Arthur Streeton moved from Australia to London in 1897 with the aim of replicating, on a larger scale, the critical and commercial success he had found in his homeland.
In London, Streeton was exposed to a far broader range of artistic influences than would have been possible had he remained in Australia. His attendance at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, and at the London Impressionists exhibition of the International Society, had in his earliest London days, exposed him to the work of contemporary European and American artists, particularly Walter Sickert and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
The philosophy of the London Impressionists infused Streeton's work at this time, whether consciously or not. For them, Impressionism was "essentially and firstly not realism. It had no wish to record anything merely because it exists. It is, on the contrary, strong in the belief that for those who live in the most wonderful and complex city in the world, the most fruitful course of study lies in a persistent effort to render the magic and poetry which they daily see around them." (D.S. MacColl in A. Galbally, Arthur Streeton, Melbourne, 1969, p.42).
In The Thames at Battersea, Streeton gives expression to this philosophy in his choice of subject matter. Battersea had long been a centre of industry. A 1774 Ordnance Survey map showed the existence of oil and grease works to supply Price's Candles, chemical works and foundries and a large number of shipping wharves. The industrial character of the area was further reinforced by the arrival in 1838 of the London and Southampton Railway Company line, which resulted in an increase in the population of the area from 6,000 in 1840 to almost 170,000 in 1910. Like Whistler before him, Streeton in 1906 depicted rowboats in the Thames, floating in front of a conglomeration of factories with the grand edifices of their billowing chimney stacks; grand edifices seen from across the Thames.
Streeton overcomes the connotations of the dock area as a "most unromantic place" (in a letter to T. Roberts, in A Galbally & A Gray (ed.), Letters from Smike, Melbourne, 1989, p. 98). Lilac, grey and bronze predominate, suggesting "those foggy days are dreams of colour, with sun struggling to appear making the ever changing river like a beautiful opal" (C Wray, Arthur Streeton, Painter of Light, Brisbane, 1993, p.101).