Victoria’s Embankment – a story of progress in 19th century art
15th June 2016
While gathering images for some background pages for the novel 'The Hours Before,' I stumbled upon two fabulous 19th-century paintings of London's Victoria Embankment, made shortly after its construction. These are by two different artists, and each with a style quite distinct from the other. What struck me was that they were done more or less from the same spot! One looks eastwards, with London Bridge and St Paul's well on display. The other looks westwards, towards Westminster, with the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben on view.
The Embankment, London - by John O'Connor (1874).
Reflections on the Thames, Westminster - by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1880).
Approximate position of viewpoint on modern map of London.
Just a few years earlier, and the place would have been very different indeed. Constructed along a wide stretch of the north shore of the Thames, the embankment was a late addition to Victorian London, completed only in 1870. These were historic changes. Prior to that, the buildings of London's Strand, such as Somerset House (a property once owned by Elizabeth I) would simply have run their rear gardens or courtyards directly down to the water's edge, with the occasional set of river stairs for accessing traffic. A delightful painting by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd shows this clearly.
Somerset House by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, 1817 - prior to construction of the Embankment.
The construction of the Embankment was all tied in with enormous improvements to the sewerage system of the capital. This was largely in response to outbreaks of deadly cholera in the capital and what was known as the 'Great Stink' of 1858 when the consequences of dumping raw sewerage into the river became intolerable.
The Great Stink.
Thus, as well as providing a fine new broad thoroughfare connecting the City of London to Westminster, the creation of what became known as London's 'Victoria Embankment,' in honour of the Queen, also made great strides in improvements to public health - to the honour and benefit of all.
Photograph of The Embankment under construction - Somerset House to the left.
The finished article! Victoria Embankment around the year 1895.
We have a splendid Victorian gentleman by the name of Joseph Bazalgette to thank for that - a man who devoted much of his life to one of the greatest engineering achievements of the age.
Hurrah for Mr Bazalgette!
And Hurrah and Huzzah for London's beautiful Victorian Embankment!
Victoria Embankment as it is today - a busy but pleasant thoroughfare.