Old London Bridge

Old London Bridge



JOHN CLEVELEY the Elder    

English School


Old London Bridge  

Oil on canvas, signed with initials and dated 1766

65.5 x 93.1 cms

251/4 x 365/8 inches

Overall framed size 87 x 113.6 cms

                                341/4 x 443/4 ins


This painting is based on the one produced by Samuel Scott (1702-1772) which is now in the collection of Tate Britain. It was very popular at the time and Scott made ten further examples of it as well as having the primary work engraved by Peter Charles Canot in 1758. The old bridge, which was dismantled in the early 1760s, educed much nostalgia for such a famous historical landmark which was probably the impetus for Cleveley to paint this work.

John Cleveley was a significant painter of dockyards, ship portraits, naval engagements and river scenes who was one of the major earlier English marine painters like Nicholas Pocock, Peter Monamy, Dominic Serres and Charles Brooking whose work was imbued with the vital and naturalistic influence of Willem van de Velde the Elder and Younger (c.1611-1693 and 1633-1707 respectively.)

He was born in Deptford in or about 1712, the son of Samuel Cleveley of Newington Butts in Southwark who was a joiner and shipwright at the Deptford dockyard. His childhood was spent surrounded by naval ships in all stages of construction and it was a logical progression for him to become apprenticed to Thomas Miller to train as a shipwright starting on 3rd November 1726. The young Cleveley then went to work with John Hall who was a Deptford boat builder and shipwright.

His natural skill in draughtsmanship was augmented by a keen understanding of how a ship was built and interacted with the water and and it is possible that some of his employment at the dockyard involved the painting of coats of arms and figures from mythology which decorated warships of the period. In 1701, the construction of the Royal Sovereign was completed but such was the scandal over the cost of the carved decorations on this ship that in 1704, the Admiralty decreed that there could be no carvings on future vessels apart from on the head and stern galleries and that all other ornamentation had to be painted. The consequence of this was that many carvers lost their employment in the Royal dockyards whereas painters were taken on to adorn the full-length sides of most ships at the level of the upper deck gunwales and above.

It would seem that Cleveley did not take up painting seriously until he was in his thirties and the first recorded dated painting by him was in 1747. The earliest examples of pictures by him depict the launching of ships at Deptford and these are of very high quality and the close attention to detail meant that the sequence of these works can be dated by comparing the size of the tree which grew to the side of the Master Shipwright’s house. His pictures are beautifully composed and painted and display a mastery of the perspective of a ship and also in the rendering of the architectural elements of the buildings on the waterfront. The cool tones and silvery seas evoke the English landscape and the softness of the light and climate, something which he shares with Samuel Scott. Scott had been particularly influenced by Canaletto when the latter was in London and England from 1746 to 1755 and the stylistic line of descent goes down to Cleveley whose magnificent painting A view of a shipyard on the Thames displays elements of construction similar to Canaletto’s Greenwich Hospital. 

 Although his subject matter expanded, including a tour of East Anglia which resulted in several paintings, it seems that he was always employed by the Deptford Dockyard. Evidence of this is provided by letters of administration from the Admiralty to his widow in 1778 which states that Cleveley was a “… carpenter belonging to His Majesty’s Ship Victory, in the pay of his Mjs Navy.” He lived close by the dockyard at King’s Yard Row, Dogg Street from 1747 until his death in May 1777 and was buried in St Paul’s Deptford.

Cleveley exhibited at the Free Society between 1764 and 1776 and as well as the paintings produced under his own name, he also contributed depictions of shipping to some of the prints by the topographical print maker Thomas Milton (fl.1753-6). The British Museum and the National Maritime Museum have examples of some of these in their collections including one: Plan of Chatham Dockyard  which is inscribed “A Geometrical Plan & North West Elevation of his Majesty's Dock-Yard at Chatham, with ye village of Brompton adjacent. To... Peregrine Bertie, Duke of Ancaster and Kestaven... by... Tho. Milton.”

His landscapes are less common but his View of the Orwell at Ipswich, which was painted in 1753, is a huge painting measuring 4 feet by 10 feet and originally was one of the treasures of Christchurch Manor House in Ipswich but is now in the collection of Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service. Grant, in his The Old English Landscape Painters, has an illustration of a painting of Strawberry Hill but its whereabouts are unrecorded.

Titles of some other of his paintings include: The Buckingham on the stocks at Deptford; The Royal George at Deptford showing the launch of the Cambridge; A view of the fleet at Spithead, from the platform at Portsmouth, when his Majesty was there; A sea engagement with a fire-ship burning a ship of war; Bombardment of Castillo de San Lorenzo by Admiral Vernon; HMS Bruce captures French ship l’Oiseau; Launch of Fourth-Rate on the River Orwell; The landing of Princess Margaret of Mecklenburg-Scheilitz at Harwich; A sheer hulk, refitting an East Indiaman and The yawl of the Luxborough Galley arriving in Newfoundland.

Museums and institutions which hold examples of the works of John Cleveley the Elder include: National Maritime Museum (16 paintings); Science Museum; Glasgow City Art Gallery; Sheffield Museum; South Shields Museum and At Gallery; Colchester and Ipswich Borough Council Collection; Government Art Collection; National Trust: Owletts and Antony; Yale Center for British Art.

Cleveley had seven children with his wife Sarah and three sons, all of whom worked in the Royal Dockyards and became painters of marine subjects. The twins, John the Younger and Robert, were born in 1747 with the former training as a shipwright and the latter as a caulker. John took up instruction in watercolour painting with the eminent painter Paul Sandby who was drawing master at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, going on to paint in his father’s style but also displaying an interest in depicting voyages of discovery. Robert concentrated more on naval engagements which was a profitable pursuit during the time of the American War of Independence as engravings could be made which reached a wide public. The third brother, James, became a ship’s carpenter and travelled in the position in the Resolution on James Cook’s third voyage. He was not an artist in the same category as his brothers but drawings he made on the journey were worked up by his brother John and they were then engraved.


“There are few spots in London where, within a very limited and strictly-defined space, so many historical events have happened, as on Old London Bridge. It was a battlefield and a place of religious worship, a resort of traders and a show place for traitors’ heads. Its Nonsuch House was one of the sights of London in the reign of Elizabeth; and the passage between its arches was one of the exploits of venturous youth, down to the very time of its removal. Though never beautiful or stately, London Bidge was one of those sights that visitors to the metropolis never forgot ” (Walter Thornbury).

It is uncertain when the first bridge spanning the Thames was constructed and although the Romans built one in the 3rd century, the first recorded one was in 994 during the reign of Ethelred. In 1008, during the reign of Ethelred II (the Unready) his ally, Olaf the Norwegian, destroyed the bridge, which was held by invading Danes, by tying his ships to it and dragging it down. Later, another wooden bridge was built which was swept away in a torrential storm in 1090 which also blew down six hundred houses. Its replacement was then destroyed by fire in 1136 which also burnt down all the wooden houses from Aldgate to St Paul’s.

Peter, the chaplain of St Mary Colechurch which was situated in Conyhoop Lane in Poultry, laid the first stone of the more substantial bridge in 1176. This had nineteen pointed arches, was 40 feet wide and 926 feet long and took thirty-three years to construct. It also included a wooden drawbridge and the first houses and gate-towers were built on it. But even this bridge was not immune to the ravages of fire which partly destroyed it in 1212, only four years after completion and in all about 3,000 people were recorded as either dying from the flames, the effect of smoke or drowned when barges, which were carrying both sight-seers and helpers, capsized.

King John levied taxes on foreign merchants to help fund the rebuild but over the ensuing centuries it was allowed to fall into a state of semi-decay with patch up restorations and it was not until the reign of Elizabeth I when the bridge was restored with great splendour. In Old and New London it states that: “ The City built a new gate and tower, three storeys high, at the Soutwark end – a huge pile, full of Tudor windows, with a covered way below. About the same time was also reared that wonder of London, Nonsuch House -  a huge wooden pile, four storeys high, with cupolas and turrets at each corner, brought from Holland, and erected with wooden pegs instead of nails. It stood over the seventh and eighth arches, on the north side of the drawbridge. There were carved wooden galleries outside the long lines of transom-casements, and the panels between were richly carved and gilt. In the same reign, Peter Moris, a Dutchman, established water-works at the north end of London Bridge; and, long before this, corn mills had been erected at the south end of the same overtaxed structure. The ghastly custom of displaying the heads of the victims of the scaffold continued for many years after, both here and at the Tower.”

The piers of the structure were set up on platforms of strong elm piles known as starlings and the water passage between each of these was very narrow. With the Thames tide race being significant, this made “shooting the bridge” as it was known, a perilous undertaking in which many lost their lives.  Some reports have it that fifty bargemen, watermen and seamen were drowned annually in passing under the bridge. An old proverb advised: “London Bridge was made for wise men to go over and fools to go under”.

The Tudor glory years passed though and the bridge was allowed to become dilapidated. The houses overhung the road below to such an extent as to almost negate daylight and as they subsided more and more, timbers were placed between them to prevent them from collapsing completely into each other. A writer of the time recorded that: “Nothing but use could preserve the repose of the inmates, who soon grew deaf to the noise of the falling waters, the clamour of the wateremen, and the frequent shrieks of drowning wretches.”

All the houses on the bridge throughout its history had been shop houses as it was not a place for a pleasant domestic residence. It was a seemingly perfect location to benefit from the trade of constant passing traffic as it carried all the travellers, both on foot and mounted, and carts and coaches coming from the south-east into London. However, the shops lining both sides of the bridge were not there to attract impulse buying and there were no providers of food and drink for immediate consumption until the 18th century. The purveyors of drapery, needles, ribbons etc were not looking for passing trade. Consumers came to the bridge as a destination and certain trades were centred on the bridge as it was good central location. In the 14th and 15th  centuries, five types of trade tended to dominate the retailers of which harberdashers made up 80% of them and continued their dominance until the buildings were removed in the 18th century. The other four major trades were glovers, cutlers – who also sold edged weapons – bowyers and fletchers.

By the time of George II, the houses on the bridge were mostly tenaned by pin and needle makers. Between 1757 and 1760, the rickety houses on each side of the bridge were removed. At the end of the decade the bridge was divided in two and a new centre arch built but the union of old and new was so insecure that few dared to venture over it.

Despite strengthening the starlings with stone, this was only a temporary reprieve for the structure as in 1768 these repairs worked loose. Temporar

y and costly repairs continued over the ensuing decades and a state of semi-stasis set in. It was not until 1823 when the City, in desperation, finally resolved to confront the issue and undertake the construction of a new bridge. This would be 100 feet to the west of Old London Bridge and initial preparations started in 1824 with the removal of 182 houses which would be obstructing the approaches to the new bridge and the first stone was laid in1825.  Old London Bridge had been an integral part of the political life of London where processions, demonstrations, war time skirmishes and brawls took place and the spikes and poles over the battlements and gate entrances to the bridge always had the heads of traitors impaled on them as a warning to any insurrectionist and with the removal of the structure of the old bridge between 1831 and 1832, it signaled the end of its part in London life after 622 years

Some famous people who lived on the bridge include:Hans Holbein, Peter Monamy and William Hogarth.



The Old English Landscape Painters – M H Grant

Dictionary of Sea Painters – E H H Archibald

Marine Painting in England 1700-1900 – David Cordingly

Dictionary of British Landscape Painters - M H Grant

Dictionary of British Marine Painters - Arnold Wilson

Dictionary of British 18th Century Painters - Ellis Waterhouse

Water-Colour Painting in Britain; 1 The Eighteenth Century – Martin Hardie

London Bridge and its Houses c.1219-1761 – Dorian Gerhold

Old and New London Vol II – Walter Thornbury