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Toil, Glitter, Grime and Wealth on a Flowing Tide

“Toil, Glitter, Grime and Wealth on a Flowing Tide” is, by many experts, regarded as one of W L Wyllie’s most important and finest work of art in his long career. It was the culmination of many drawings and paintings in and around the river Thames. It tells the story of the hard labour (Toil) involved in moving the dusty and dirty loads of coal (Grime) in barges along the Thames. The black shiny (Glitter) pieces of coal were the backbone of the fuel industry in 19th century Britain and this natural resource provided great “Wealth” for the nation throughout the Industrial revolution and beyond.


For years Bill, together with brother Charles and step-brother Lionel Percy Smythe travelled up and down the Thames in their floating studio “The Ladybird”, creating a wealth of drawings and paintings. Their knowledge of the snaking river was unsurpassed, especially the area from Westminster towards the East, ending in the Thames estuary. Painting from the river gave Bill a unique vantage point with views that provided a different aspect through this particular body of work.

Bill started to work on his entry for the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition of 1883 in the Autumn of 1882 in his studio in his London home at no.70 Carlton Hill. After preparing the canvas by coating it with a smooth layer of Zinc White and laying down the subject in sepia, the painting soon progressed well. In order for the first coat to dry and harden without cracking, fires were banned from his studio and the family lived in their coats through the chilling autumn days, all for the sake of art! Unlike most years, he managed to finish it well before the deadline of 31st March 1883.

When clients got wind of this new monumental painting, interest was growing rapidly. One of his regular patrons, Mr J.B. Burgess, brought his brother in Law, Sir Joseph Pulley along to see it and he was keen to buy the painting.

However, shortly after his visit, Bill received a notice from the RA hanging committee that his painting was chosen to be “picture of the year” by the Chantry fund. It was subsequently purchased for £700 (£80,000 in today’s money) on behalf of the nation and can now be seen hanging in The Tate Gallery, London.

After his initial disappointment, Bill managed to appease Mr Burgess and Sir Joseph Pulley by painting a smaller replica of the painting, which they accepted gladly, especially as its big brother had become so famous.

Two important events followed the success of “Toil, Glitter, Grime and Wealth on a Flowing Tide”:

Firstly, Bill was given a slot to exhibit more than 70 drawings and paintings in a one man show at the Fine Art Society in 1884, entitled “The Tidal Thames”. Part of the exhibition was another painting, depicting the coal transportation on the Thames and attracting a lot of attention: “Black Diamonds, Bugsby’s Hole” was named after an area on the east side of the Greenwich peninsula, where a jetty lead to the Pilot Inn, a favourite anchorage (“Hole”) for workmen and alike.

The show was so popular that a spin-off book was published by Cassell and Co Ltd, describing the paintings in more detail.

The second occasion was the introduction to Robert Dunthorne, who was to become his main dealer and lifelong friend. It was Robert Dunthorne, who commissioned Bill to create his first etching – the subject was of course “Toil, Glitter, Grime and Wealth on a Flowing Tide”. This new medium meant W L Wyllie had to learn a completely new skill, one he mastered to such an extent that he is now widely regarded as one of the finest etchers of his period. Many Wyllie fans only know of his etchings and are totally unaware of his watercolours and oils. His etchings are still very saleable, many fetching four figure sums.


Recently sold at White Dog Gallery: “Coal Barges at Rotherhithe” – one of the paintings believed to be associated to the exhibition of 1884 at the Fine Art Society, either as a study or a main entry in the show.

Wyllie Coal barges at Rotherhithe .jpg
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