On the Thames at Greenwich
Research by Diane Taylor
This painting has previously been attributed to George Chambers Senior (1803-1840). His work can easily be confused with that of George Chambers Junior (1829-1878), his eldest son. Both artists were marine painters and as George Junior sometimes painted the same subjects as his father it is very difficult to distinguish between the two. This is compounded by the fact that George Junior often did not date his paintings, or if he did the date is often illegible and his signature can be similar to that of his father’s.
George Chambers Senior was born in Whitby in Yorkshire and came from a poor, working-class background. He was the second son of a seaman. At the age of eight he was working on the coal sloops on Whitby harbour. At ten, he was serving as a cabin boy on a ship and was afterwards apprenticed as a sailor. His drawings of ships so impressed the captain and crew that he was released from his apprenticeship so that he could devote himself to painting. Chambers then returned to Whitby where he worked as a house painter, taking drawing lessons in his spare time.
In 1825 he moved to Wapping, where he was helped by Christopher Crawford, formerly of Whitby, but then landlord of the Waterman’s Arms. Crawford allowed Chambers to hang his paintings in the parlour of the inn. His work proved popular and as a result he won many commissions.
Chambers Senior also worked as a scene-painter (1827–28) on Thomas Hornor’s 'Panorama of London' at the London Colosseum in Regent's Park, and at the Pavilion Theatre, Whitechapel
In 1829 two of his pictures were purchased by Admiral Thomas Capel, who promoted his works to other officers, including Admiral Lord Mark Kerr. Kerr gained him the patronage of King William IV and Queen Adelaide who bought four of his paintings. He exhibited works at the Royal Academy, the Society of British Artists and the Old Water-colour Society.
His most important later commission was The Bombardment of Algiers, 1816, ordered by Lord Exmouth for the Naval Gallery at Greenwich Hospital in 1836 (and now in the National Maritime Museum). He also painted two other pictures for the Greenwich Gallery.
As his career improved, his health began to fail. He died of heart failure in Brighton on 29 October 1840 at the age of 37. He left a widow and young family.
George Junior (George William Crawford Chambers) was born in London on 29 October 1829. He was eleven years old when his father died. He was then sent to Greenwich Hospital School to be educated. He exhibited at the Royal Academy and elsewhere between 1848 and 1862.
E H Archibald in his 'Dictionary of Sea Painters' noted that the donor of Chambers’ watercolour, Cannon Street Railway Station (1867), to the Greenwich Museum, claimed that Chambers had given this and another of his paintings to his father in settlement of a debt and that his aunt had been a governess to Chambers children in Venezuela, where Chambers had worked as an engineer. He further claimed that Chambers went to work in Trinidad in about 1900 and was killed in a riot.
There seems to be little if any truth in this story. Chambers actually died of pulmonary tuberculosis in Wandsworth, London, on 12 January 1878. He was 49. His correct date of death is cited on the Greenwich Museum's website alongside the description of one of his most well-known paintings, The Bellot Memorial at Greenwich Hospital (1857). This is verified by the England and Wales Death Index for the January-March quarter of 1878, where there is an entry for George W C Chambers in Wandsworth (ref: Vol 1d p438).
It has been difficult to sort out attribution for On the Thames at Greenwich. However, there are discernible differences between
the two artists. According to Alan Russett:
‘George Junior’s are usually larger and his handling of the paint more free, the attention to detail and figures being less rigorous. His watercolours can be of sufficient quality to be confused with those of his father but the subject matter or other non-stylistic criteria usually provide the key.’
The crucial factor in this painting however, is that it is signed G Chambers and dated (indistinctly) 1876. This is two years before the death of George Junior, but thirty years after the death of George Senior.
Archibald, E H H, Dictionary of Sea Painters Antique Collectors Club (2000)
Stephen, Leslie, ed. (1887), 'Chambers, George', Dictionary of National Biography 10, London: Smith, Elder & Co, pp17–18
Russett, Alan, George Chambers,1803-40: His Life and Work Antique Collectors' Club Ltd (1999)