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The finished bridge was considered to be a triumph and it attracted many artists to paint it, including Samuel Scott and William Marlow. But the most famous images of old Westminster Bridge were painted by Canaletto, who first arrived in London in 1746, probably attracted by the favourable early reports about the bridge. Because of the War of the Austrian Succession, English people were unable to travel in Europe, so the Venetian artist decided to come to the home of his greatest patrons, several of whom were among the bridge commissioners. Soon after his arrival he painted the first of many views of the new bridge, making the London river scene look very much like the Grand Canal in Venice. At this time the bridge was still incomplete, and Canaletto's bridge varies in several aspects from the finished structure. He included rather more stone alcoves than were erected, and placed statues of river gods over the central arch, an idea which had been considered but which was never carried out. These 'improvements' were repeated by the artist in later depictions of the bridge and were also copied by several other artists. He also painted a striking view of the City through one of the arches of the bridge, complete with its wooden centring, and a bucket hanging down from the parapet (see pages 10-11). In 1834, when the old Houses of Parliament were destroyed by fire, both Constable and Turner sketched the blaze, Constable from the bridge and Turner from a boat on the Thames. Turner produced two oil paintings of the subject, in which the old bridge features very prominently in the foreground.

Westminster bridge (part four)

Westminster Bridge from the River, Looking South, British School, c. 1750. The image was probably inspired by a painting by Canaletto, though the anonymous British artist depicted the stone alcoves more accurately than the Italian master.

Despite all the accolades, there were a few complaints, including the steepness of the bridge, which caused horses to slip as they crossed what was, essentially, a modern version of a medieval hump-backed bridge. The balustrades were also considered to be too high, so that one could get a good view only from the top of a carriage. Another problem reported in 1753 has a very modern ring to it. Apparently there was a'great want of proper places to piss in at the four corners of the bridge. For the great numbers that piss there cause it to run down to the houses which make it very offensive'. To solve the problem, four stone basins were set up at each corner of the bridge. It seems that men urinating in public was not an unusual sight in eighteenth-century London, as can be seen in another of Canaletto's London pictures, Old Horse Guards.

One of the attractions of the new bridge was the echo under its arches, and it is claimed that people would float through the bridge playing the French horn to test it. Another curiosity was the fact that if you whispered into the wall of one of the alcoves on the bridge you could be heard clearly, through the traffic, from the alcove on the other side of the road. The alcoves had other uses, especially at night, and Boswell used one in 1763 for one of his amorous encounters. As he said in his Journal, 'The whim of doing it there with the Thames rolling below us amused me much'.

While crossing the bridge in a carriage in 1802, Wordsworth was inspired by the view to write his famous sonnet Upon Westminster Bridge:

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear

The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky,
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

There is a plaque on the downstream side of the bridge commemorating the occasion of the poem's inspiration.

Despite all the euphoria over the new bridge, it was not long before problems became apparent. In 1759 two arches of London Bridge had been demolished to create a wider central arch, and this increased the flow of water, causing scouring that began to undermine the foundations of the piers ofWestminster Bridge. When the old London Bridge was finally demolished in 1831 the problem grew worse. Reports were made by such eminent engineers as John Rennie,Thomas Telford and James Walker, all agreeing that the cause of the problem was Labelye's mistake in the way he laid the foundations. Various suggestions were made to solve the problem, including one from William Cubitt of paving the riverbed under the bridge to prevent further scouring. In 1843 James Walker attempted to strengthen the foundations of piers that were beginning to sink, as well as replacing some of the damaged stonework. To reduce the weight on the structure, the balustrades and alcoves were removed and replaced by a lower wall. But there were already calls to stop wasting money on repairs and to replace the bridge with a new one, one of the advocates being Charles Barry, the architect of the new Houses of Parliament going up alongside the bridge. In 1845 Punch said that 'Westminster-bridge is still very unwell. It looks really as if it were going to break up. Its celebrated echo, too, is very faint, and scarcely has sufficient strength left to answer when spoken to.'

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