“Royal River”, guest-curated by David Starkey, explores the many bends and turns in the historical flow of the Thames. Its subject is the river’s festive and ceremonial relationship to London, and it tells an enthralling if fundamentally melancholy tale. Since its focus is on the ephemeral rituals and displays of the past, this is a show formed throughout from tantalisingly evocative fragments: an illuminated page from a music-book containing a motet composed by the ill-fated Robert Smeaton for the Thames-side festivities that accompanied the coronation of Anne Boleyn; a faded scrap of vellum from the so-called “Anthony Roll”showing a vivid anonymous artist’s impression of Henry VIII’s prize three-master, the Anne Gallante; a vivid etching by Dirck Stoupe revealing the crazed throng of river pageantry, complete with a procession of perilously top-heavy, ornately carved barges, that greeted the entry to London of Charles II’s new queen, Catherine of Braganza, in 1662.
Such images are accompanied by a miscellany of quaint, beautiful or simply curious objects dredged from the deepest bed of the river’s history, ranging from a violin once possibly played on a royal barge in Stuart times, to an engraved souvenir cup purchased at the 1683-4 Frost Fair – a vivid memorial of London’s so-called “mini-Ice Age”, when the Thames frequently froze so solid that London’s boatmen were forced to change profession and turn hawker or peddler, setting up vending stalls and refreshment stands among the vast wave-like forms of the river’s icy surface.
How busy, how buzzing, how vital the Thames once was: not only London’s artery but its main thoroughfare, and its principal arena for public entertainments. When the Elizabethan traveller George Sandys visited the oppressively teeming city of Naples, the best way he could find to convey its sheer populousness was to remark that it boasted nearly as many litter-bearers touting for work as there were boatmen on the wharves of London. “Royal River” puts what flesh it can on the bare bones of a now almost unimaginable past. But it also charts the various stages in the decline of the Thames as the central public space of London.
First came the invention of the comfortably sprung, horse-drawn coach, which led in turn to the creation of new road networks enabling the aristocracy and eventually pretty much anybody to travel freely across land, unconstrained by the tidal rhythms of the river. Gradually London’s great houses and palaces turned their faces away from the Thames, shifting their orientation towards the heaving body of the city. Riverborne ceremonies accompanying momentous state occasions also turned in, to the landward side of town.
Despite such changes, great river processions did continue along the Thames well into the nineteenth century, above all in the shape of the sense-stunning festivities accompanying Lord Mayor’s Day, when each of the great livery companies decked out its ceremonial barge in astonishing layers of allegorical finery. Each boat was a piece of competitively magnificent popular theatre, and one of the most moving and effective sections in the present exhibition draws together some of the figureheads and other examples of ornate statuary to have survived the destruction of the barges themselves: a coal-dark statue of St Lawrence, carrying his iron griddle, symbol of his martyrdom, which decorated the Ironmongers’ barge in around 1740; a gilded likeness of St Peter, fisher of men, which once stood on the prow of the ceremonial boat launched by (who else?) the Fishmongers Company in 1773. For once, the spectacle from which these mutilated bits and pieces survive can still be vicariously experienced, courtesy of the painter Canaletto. His teeming mid-eighteenth century panorama, London: The Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day, looking towards the City and St Paul’s Cathedral, borrowed from the Lobkowicz Collections in Prague, is the outstanding work of art in the show: proof positive that the Thames was once every bit as busy as Venice’s Grand Canal still is today on the festival of La Sensa.
It was, arguably, the very importance of the Thames to early modern London that led to its decline. Its waterways were the arteries of the Industrial Revolution, which led first to uncontrolled population growth and then, inexorably, to the toxic pollution of the river by human waste and the effluents of rampant trade and manufacture. Through popular prints and broadsides, that chapter of the story is told too, leading as it does to the construction of the Embankment and the Victorian sewer and road systems – which cleaned London up but also sounded the death-knell of the Thames as the river it had been for centuries.
“Royal River” steers a skilful course through the whirls and eddies of its subject. It explains the sad, singular near-emptiness of the modern Thames, while peopling that emptiness with the ghosts of a more colourful past.