Artwork by James Wilson Morrice,  A Bridge in London (ca. 1913-15)

J.W. Morrice
A Bridge in London (ca. 1913-15)

oil on board
“Studio / J.W. Morrice” stamp on the reverse
11 x 14 ins ( 27.9 x 35.6 cms )

Auction Estimate: $70,000.00$50,000.00 - $70,000.00

Price Realized $192,000.00
Sale date: November 22nd 2021

Private Collection, United Kingdom
Dominion Gallery, Montreal
Private Collection, Montreal
Kastel Gallery, Montreal
Canadian Fine Arts, Toronto
Private Collection, Ontario
“Canadian Masters: Exhibit & Sale”, Canadian Fine Arts, Toronto, October 25 – November 12, 2001 & November 16 – December 4, 2002
A busy bridge seen from above, vehicles crossing it in both directions; a trail of white smoke reveals a second bridge; on the far bank, high chimneys are silhouetted against an early evening sky: a composition rendered in earthy colors, underlined by a long ribbon of white smoke and a dark red railing, and contrasted by the beautiful turquoise of the bridge and the suspended panel at bottom right.

Opened in 1869 to pedestrians and coaches, then cars, Blackfriars Bridge was enlarged in 1907-10 to accommodate tramways; its railway twin, with its trellis sides, was slightly older; the smoke is that of a suburban train rushing out from St. Paul’s Underground Station (today “Blackfriars”), located slightly to our left but not visible in the painting; the cathedral itself is further back. This was a popular traffic hub: across the Victoria Embankment Road, stairs went down to an old subway station, and to the Blackfriars Pier. The main bridge is still standing, currently painted red and white; the railway bridge has been replaced but its piers, also red, still rise from the Thames; the pier, now displaced towards the west, is once again used for commuter water buses. Across the river, the high smoking chimney belongs to the Bankside Power Station, replaced since by a bigger one, now site of the Tate Modern art gallery.

This very busy urban scene is extremely rare for Morrice, who preferred quiet views in serene horizontal compositions. The view is from a window of the huge De Keyser’s Royal Hotel (since replaced by the Unilever House), where the visiting artist was probably staying; was he thinking of similar views from upper-level windows made popular by Monet and Pissarro? He is known for his small sketches on wooden panels, sometimes paired with a drawing in a small sketchbook. But here we have quite a different pairing: the rather large sketch is based on a large drawing, only marginally smaller than the painting. But also easier to read, since all the anecdotal details – the smoke (white and black), the tram, even the figures and the horse – are absent, except for a tramway on the bridge. No train is running on the railway bridge, with its characteristic trellis railing surmounted by a low festooned border. The Thames is also more visible: in the painting, Morrice moved his viewpoint to the left, putting more emphasis on the bridge itself: the tramway, which fills the emptiness of the road curve, was perhaps added later.

For a long time, all London works by Morrice were invariably dated 1914: when France declared war on Germany, he almost immediately crossed the Channel, and stayed three months in the British capital. But in fact he often visited London, whether on his way to or from Liverpool, or as a side-trip from Southampton, sometimes only to see friends, or a special exhibition. So this painting does not necessarily date from the Fall of 1914, although it was painted after the 1910 enlargement of the bridge; its light pink priming links it to the North African and Cuban pochades of 1912-1915.

So far, no drawings or sketch had ever been related to any of the artist’s quick trips to England, while drawings, sketches and two canvases document the longer 1914 stay. A sketchbook drawing and a canvas depict the Houses of Parliament, but all others show Trafalgar Square as seen, like here, from above: perhaps because Morrice was taken for a spy while sketching near Westminster, he focused on what he saw from his room at the Morley’s Hotel. There is no clue, in his 1914 sketchbook (Montreal MFA, #10) that he ventured as far as Blackfriars during this long stay.

On the other hand, in early summer 1913 he visited the English painter Augustus John in Chelsea (letter to his wife Dorelia). Perhaps the same year, on June 2nd, Morrice had written to another London friend, the American Joseph Pennell: “Do you know of any hotel near or on the Embankment with a view of the river from the windows. I am thinking of doing some sketching.” (Washington, Library of Congress). He was thinking of the Arundel, also on the Victoria Embankment, but the Keyser was slightly closer to the river. But if sketching was the intention, why was the panel purchased at Roberson in Covent Garden, as was probably also the paper used for the drawing, unique in Morrice’s oeuvre with its canvas-like texture? Was the decision to record the view a spontaneous one?

In Paris, Morrice lived on the bank of the Seine, across from the Île de la Cité; that smaller branch of the river was only plied by slow barges, and the traffic below his window was limited. But from his hotel room at Blackfriars he discovered a busy and more industrial waterway, probably noisier too. His usual small format would not do, so he rushed to Covent Garden, and probably completed both works on the spot. And that was it for that trip. Perhaps the weather did not cooperate either...

We extend our thanks to Lucie Dorais, Canadian art historian and author of “J.W. Morrice” (National Gallery of Canada, 1985), for contributing this essay.

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James Wilson Morrice
(1865 - 1924) RCA

Born in Montreal to a prominent family of textile merchants, Morrice spent most of his life abroad, much of it in Paris. He had gone there to enrol in the Academie Julian, the best-known of the private art schools that lured dozens of young Canadian artists to cross the ocean with the promise of technical proficiency and stylistic sophistication. Soon Morrice was studying with the Barbizon painter Henri Harpignies and looking intently at the pictures of the cutting-edge Nabis members. Affable and gregarious, Morrice was well liked in Paris among the local and emigre vanguard, notably his friends the great Henri Matisse and the influential American painter Robert Henri. He did well, showing in the most prestigious exhibitions of new art, including the Salons, and selling to discerning European collections of the highest rank. If he is remembered mostly in Canada today, it may be because Canadian collectors repatriated most of his pictures after his death, leaving Europeans with little to go on. He had been careful to maintain a reputation at home, showing here regularly and returning frequently for Christmas, which would explain why most of his Canadian pictures are winter scenes. Young Canadian artists held him in considerable esteem during his lifetime for his fearless modernism and his success in Europe. A stylistically hybrid artist, Morrice combined a lush and often dusky Post-Impressionist tone with nonchalant brushwork of a plumb assuredness, softening the blunt structures of his Fauvist friends. What results are paintings as complicated as they are straightforward and often redolent with suppressed emotion. Morrice tends to smallish pictures that draw you in, only to surprise you by their resolute diffidence. Irresistible and remote, his pictures ask for intimacy but keep their distance, like nostalgia, like longing. Morrice ran with a fast crowd of glittering cosmopolitans. Alcoholism got the better of him by the end of his fifties; his health ultimately failed while in North Africa where he had painted with Matisse and where he died at fifty-eight.

Source: National Gallery of Canada