These two aquatints produced by the English landscape artist William Daniell (1769–1837) depict the newly-built London Docks at Wapping, east London. They were published by Daniell in 1803 and 1808. They are part of a series of seven views in the King's Topographical Collection representing a set of new docks on the Thames, built from 1800 as part of a scheme to totally overhaul and modernise shipping in London.
Trade imports, both domestic and foreign, dramatically increased over the 18th century and London’s docks needed to expand and upgrade in order to accommodate the daily influx of ships and goods. Architects and engineers bid to remodel the city’s docks, each of their designs featuring the latest technological developments. The new infrastructure was considered revolutionary and visionary: the embodiment of modern Britain as a sophisticated and scientifically advanced imperial power.
London Dock was the second to be built within the scheme, and was named as such to emphasise its position close to the City and to the heart of Britain’s commercial empire. Goods such as tobacco, rice, spices, wine and brandy, except those from the East and West Indies, were processed here. The dock was designed by the architect Daniel Asher Alexander (1768–1846) and engineer John Rennie (1761–1821) and was constructed in phases from 1802 to 1815.
Daniell depicts the first phase of the build in his 1803 view. The dock is shown relatively finished and functioning despite the fact that it was then a building site. A certain amount of optimistic and embellishing fiction is employed in his prospective representation. Perhaps for this reason Daniell has decided to show the dock from further away: the artist choosing to foreground ranks of ships laden with cargo making their way up the Thames in the direction of the city and St Paul’s Cathedral.
The 1808 view depicts the dock in its second phase and from a closer perspective, with specific buildings and its eastern extension. In the subtitle to the plate Daniell writes that new and ‘extensive accommodation’ in the form of warehouses and cellars had been installed to provide much-needed storage facilities to shipping. Sacred ‘revenue’ and ‘commercial property’ is protected with a ‘boundary wall’ of ‘upwards…forty five acres’.
Daniell depicts the vast tobacco warehouse, equipped with subterranean vaults ‘for the reception of Wine & Brandy’, and ‘five stacks of Warehouses on the north side’ ‘striking’ in their ‘magnitude & stability’. As a whole, the new complex afforded merchants ‘every requisite convenience’ and communicated ‘the dignity of the Nation’ as a maritime power and commercial hub. At a cost of ‘two millions sterling’, the London Docks and its forebear the West India Dock rendered the metropolis ‘the first Port, as it is already the first City in the World’.