Leith has been the port for Scotland's capital city for many centuries and, despite the traditional rivalry between the two communities, it was finally absorbed into a wider Edinburgh in 1920. When the work offered here was painted however, it was still a tough and independent seafaring town which enjoyed considerable trade in its own right with northern Europe as well as with the eastern coasts of both England and Scotland. In the mid-nineteenth century, it boasted paint, rope, sails, marble and sugar among its main industrial activities and steamers plied regularly to London, Hull, Newcastle, the north of Scotland, Hamburg and Rotterdam. Against a topographical backdrop of Edinburgh's natural landmarks, namely Arthur's Seat, Calton Hill, Castle Rock and Salisbury Crags, Knell has portrayed Leith just as it was in its heyday, a bustling commercial port which attracted shipping of all types, large and small, sail and steam.
Although it cannot be confirmed absolutely, it seems highly probable that this is the work entitled 'Edinburgh from the Sea' which W.A. Knell exhibited at the British Institution in 1836 (no. 125, 27 x 48ins. incl. frame).