Imagine that you were an artist from a hundred years ago, and this was the scene that met your eyes.
This is Boulter’s Lock, a popular gathering point for pleasure boaters along the Thames west of London. There’s a mix of personalities and a variety of watercraft crowded together waiting for the lock to be opened. Everyone is dressed for a fashionable day outdoors.
But what chaos! Everything is moving and changing. How would you design a coherent picture out of all these raw elements?
Here’s what Edward J. Gregory (1850-1909) exhibited in 1897, called "Boulter's Lock, Sunday Afternoon." It’s one of the masterpieces of Victorian painting, and today is the pride of the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool. But it’s hardly ever mentioned in art history class because it doesn't fit neatly into the streamlined narrative of most survey courses.
That’s too bad, because it’s a supreme example of composition. Note the clustering, spokewheeling and shapewelding in the main boat in the lower center of the picture. As a contrast to that crowded boat, the boats nearby have only single figures in a remarkable variety of postures and expressions, and those figures speak volumes about the social classes of the time. The Art Journal said, "it is in fact the three volume novel in art, the guide book and encyclopaedia of the manners and customs of the English people'."
Gregory worked on Boulter's Lock for about ten years. He was a remarkable painter. How many people would dare to paint reflections and cast shadows crossing in shallow water?
More details about the real Boulter's Lock on Wikipedia and this local website, link.
Lady Lever Art Museum's page about the painting, link.
Art Renewal Center, three paintings by E.J.Gregory, link.