Alfred William RICH, N.E.A.C. (1856-1921)

Alfred William RICH, N.E.A.C. (1856-1921)

Code: 10777


H: 33cm (13")W: 43cm (16.9")


Alfred William RICH, N.E.A.C. (1856-1921) 
"The Thames From Greenwich", Circa 1914
Signed "Alfred W Rich" lower right
33.4 cm x  43 cm

This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the work of Alfred William Rich currently in production. 
See pp.135-136, Alfred W Rich, “Water Colour Painting”, Seeley, Service & Co Ltd, London, 1918 for the artist's full description of Greenwich.

"The Thames From Greenwich", No.85 at the New English Art Club's Summer Exhibition, 1914 (Probably).

Private Collection UK
Anonymous sale, Phillips Auctioneers, London, 1983
Private Collection, Gloucestershire, UK

A hugely atmospheric image, dated to around 1914 on stylistic grounds, which is painted in Rich's distinctive late abstract style, in a palette of characteristically muted-tones with little evidence of any underdrawing. The painting depicts London, seen from the high ground of Greenwich Park. Paths cross the grass in the foreground with the suggestion of an avenue of trees to the left (which used to line the eroded 'Giant Steps' on the slope beneath the Royal Observatory). To the right is one side of the buildings of Greenwich Hospital with the pillars of the Queen's House Colonade. The whole scene is crossed at the centre, from left to right, by the River Thames, with its meander around the peninsula of The Isle of Dogs, centre right lined with chimneys (those of Millwall Leadworks and smoking chimneystack of The Cumberland Oil Mills being the most prominent). The top half of the painting is devoted to the smoke filled air and clouds above, with a patch of blue sky towards the very top margin of the painting.

The work is probably the painting exhibited at the New English Art Club's 'Summer Exhibition' of June-July 1914 under the title "The Thames From Greenwich" (No.85). Rich was on the hanging committee of the show (as he had been for much of the previous decade), along with Philip Wilson Steer, Henry Tonks, Ambrose McEvoy, Lucian Pissarro, Walter Sickert, David Muirhead, Prof. Fred Brown, William Orpen, Muirhead Bone and Philip Connard. Rich exhibited three other works in this exhibition, Pissarro exhibited seven in total (three in oil and four watercolours (including a watercolour entitled "The Thames, Hammersmith")), Sickert exhibited a single oil ("Ennui" (now in Tate)).

The work is closely related to another picture by Rich entitled "The Thames at Greenwich" now in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin [see Hugh Lane Gallery Reg.No.805] which prominently includes the gasometers of East Greenwich Gas Works. The picture in the Hugh Lane Gallery is possibly one of the two Greenwich paintings by A.W. Rich singled out in an article in the Art Journal of 1902:

"Alfred W. Rich, a member of the New English Art Club, recently held an exhibition of water-colour drawings at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly. His subjects were mainly pastoral, but some river scenes were depicted with considerable skill, notably "The Thames at  Greenwich" and "Greenwich Hospital""[1].

During Rich's career he painted various pictures in the vicinity of Greenwich in an attempt to capture its genius loci [2]He seems to have felt that this place, so associated with the very notion of 'time', was imbued with a quality of 'timelessness'. Greenwich stands on the prehistoric trackway known as Watling Street and the existence of a Roman temple on the high ground in Greenwich Park had long been suspected (Roman remains were, ultimately, discovered there in February 1902). There are also ancient royal associations, Henry VIII's palace stood on the site now occupied by Greenwich Hospital and the Royal Naval College (designed by Sir Christopher Wren). Greenwich is also the location of The Royal Observatory, with its historical connections to the study of time and space. (It is worth noting that it was only in 1884 when the International Meridian Conference, which took place in Washington DC, established Greenwich as the location for the Prime Meridian, from which all measurements of time would be taken and set Greenwich Mean Time [GMT]as the basis for Universal Time). At the time this work was painted the Royal Naval College was based in the buildings depicted. In 1914 it was certainly understood that war was a very strong possibility (whilst not completely inevitable until the very outbreak of conflict in August). As if to underscore the threat, the Greenwich college had become synonymous with the 'Royal Naval War College' - everyone knew that those who trained there would play a huge part in defending the nation should hostilities break-out. Greenwich Park, therefore, not only offered an extraordinary view of London (then the capital of the British Empire), and the River Thames (one of the greatest arteries of world trade) but, when this work was painted, it was a location that was not only linked to many previous eras but was still at the very forefront of the historical narrative - having recently been fixed as the centre of the earth in so far as navigation and the measurement of time was concerned and, in all likelihood, somewhere which would play a significant part in any approaching conflict.

Rich was later to write of the area: 

"I have never visited Greenwich without finding some fresh beauty to delight me. The long line of stately buildings of the hospital, either seen from the park or the river, is splendid under every light, and always alive with a glory all its own...I can well remember my first visit here as a child of six, and the effect it had on my mind. Time has only increased the affection I feel for Greenwich and the beauties I see in it. When I began to paint, this was the first district of London which I visited with a keen desire to record my impressions of it. Everything is here so quaint and nautical, that when walking on the river front between the Ship Hotel and the Trafalgar, it would seem only natural to meet seamen who had shipped with Benbow or Sir Cloudesley Shovel. But failing to meet such ancients, there is plentiful material to charm in what is seen. Lumbering oil or cattle boats creeping cautiously up the river to seek their berths and discharge the cargo which is to help to keep London from darkness or starvation, followed by a little snorting gadfly of a tug with its tail of barges which have lost the tide. I have seen such startling effects of light and shadow that to describe them truthfully would sound more like a page from a fairy tale than one from such a prosaic utterance as a book on Art. Rather go and see, and bless the page which drew to your notice such a world of charms. The hospital itself will supply endless suggestions for pictures of a kind which have become immortal by the brush and pencil of James Pryde.

The whole year round, the river, the park, the palace are full of interest peculiar to its own particular time. I have seen the shipping huddled together along the wharves, snowy and snowed upon, glowing pink in the light of a January sunset. And'again, after the sultry heat of a July day the last flush of light has caught the river and lit it up in a way no words can paint. These are just ordinary things which can be written about; all else must be left to the seeing eye, or to a pen more apt than mine." [3]

It is also apposite to quote here from a piece written in "The Studio" in 1902, which reviewed an exhibition of Alfred Rich's work, and was accompanied by an illustration of another of his Greenwich paintings [4]:-

"Mr. A.W. Rich is a water colourist of great merit, and yet his drawings are not appreciated as they ought to be. Some persons, indeed, miss their significance altogether, and say that their art is nothing but ‘‘a conscious return” to old traditions, and especially to those which are associated with the great name of Dewint. In this criticism, if criticism it can be called, there are two misunderstandings. In the first place, “a return” to old traditions cannot itself be either “conscious ” or “unconscious,” for it is not a living and breathing thing subject to a mental condition that makes it either conscious of its character or the reverse. But students of art, old as well as young, are rather inclined to put themselves at their ease in a bad habit of thinking without real thought, applying to mere qualities such adjectives and phrases as belong to the painters by whom the qualities were produced. Thus, then, the criticism on the work of Mr. Rich must be expressed in a different way. Let it run thus: that Mr. Rich proves in his landscapes that he is conscious of a return to earlier methods. The writer who had this thought in mind wished to imply that Mr. Rich, owing to his sympathy for earlier methods, had lost touch with the present-day tendencies of English water-colour.

Space does not suffice here to disprove this charge, but it will be easy and convenient to return to the matter at a later date, in a review of the exhibition which Mr. Rich will hold early in March at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly. Mean time, let it be noted that the art of English water colour is not a thing which can be criticised at random; it needs some recognition of the fact that, since the end of the eighteenth century, its progress has been along two lines, either in direct lineal descent from the founders of the art in England, or else in such collateral branches of the ‘parent stock as have been greatly affected by the influences of a sister art, the art of oil painting. Now, Mr. Rich continues the lineal succession, and anyone who studies his work carefully, with unbiassed judgment, will perceive clearly that, within his sympathy for Dewint and Cotman, he not only shows his own individuality, but displays at the same time not a little of the knowledge won from Nature by impressionists of a later age than Dewint’s."

Peter De Wint's "The Thames from Greenwich Park" had been engraved as part his series of 'Views in London'; J.M.W.Turner's "London from Greenwich Park" appeared in his 'Liber Studiorum'. Rich would have been acutely aware of the portrayals of Greenwich by past masters and therefore set out to establish a vision of the scene that was all his own. For this work he takes a less elevated vantage point than the previous artists. He observes the buildings of Greenwich Hospital less closely and the distant towers and spires of churches and the dome of St Paul's are notably absent. Rich also offers less 'staffage', with only the merest suggestion of there being any figures. However, despite the absence of detail, the viewer still has a sense that everything is still there, somehow captured within the thin, translucent watercolour washes covering the paper.

The "idea" of Rich's picture here seems to be how historical timelines - past, present and future - can converge within a landscape, just like the lines of perspective. The silvery line of the river (such a familiar metaphor for time) is bisected by the two red ochre sails of unseen ships (with invisible cargoes, coming from and travelling to unknown lands). The centuries-old Tudor chimney emerging from the foliage on the left, mirrors the smoking chimneys of modern, industrial Millwall and Cubitt Town to the right. The emphasis being placed on the chimneys and smoggy atmosphere, rather than towers, domes and spires, seemingly makes the grey city, which sprawls before the viewer, a dramatic, godless place. It is as if the imagined prediction of Shakespeare's Prospero has come true; "The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve", with everything just "melted into air, into thin air". The unusual brooding cloud to the upper left, with its gusting shadow directed towards the smoking chimneys, almost resembles a depiction of Zephirus from a mediaeval 'Compass of the Winds'. The tiny figures on the path are dwarfed by the trees, the buildings and chimneys are, in turn, dwarfed by the clouds. As we follow along the meandering river of time, Mankind, though eminently capable of creating conflict and debasing the earth, will ultimately be overwhelmed by the majestic heavens.

It is also interesting to note the particular aspect which the artist has chosen to depict: the area of London which lies in line with the compass-point at the very centre of this view - occupying the empty vaporous heart of the picture, towards the line of the obscure horizon - is Hackney, to which the young Alfred Rich was taken to live as a child from the rural idyll of Sussex.

[1] p.126 "The Art Journal, New Series, 1902", London, H. Virtue & Co Ltd, 1902
[2] Rich also exhibited "Greenwich" (No.23 at the New English Art Club's Autumn exhibition in 1901); "At Greenwich" (No.63 in a solo exhibition at The Alpine Club in May 1904); "At Greenwich" (No.47 in a solo exhibition at New English Art Club's Galleries, New Bond Street, in March 1908);  "Near Greenwich" (No.99 the same 1908 solo show); and "The Thames From Greenwich" (No.85 at the New English Art Club's Summer exhibition of 1914).
[3] p.135-136, Alfred W Rich, “Water Colour Painting”, Seeley, Service & Co Ltd, London, 1918
[4] p.51, Charles Holme [Ed.], "The Studio: An Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art", Volume 25, London, The Studio, 1902

This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the work of Alfred William Rich currently in production.