The Wreck at Brentford

By Val Bott

Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 9 (2000)

Shortly before she retired in the autumn of 1999, Hounslow’s Local Studies Librarian, Andrea Cameron, purchased this watercolour for the local collection. It shows the wreckage of boats and barges after serious flooding in Brentford in January 1841. Since I have been researching this flood for some years, I was excited to see the picture.

The Wreck at Brentford, January 16 1841 (Chiswick Local Studies library)

Contemporary newspaper reports, handbills and posters in the local collection provide details of the event. In the British Waterways collection is a contemporary lithograph, carefully marked as ‘Drawn, Lithographed and Pubd by E.Wildman, 23rd JanY 1841’ .This must be the picture referred to in The Times newspaper of 19 January: ‘Numbers of persons have during the day been conveyed in boats… for the purpose of having a nearer view of that scene of destruction which baffles all description. An artist has also been taking sketches of it which we are informed are to be lithographed for sale’.

The crowds flocking to see the damage would have provided a ready market for the souvenir print. The new acquisition bears a remarkable resemblance to the print and it is a similar size, but the print is executed with some delicate detail while the watercolour is painted in mainly rather opaque dull browns and greys. It seems most likely that this was not the original sketch from which the version in the lithograph was drawn, but that it is probably a coloured copy made from the published lithograph.

Chiswick’s local collection includes two other images of the flood which tend to reinforce this view. There are two copies of Faulkner’s History and Antiquities of Brentford, Ealing and Chiswick of 1845, into which a number of additional pictures, prints and cuttings have been inserted. In that known as ‘Faulkner No.1’, is another small watercolour sketch, the same size as the book, and also the much larger lithograph which has been pasted in with its edges folded inwards to make it fit the page size.

The existence of the second copy of the print almost certainly confirms that it was relatively widely available. The second watercolour is in the same dull tones as the new acquisition, and both have the same disposition of vessels, heaped up against the bank of the canal off Syon Park, with the same flotsam – broken timbers, masts and a pulley – in roughly the same location.

However large the crowds visiting Brentford, and however many of the visitors made sketches of what they had seen, no two artists could have recorded the same debris in the water in the same positions. Both watercolour sketches must have been the work of others, probably amateur artists, based upon the published print. Though the image in the newly-discovered picture does not add a great deal to what we know from contemporary reports, its existence confirms the impact of the event, the most dramatic natural disaster the local community would have known. It is only too likely that, in the absence of photography or film, someone should have produced the dramatic image for their commonplace book or for framing.

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