This view of the City of London from the south bank of the Thames shows the hive of river activity around Old London Bridge and Fishmongers' Hall in the mid-eighteenth century. In the middle-ground, men are handling rafts of timber brought in by ship for building purposes and often temporarily stored wet in the river. The three men in the left foreground may be treating fabric or leather (Swan Lane, just west of London Bridge, was the centre of this trade), or may have been employed to maintain the starlings. This region of the north bank, almost entirely rebuilt after the Great Fire, was inhabited by the rising, enterprising merchant class. Disciplined by their livery companies, many accumulated vast fortunes and set up grand residences in buildings adjoining their offices. The bustling, picturesque location of Old London Bridge itself attracted many artist residents, including Holbein, Hogarth, Laguerre, Monamy and Serres.
Old London Bridge, the first stone bridge on the river, and the only thoroughfare to the Surrey side until Westminster Bridge opened in 1750, was begun in 1176 under the architect Peter, Chaplain of St Mary Colechurch. Its appearance evolved over the centuries as fires swept across the bridge (the worst in 1212, 1633 and 1725) and the buildings were re-erected in the current architectural style depicted here. The bridge is shown supporting, from right to left: the Great Stone Gateway, where the heads of traitors were exhibited until 1660 (including William Wallace in 1305, Thomas More in 1535 and Thomas Cromwell in 1540); 'Nonesuch House', a renaissance building imported from Holland; followed by the drawbridge leading to a central block of houses and shops (incorporating the remains of the original chapel dedicated to Saint Thomas of Canterbury and housing the body of Peter, which was turned into a well in 1548); and finally, a set of barrack-like houses known as the Piazza, designed by George Dance in 1745. The Water Tower and water-wheels (under the two northernmost arches) are visible at the far end of the bridge.
In The Thames about 1750, Phillips described Old London bridge as: 'that beautiful old relic...unquestionably the most picturesque and romantic feature of early London...with overhanging houses supported on brackets - a veritable street upon the water' (London, 1951, pp. 31 and 49). It appears here in the years immediately preceding the removal of its houses and the enlargement of its central arch (between 1758 and 1762) (as it appears in lot 86), before its ultimate destruction in 1831. With its nineteen piers and broad starlings the bridge was acting more like a dam than a modern bridge, and the pent up current roaring through the narrow spaces was gradually tearing up the river bed and making the structure unstable. In addition, it was extremely difficult to navigate and impassable to high-masted ships. Despite these dangers and impracticalities, the decision to remove the houses and thus lighten the load sparked strong public reaction, several Londoners even attempted to jeopardise proceedings. The debate surrounding the bridge's future also sparked an artistic response, as artists set about preserving a record of this picturesque old relic. Canaletto, who was in London during this period (1746-1755), made a pen and ink and wash drawing of the bridge in the 1750s (British Museum, London), while Samuel Scott executed eleven paintings of the bridge from 1747 (R. Kingzett, 'A Catalogue of the works of Samuel Scott', The Walpole Society, London, 1982, XXXXVIII, pp.43-48, A-K).
The prominence of the Fishmongers' Hall on the north bank, designed by Edward Jerman, City Surveyor in the late 17th century, may suggest that the present picture was commissioned by one of its members. Dating from the reign of Edward I, the Company was one of the richest in the City, donating lavishly to charities and providing some fifty Lord Mayors in its history. The Prime Warden of the Fishmongers' Company in 1750 was Edward Price.