Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits


JOHN MACVICAR ANDERSON (British 1835 – 1915)

View of Westminster from Lambeth

signed and dated on the stern of the boat in the right center J. Anderson P, June 1859; dated 1859 on the stern of the docked boat with four seated figures in the lower right; signed in the lower right John Anderson; inscribed on the stern of the boat in the left foreground London, on its side WALHAM GREEN, and dated 1859 as well as inscribed WESTMINSTER for LAMBETH; inscribed on the far left building a partial company name EME…& Co; inscribed onthe sign in front of a pile of blocks on the jetty HELMORE’S COAL*MAN; and inscribed on the shed to the right of the jetty piled with blocks NEW…NP.

oil on canvas

30 x 52 inches          (72.6 x 132 cm.)


Private Collection, New Jersey, circa 1950’s until the present time


This recently rediscovered painting predates by a year the smaller study The Building of Westminster Bridge by the same artist in the collection of the Palace of Westminster to which it is directly related in subject and execution. Although many artists were drawn to paint the new Palace of Westminster during the twenty years of its construction and subsequently, none have combined their emotional response to its magnificence with so exact an appreciation of its architecture.

When the Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire in 1834 British architects seized at last on the great project of designing a new Parliament building to replace the ramshackle medieval complex, and Sir Charles Barry was chosen from a field of ninety-six entrants to design the new building. By the date of our painting, nineteen years after the foundation stone had been laid the Palace was very nearly complete. This is, therefore, an important record of its appearance as it finally approached its creator’s vision, the last stage at which Barry would have seen it, since he died the following year.

The façade to the river has reached its final shape, but two of the Palace’s most memorable features have yet to be completed. Victoria Tower still lacks its pyramidal cast iron canopy and flagpole and the famous clock fitted with its vast copper and gunmetal hands has yet to start. Our painting is dated June 1859 and the clock did not become operational until September 7th of that year. Elsewhere there are telling hints of the work in progress. A great wooden jetty projects into the river below Victoria Tower and a large consignment of stone blocks – the light Anston limestone that Barry himself sourced from Yorkshire - awaits the masons. Their studio had been sited there where the raw material could be most easily delivered and worked, and the painting offers a fascinating snapshot of its operation. A good deal of sculptural ornament was still being finished at this date, particularly the statue series of kings from Saxon times which John Thomas, Barry’s master sculptor, was fashioning to be set into the stonework. [1]

To the right Anderson shows the construction of Barry’s new Westminster Bridge. By this date the previous bridge of thirteen narrow arches was too narrow and too eroded to be retained, and Barry designed a wider bridge carried on seven broad arches which was opened in 1862. Our painting shows the old bridge still in service as the new bridge was constructed alongside it, and here the arches of old Westminster Bridge, first painted by Canaletto in 1747 (Yale Centre for British Art) make perhaps their last appearance in the pictorial record.

Further imminent changes to Anderson’s topography might have been less apparent at this date. In his painting he depicts the inlet of the Thames behind Victoria Tower, where on the bank alongside the stonemasons’ jetty there stand jostled together red brick eighteenth century houses and warehouses that recall Canaletto’s London. These were soon to be swept away as part of Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s revolutionary drainage and sanitation project which led to the construction of the Victoria Embankment in the 1870s. In a second phase of this work the bank upstream of the Palace was extended with Barry’s river terrace, and the site of this waterway is now occupied by gardens.

Anderson was to paint London topographies several times over the next two decades, but the later pictures, such as Waterloo Bridge from the Thames 1866 (Private Collection) or Cleveland Market by Moonlight (Private Collection) lack the engaging human scale of the present composition, and in trying to convey a monumental aspect by dramatic effects of light and weather diminish the architecture beneath a crushing sky and obliterate our sense of London as a city of men. In the present painting like a good architect – or like Canaletto whose vision of the city this painting recalls – Anderson emphasises that human traffic is the life of the city. The paddle-steamer packed with passengers in the foreground buzzes with the anticipation of a journey about to begin, and though as the other identical boats already plying mid-stream suggest this is just a routine trip up or downstream, the 1850s version of a bus, so Anderson paints it with a sense of excitement as bright as the coats of the bearskinned guardsmen at the stern. In the immediate foreground a group of workmen sit at their ease amid the barrels on a river skiff, and their leisure in comparison with the holiday bustle of the steamer leads one to suspect this is a Sunday afternoon. This slice of London genre vivid with robust, Dickensian life gives this painting its narrative edge, and the eye is drawn across the water from the bustle of daily life to the majestic solidity and permanence of government.

Anderson was articled to Clark and Bell Architects in his native Glasgow but he came to England on joining the London office of his uncle William Burn, most probably around 1853. This is the date on an exquisite measured drawing the young Anderson made of a Decorated Gothic window in the East Cloister of Westminster Abbey (RIBA drawings collections Victoria and Albert Museum). Burn was one of Scotland’s foremost architects, with a broad practice ranging from country house building to gentlemen’s clubs, insurance offices and churches. There is no surviving account of how Anderson combined his position as a junior member of the practice with a career as a topographical artist, and when he died in 1915 his obituaries focussed on his eminence as an architect and past President of the Royal Institute of British Architects rather than his earlier achievements as a painter. We lack, therefore, any exact information about his early training, beyond the obvious professional schooling as a draughtsman. The way, however, in which his ink drawing of the Gothic window at once stands out in the RIBA folio from the more laboured pieces of his young contemporaries with its faultless lines and conception of the tracery as kaleidoscope in monochrome reveals his enormous natural talent. Perhaps translating his experience of the city into paint was the natural response of a talented young man brought from the comparative provincialism of Glasgow to the then-greatest metropolis on Earth. It may also have provided a welcome escape from a curiously restrictive aspect of his uncle’s working practice: unusually for an architect Burns did not permit his work to be published, and his designs were a secret shared only between himself, his builders and his clients. There is some irony in the fact that Anderson’s talent celebrates the achievement of a rival architect so spectacularly, although it is of course also true that the Palace of Westminster, an achievement laden with superlatives, boasting, for example, the largest clock in the world and at the time the tallest tower, was the greatest modern building of its age and as much a monument of architecture itself as of its creators.

When William Burn died in 1870 Anderson inherited his practice. His first important commission shortly before his uncle’s death was to design a home for seamen in Bombay. Anderson presumably had direction of the firm by 1869 because the design was exhibited at the Royal Academy that year (no.985) and then published in The Builder, [2] a clear statement that advertisement and instruction were crucial obligations for a practising architect. The seamen’s home was a revolutionary design pre-fabricated in sections in England to be shipped out to India for construction. Ingeniously each floor was conceived as a unit to which others could be added according to the accommodation needed. This engineer’s solution to the problems of the commission displays a truly Victorian ingenuity, and leads one to wonder how well he knew Isambard Kingdom Brunel who was a client of his uncle’s in the 1850s.

The rest of his work continues the tradition of Burn’s architecture, including newly designed and refurbished country houses - such as Addington Park, or his work at Althorp - generally in a Jacobean revival style as his uncle had used, as well as a flourishing practice in designing bank and insurance offices in the heavily-ornamented Baroque revival which was to become the prevailing style of late Victorian and Edwardian architecture. Among his surviving works the façade of Christie’s on King Street in London is a good example of his restrained classical style and the former British Linen Bank on Threadneedle Street shows his exuberant baroque. It might seem surprising, however, that the man who so admired the Palace of Westminster or who understood the form of Gothic traceries so instinctively did not embrace the Gothic as a style. Partly this may be explained by family loyalty – Burns had been in the opposing architectural camp to the Gothic revivalists [3] – and partly by the change in fashion as the nineteenth century progressed. But Anderson also worked in a strict architectural tradition where form was dictated by function. Country houses required neo-Jacobean buildings, offices might be baroque or neo-classical but the Gothic was appropriate only for churches. It is especially satisfying, therefore, that among Anderson’s rare Gothic commissions should be one with which he was personally associated. As an Elder of the Scots National Church he was commissioned to build the new church of St Columba on Pont Street in 1884. The interior was plainly fitted out according to the requirements of Presbyterian observance - though Anderson allowed himself a magnificent flourish in the decorated Gothic exterior and traceries of the west window - but the bold upward statement of the bell-tower in the north west corner pays homage to Barry’s Victoria Tower. [4]




[1] We are grateful to Malcolm Hay, curator at the Palace of Westminster for supplying this information.

[2] Builder, October 15, 1870.

[3] Aston Webb, “John Macvicar Anderson : An Appreciation,” in Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, June 26, 1915, vol. XXII, p.416.

[4] Anderson’s church was destroyed by bombing in 1941. The current building begun in 1955 though of distinct design retains Anderson’s plan and the position of the bell-tower.

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts

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