A View of the Old Bridge at Putney

Attributed to: Joseph Nickolls
1726 – 1755

A View of the Old Bridge at Putney

Painted circa 1740

Oil on canvas: 36 5/8 x 47 3/4 inches, 91.5 x 119.4 cm


  • With the Sabin Gallery, London 1962
  • Collection of Viscount Strathallan (b.1935), 9th Earl of Perth

Depicting a gentler and more tranquil scene from a bygone Georgian London, our view of the old wooden bridge at Putney has long-since been replaced by a more modern stone bridge. [1] At this time the old Fulham Bridge (as it was then called) was one of the few bridges over the Thames and was the only other crossing point along the stretch of the river between London Bridge and Kingston Bridge. [2] Located in south-west London, it is unique in that it is the only bridge in Britain to have a church at both ends: on the north bank at Fulham, home of the Bishops of London since the late 13th century, is located All Saints Church and on the south bank the ancient church of St. Mary's, Putney is situated. It was at this location in 1647, that the representatives of the New Model Army held the so-called Putney Debates on the constitutional future of England.

The first attempt to build a permanent bridge at Putney was made in 1671, when a Bill was introduced to Parliament but met with strong opposition from various vested interests and was defeated. Nonetheless, demands continued to be made for a second bridge to be built over the Thames, located at either Westminster, Vauxhall or Putney. It appears that events precipitated to a head in 1720, when Prime Minister Robert Walpole was returning from a visit to George I in Kingston to attend a debate in the House of Commons. Cookson (2006, p97) describes how Walpole,

“…rode on horse back with his servant to Putney only to find the ferry on the other side of the river. The ferrymen were drinking in the Swan Inn and took no notice of Walpole’s shouts for them to take him across the river on vital national business.” [3]

Furious at being ignored, Walpole had to take the much longer route to Parliament and this incident appears to have spurred on his efforts to have a bridge built at Fulham, for in 1726, with Walpole’s support, an Act of Parliament was passed to build a Bridge “across the River Thames from the town of Fulham in the County of Middlesex to the town of Putney in the County of Surrey.” [4]

Our painting details the old approach road to the bridge which was an ancient pathway that led from Fulham Ferry to the Bishop of London's Palace, where boats used to land on the small beach at the side of the Bridge.[5] A toll bridge, it featured tollbooths at either end of the timber-built structure.[6] The wooden bridge was capable of taking carts and cattle but was frequently damaged by boat accidents and the elements: the bridge was badly damaged by the collision of a river barge in 1870, and although part of the bridge was subsequently replaced, eventually the entire bridge would be demolished and in 1886 it was replaced by the stone bridge that stands today.[7] The buildings to the right of the painting formed part of an ancient settlement which included the Swan Inn. Built around 1698, this old alehouse derived much of its trade from people using the adjacent ferry and later the old Fulham Bridge.

Whilst little is known about the life of the artist Joseph Nicholls (fl. 1726–55), Jeffre (2009) describes him as a “sophisticated topographical painter” specialising in city views which accurately detailed buildings and landmarks, filled with miniaturized incidents of everyday life.[8] His acknowledged works are limited to a few signed views of London and its vicinity, distinguished by a subtle palette, careful topographical detail and, in particular, a manner of figure painting that strongly recalls contemporary Venetian practice. [9] Therefore, our recently attributed painting is a significant addition to the limited number of paintings by this artist. [10]

[1] Designed by Sir Jacob Ackworth, and constructed in 1727-29 by Thomas Phillips, the King's carpenter the bridge had 26 openings or locks and extended 786 feet in length. At the sides of the bridge were curious angular recesses to enable passengers to take refuge from passing vehicles.

[2] Until Westminster Bridge was built in 1750. See: Phillips, H. (1951) The Thames about 1750. Collins:London

[3] Cookson, B. (2006) Crossing the River: The History of London's Thames River Bridges from Richmond to the Tower

[4] Cookson, B. (2006) Op Cit., p. 97

[5] Feret, C. (1900) ‘Fulham Old and New,’ Vol. III, p 213

[6] The bell under the roof of the toll house was put up in 1730, so that the collectors could ring for assistance when attacked by highwaymen or unruly travelers

[7] The Metropolitan Board of Works purchased the bridge in 1879, discontinued the tolls in 1880, and set about its replacement. The current bridge was designed by civil engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette as a five-span structure, built of stone and Cornish granite and is 700ft long and 43ft wide. It was constructed by John Waddell of Edinburgh, and was opened by the Prince (later King Edward VII) and Princess of Wales on 29 May 1886.

[8] Jeffre, R. in Oxford Art Online http://www.oxfordartonline.com: accessed 23rd November 2009

[9] A pair of views, the Fountain in the Middle Temple (signed and dated 1738; London, Middle Temple) and the Stocks Market, were engraved in 1738. A number of works are known from the 1740s; they include Charing Cross and Northumberland House (signed and dated 1746; London, National Westminster Bank) and a pair of views of the Rotunda at Ranelagh (signed and dated 1748; both formerly at Melbury House, Dorset). See: Foley, C. (1990) Marine and Landscape Paintings. Exhibition catatalogue, entry no. 11. Lane Fine Art, London.

[10] We are grateful to Mr. David Dallas for confirming the attribution on first hand examination