This painting is undoubtedly one of the most impressive watercolours by Thomas Rowlandson to find its way onto the market in recent years. It is titled Entrance to Blackwall Docks and was one of a number of different images of the huge shipyard at Blackwall to have been painted by the artist during the early 1800s.
Rowlandson made a number of copies of this picture and variant editions are listed in both the British Museum and Museum of London catalogues. Another copy (possibly the one shown here), was also sold at Sotheby’s in 1962 and was recorded as previously belonging to the widow of the French engraver and illustrator Jean Émile Laboureur. The various editions of the painting were not identical, and if one compares the image shown above with that in the British Museum’s online catalogue it is possible to identify a number of minor amendments and additions to the scene. In the image above, Rowlandson has replaced the ladies in the longboat to the right with two portly naval officers, while a pair of gentlemen enjoying a quite smoke has been added to the party of idlers gathered around the flagpole on the left. The configuration of the two sailors in the rowing boat that occupies the central foreground has also been changed, so that both are now shown lolling about in the afternoon sun. The presence of the two-decked warship which appears in the centre of all of the known versions of this image is another significant feature, as it allows us to date the painting with some degree of certainty to the period between 1805 and 1807. It was in those years that Blackwall Yard received a commission to build three two-deck 74-gun ships of the line which were subsequently launched under the names Magnificent, Valiant and Elizabeth. These are the only Royal Navy vessels known to have been built at Blackwall during the Napoleonic Wars and they were evidently still being fitted out when Rowlandson arrived on the dockside with his sketchbook.
It’s hardly surprising that Rowlandson was able to find more than one customer for his paintings of Blackwall. The shipyard specialised in the construction of merchant vessels and had boomed on the back of Britain’s expanding empire and commercial preeminence. By the end of the eighteenth-century Blackwall Yard had become the largest privately owned shipbuilding complex in the world and served as a source of pride and fascination for those who saw it as a symbol of their nation’s maritime supremacy. This is clearly reflected in Rowlandson’s image, not only by the mere fact that the artist considered the Yard to be a suitable setting for a commercial painting, but also by the presence of the many fashionable strollers who can be seen inspecting the buildings and ships from the quayside.