Painting London’s Waterloo Bridge



It was 1995 and I was living in Kingston upon Thames, a stone’s throw from the river.

My job was in Central London and so every day I was taking the train to Waterloo Station, crossing the bridge on foot, and straight to the office.

Little I knew at the time how celebrated Waterloo bridge was in paintings of English and French Masters.

The Waterloo Bridge was designed by John Rennie and opened in 1817, two years after the battle of Waterloo, where The English Army under the command of the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian Army under the command of the General Gebhard von Bluecher defeated Napoleon and ended his rule as the Emperor of the French. Waterloo Bridge was demolished in the 1930s and replaced by the present one.

In  this post I present works by Constable, Turner, and Monet. There are other painters of Waterloo Bridge, of course, like Derain. But I decided to focus on the two English Romantics and the French Impressionist, because in my view they have produced the most interesting pictures.

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge ('Whitehall Stairs, June 18th, 1817') exhibited 1832 by John Constable 1776-1837
The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (‘Whitehall Stairs, June 18th, 1817’)


I start with the English master John Constable, the supreme landscape painter of England.

“Constable is famous for his landscapes, which are mostly of the Suffolk countryside, where he was born and lived. He made many open-air sketches, using these as a basis for his large exhibition paintings, which were worked up in the studio.” (3)

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge – detail

Constable’s painting is titled “The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (‘Whitehall Stairs, June 18th, 1817’)” and was exhibited in 1832

“Over seven feet in length, this is the largest of Constable’s exhibition canvases and the result of thirteen years of planning. It commemorates the opening of Waterloo Bridge – and the second anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo – on 18 June 1817, an occasion celebrated with tremendous pomp and ceremony which Constable attempted to recapture in a whole series of drawings and oil sketches, dating from 1819 onwards…The picture shows the Prince Regent about to board the Royal barge at Whitehall stairs. The Lord Mayor’s barge is situated prominently in the right foreground, its billowing red standard leading the eye back to the pale horizontal line of the bridge and the distant dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. Beyond the left-hand end of the bridge is Somerset House, the home of the Royal Academy, where the picture was exhibited in 1832.” (6)

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge – detail
“Constable first started to plan a large canvas about the opening of Waterloo Bridge around1819, but over the years his ideas about how to treat it changed. Originally he intended to focus on the royal embarkation at the foot of Whitehall Stairs. However, in the finished picture, shown here, this recedes into the middle distance, and the sky and river both assume greater importance.” (7)

“Technically, the picture is distinguished by its animated surface and variety of handling. The thin brown underpainting is visible in places; elsewhere Constable has used the palette knife to build up a thick impasto. The vigorous application of paint is particularly obvious in the foreground of the picture, where bold touches of red, green and white bring the picture to life. On witnessing the brilliant colour of Constable’s painting, hanging beside his cool-toned seapiece, Helvoetsluys (private collection, London), at the Royal Academy exhibition, Turner is said to have added a bright red buoy to his own work, in order to redress the balance.” (6).

Constable is painting the pomp and circumstance of the opening, and uses it in order to exhibit his skills in landscape painting. The bridge itself is just an object in the background that divides the canvas in two horizontal strips of roughly the same height.

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge – detail

The industrial landscape creeps into Constable’s painting. The smokestacks are on the right side of St Paul’s Cathedral.

The Thames above Waterloo Bridge c.1830-5 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
The Thames above Waterloo Bridge c.1830-5 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851


I continue with Joseph Mallord William Turner.

“Turner is perhaps the best-loved English Romantic artist. He became known as ‘the painter of light’, because of his increasing interest in brilliant colours as the main constituent in his landscapes and seascapes. His works include water colours, oils and engravings.” (4)

He painted “The Thames above Waterloo Bridge”  in the period 1830-5, but left it unfinished.

The Thames above Waterloo Bridge – detail

A few days ago I wrote about Claude Lorrain and Turner as the painters of Light. Turner was not only a master of landscape and seascape painting, but also a painter who approached abstraction. This is more than evident in his Waterloo picture. Contrast Constable’s clear and sharp drawing to Turner’s smudges and the  fusion of colours without any boundaries.

The Thames above Waterloo Bridge – detail

Tate Britain’s website entry informs us that:

“Datable for stylistic reasons to the early 1830s, it is just possible that this was projected as Turner’s answer to Constable’s picture of Waterloo Bridge from Whitehall Stairs, June 18th, 1817, exhibited at the R.A. in 1832. The effect of smoke-belching industry contrasts with the sparkling clear atmosphere of the Constable, and a large twin-funnelled steam-boat replaces the royal yacht. The possibility of Turner setting out to rival this particular Constable is reinforced by the incident that took place during the 1832 Varnishing Days, when Turner’s Helvoetsluys, a relatively subdued picture, was hung next to Constable’s painting (see No. 345). This unfinished painting takes us to the heart of the smoky commercial capital which, though a Londoner by birth and resident for most of his life, Turner usually preferred to depict from a distance.”

The Thames above Waterloo Bridge – detail

Contrary to Constable’s almost idyllic depiction of the bridge and its surroundings, Turner produced a “smoky” picture.

It is not only the smoke from the chimneys.

Turner’s landscape is a tortured landscaped.

You cna hear the screams amidst the silence.

Claude Monet; Waterloo Bridge, 1901
Claude Monet; Waterloo Bridge, 1901


With the fuzzy foggy smoky grey skies waters and landscapes of Turner ends the romantic period of Waterloo pictures. The next artist in line is an impressionist: Claude Monet.

“After completing his series devoted to the facade of the Rouen Cathedral and before beginning the monumental series inspired by his Japanese gardens at Giverny, Monet began work on a large group of paintings of the Thames River in London. In preparation for these, he made several trips to London in the winter months, during which he recorded and studied three motifs: the Waterloo and Charing Cross Bridges and the Houses of Parliament. “I love London,” Monet wrote. “It is a mass, an ensemble, and it is so simple. Then, in London, what I love, above all, is the fog.” So intent was he on capturing gradations of light as it is affected by fog that he undertook about one-hundred canvases. Of these, he finished thirty-seven, completed primarily in his Giverny studio.” (1)

When Claude Monet visited London, he stayed at Room 618 at The Savoy.

The Savoy Hotel, London
The Savoy Hotel, London

The room is now known as the Monet Suite.

In this roon, on the morning of 25 January 1901, Monet drew a pastel picture of Waterloo Bridge.

The Savoy of London - Monet Suite
The Savoy of London – Monet Suite

The picture shows a hazy view of the famous bridge with a barge in the foreground. Towers that were used for the manufacturing of lead shot are depicted on the Thames’s south bank. What was a minor feature in Constable’s painting, became a major one in Turner and Monet. The industrialization of England changed the landscape as it changed society and the lifes of people leaving in London and other major industrial centers. 

Claude Monet Le pont de Waterloo à Londres vers 1899 pastel sur papier beige rosé H. 0.313 ; L. 0.485 musée d'Orsay, Paris, France
Claude Monet
Le pont de Waterloo à Londres
vers 1899
pastel sur papier beige rosé
H. 0.313 ; L. 0.485
musée d’Orsay, Paris, France

“The impressionist stayed at the Savoy three times after the hotel was recommended to him by Whistler. He used pastels and tan-coloured paper, bought on Charing Cross Road, after his paints, brushes and canvasses were delayed on the way from France. Of the many sketches he made on the trip, 26 survive; five views of Waterloo Bridge and 21 looking in the other direction, towards Charing Cross.” (2)

This is not the earliest picture Monet painted of Waterloo Bridge. I found a pastel on paper dated 1899, which is today in Musee d’ Orsay in Paris.

Claude Monet; Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect, 1903; Art Institute of Chicago
Claude Monet;
Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect, 1903; Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago has two Waterloo Bridge paintings by Monet. I Was lucky to view them when I visited the Art Institute of Chicago in April 2013.

In the museum’s two views of Waterloo Bridge, each with its sweep of smokestacks and buildings lining the riverbank, the artist reversed the lights and darks: in one, the bridge is a band of light; in the other, its dark shape is defined by the lighter water surrounding it. In both compositions, the city’s life is indicated by dabs of paint that suggest the vague shapes and lights of a carriage, a small boat, smoke. Running through the paintings like a constant current, the city’s energy becomes timeless in this series, which, more than any other up to this time, came from the depths of Monet’s memory and imagination.” (1)

Claude Monet;
Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect, 1903 – Detail; Art Institute of Chicago

Detail of Waterloo bridge, sunlight effect.

Claude Monet; Waterloo Bridge - Gray Weather; 1900; Art Institute of Chicago
Claude Monet; Waterloo Bridge – Gray Weather; 1900; Art Institute of Chicago

“If not for the fog, Claude Monet once remarked, “London wouldn’t be a beautiful city. It’s the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth.” While working on his London series, he rose early every day to paint Waterloo Bridge in the morning, moving on to Charing Cross Bridge at midday and in the afternoon. He observed both motifs from his fifth-floor window at the Savoy Hotel. The Art Institute’s two Waterloo Bridge paintings are dated 1900 and 1903, but both were likely begun in 1900 and dated only when Monet felt that they were finished. He worked on all of his London paintings in his studio in Giverny, refusing to send any of them to his dealer until he was satisfied with them as an ensemble.” (5)

Claude Monet; Waterloo Bridge at Dusk; 1904
Claude Monet; Waterloo Bridge at Dusk; 1904; National Gallery of Art; Washington DC

I will present two more Monet pictures, both at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

Both pictures are dated 1904, a few years after the Chicago pictures were made.

Claude Monet; Waterloo Bridge at Sunset; 1904
Claude Monet; Waterloo Bridge at Sunset; 1904; National Gallery of Art; Washington DC

The hours Claude Monet spent viewing his water garden transformed his idea of a series and his approach to a single subject. Where before he recorded the salient changes caused by the seasons and the times of day, Monet now honed his observations to perceive the most subtle variation of light and surface activity, which he rendered through color harmonies and articulate brush strokes. Time became irrelevant; tone and atmosphere alone riveted his attention, as seen in the 1904 painting, Waterloo Bridge, London, at Sunset.

Claude Monet; Waterloo Bridge at Sunset – detail; 1904; National Gallery of Art; Washington DC

In closing

It is time to close and take stock.

From Constable’s exhuberance to Turner’s smoky turbulent image, to Monet’s stylistic perfectionism.

My heart goes to Turner, my mind to Monet and my respect to Constable. This is why they are all present in this post.

More to come on the painting of the industrial landscape. A huge topic, and a fascinating one.


(1) Introduction: Monet’s London Series

(2) Monet’s Waterloo Bridge drawing on show at Savoy hotel. The Guardian.

(3) John Constable. The National Gallery.

(4) JMW Turner. The National Gallery.

(5) Waterloo Bridge, Gray Weather, 1900

(6) Frances Fowle: The opening of Waterloo Bridge

(7) Tate Gallery: The opeining of Waterloo Bridge


  1. excellent post

    “My heart goes to Turner, my mind to Monet and my respect to Constable”

    with the above sentence, panathinaeos painted…

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