About the artwork
Boulter's Lock is on the river Thames, west of London, near Maidenhead. It was built to make the further reaches of the river accessible to boats. The main river passes over a nearby weir. This part of the Thames has fine scenery and was a particularly popular place for boating parties at the end of the 19th century when this picture was painted. On one Sunday in 1888 around 800 boats and 72 steam launches passed through Boulter's Lock. This painting depicts a moment on just such a day.
Gregory has painted the bridge, lock and surroundings with accuracy. He has, however, changed significant features of the background in order to simplify and give more impact to the composition of the painting. He has moved the sharply sloping ground on the right of the scene closer to the lock and into the picture and he has left out the three wooden posts from the top right hand lock gate.
The painting is wonderfully animated and a masterpiece of studied detail. The various rowing boats, punts, canoes, sailboats and steam-powered boats surge towards and away from the lock. The many figures of men, women and children, in contrasting positions - seated, standing, reclining, leaning, rowing, riding, walking – are all beautifully observed and are clothed in a variety of outfits. The clothes provide evidence that the picture was painted over a long period of time. The dress of the woman in the foreground and probably that of the woman under the parasol date from 1885. The other figures wear clothes from around 1895. Gregory used members of his family as models for this picture.
Gregory, who worked very slowly, wrestled with the problems of such a grand and ambitious composition for several years. The picture was started in about 1882 but was not exhibited until 1897. The composition is striking and unusual, there is a high viewpoint and it is 'cropped', as boats are cut by the edge of the picture. This 'snap shot' composition was often used by Impressionist painters. Two oil studies for the painting show clearly the evolution of the picture. In many respects the finished painting is a mirror image of these original studies. The woman in the bottom left of the picture holding the tasselled steering ropes has moved from the opposite side of the composition, similarly the man in the punt near the centre of the picture is seen guiding his boat towards the right. In the study he is seen heading towards the left. One other important alteration or addition to the finished picture is the inclusion of the reclining figure in the boat on right edge of the painting. This is a self-portrait.
Edward Gregory was born in 1850 in Southampton. He started work in the drawing office of a steamship company but moved to London after meeting another aspiring artist who also grew up in Southampton, Hubert Herkomer. Herkomer's masterpiece, ‘The Last Muster’ also hangs in the Lady Lever Art Gallery. Gregory attended the Royal Academy Schools and the Royal College of Art for brief periods but was largely self-taught. From 1871 to 1875 he produced drawings for ‘The Graphic’, an influential illustrated magazine with a large circulation. Herkomer worked for the same magazine. Gregory was a painter of street scenes and city life. He exhibited at the Royal Academy throughout his career and was President of the RA between 1898 and 1909, the year of his death.
‘Boulter’s Lock’ was generally well received when it was first exhibited, although ‘The Times’ criticised it for an absence of strong contrasts of light and dark. ‘The Athenaeum’ appreciated 'some clever portraits' but disapproved of ' the coarse and heavy painting of the water and the need of finish and a firmer touch'
However, the ‘Art Journal’ said;
'it is the kind of picture which foreign critics recognise as national; it is in fact the three volume novel in art, the guide book and encyclopaedia of the manners and customs of the English people'.
Lever bought the picture in 1905, after the death of the original owner. It is the type of picture that Lever loved; ambitious, large scale, painstakingly executed and above all hugely successful. He paid £648. 18s. 6d for it, which was a substantial price. He then immediately sent it to be reproduced. He used the colour prints in one of his soap advertising campaigns.
Take a look at Herkomer’s ‘The Last Muster’