it (the open sea) entered my soul, it was imprinted on my mind, and I never forgot it'. Hemy sketched and painted at locations on Narrow Street's river front and other notable artists who used Limehouse as a backdrop for their paintings included James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1863-1902). Whistler was living near the docks in Wapping between 1859-1863 and produced a series of etchings known as 'The Thames Set', which must have been a great influence on Hemy. These concentrated on the picturesque wooden buildings of the lower Thames, the barges, wharfs, warehouses and inns of Wapping, Rotherhithe and Limehouse, together with the barge men and labourers who worked there. Whistler also produced a major oil painting titled Wapping, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1864, no. 585, (collection National Gallery of Art, Washington). In 1869, Hemy was living in Fulham, not far from Whistler's studio in Chelsea. He may have been introduced to Whistler by his friend Tissot, whose work in the 1870s had a more direct influence on Hemy. Tissot painted scenes of beautiful ladies and sea captains on board ships and in interiors with the Thames and the black masts of ships seen through the windows in the background, e.g. An Interesting Story of c. 1872 (collection National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne). An interested spectator of Hemy at work was a young Frank Brangwyn. As a boy in the 1870s, Brangwyn often wandered down among the old buildings of the Thames where he would watch 'a magnificent looking man in a velvet coat painting a big picture. I would sneak up and admire him.'
The Thames estuary continued to draw Hemy and he painted a series of pictures of the busy mouth of the Thames i.e. The Shore at Limehouse (exh. R.A. 1871, no. 435), Blackwall (exh. R.A. 1872, no. 198), London River - the Limehouse barge-builders (exh. R.A. 1875, no. 108), The harbour master's home, Limehouse (exh. R.A. 1901, no. 1039), 1901, Home at last, 1909, Limehouse Hole, (exh. R.A. 1910, no. 862) and The barge, Limehouse, (exh. R.A. 1918, no. 356). London River, his 1904 R. A. exhibit (no. 236), an evocation of Hemy's favourite stretch of the Thames with Hawksmoor's famous St. Anne's church prominent on the skyline, was bought by the Chantrey Bequest for £1,000 and now hangs in Tate Britain.
The old buildings on the banks of the river at Limehouse and Wapping provided excellent subjects and Hemy used the boatmen as models; his knowledge of the sea enabling him to establish an easy rapport with them. Of his RA exhibit Limehouse barge buildersof 1875 (collection South Shields Museum and Art Gallery), Hemy wrote, 'I painted the picture altogether from nature sitting in a barge and talking with the workmen.'
Hemy's memorial exhibition took place at the Fine Art Society in 1918 where 101 of his works were shown.