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.
painting of London's embankment with marching band and river
The Embankment, London - by John O'Connor (1874).
painting, 19th century of London, river Thames, Victoria Embankment and Houses of Parliament
Reflections on the Thames, Westminster - by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1880).
map of London showing river Thames with Victoria Embankment to north
Approximate position of viewpoint on modern map of London.
banner image of queen victoria face with red text, black background

Historic changes

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.
old painting showing river Thames and Somerset House on embankment
Somerset House by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, 1817 - prior to construction of the Embankment.

Victoria Embankment and Public Health

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.
Victorian cartoon of Great Stink, holding noses etc
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.
black and white photo shows construction work by river Thames
Photograph of The Embankment under construction - Somerset House to the left.
outdoor view of river Thames and Victoria Embankment c1895

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.
illustration of Victorian gent with mutton-chop whiskers
Hurrah for Mr Bazalgette!

And Hurrah and Huzzah for London's beautiful Victorian Embankment!
colour photo of river embankment, paved with trees
Victoria Embankment as it is today - a busy but pleasant thoroughfare.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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