This study of Greenwich from the Isle of Dogs is a remarkably early example of the use of transparent washes in a landscape watercolour. Many Dutch and Flemish artists painted Greenwich, which was itself a site of picture-making in the late seventeenth century as the marine painters Willem van de Velde the elder and his son maintained a studio at the Queen’s House. However, painters such as Jan Griffier usually painted Greenwich from the hill with the London in the distance, rather than from the Thames as here. This drawing, in fact, describes two stretches of the Greenwich shore, one above the other, in a form of note-taking that would have been used in preparation for a wide prospect. The continuous landscape was perhaps made from a ship, it shows on the top, the gravel pits along Greenwich Reach and on the bottom, Crowley House, Trinity Hospital and the King’s Observatory; in the foreground a frigate at anchor.
The date of this watercolour is unknown, but it cannot be older than 1675, when the Observatory, visible in the right-hand distance, replaced Duke Humphrey's Tower. The red ensign on the ship shows only the cross of St George, so must pre-date the 1707 union with Scotland. These were the decades when many painters crossed from the Netherlands to seek work in London, including landscape specialists like Griffier, Hendrick Danckerts , Leonard Knyff and Jan Siberechts.
This watercolour, then considered a mid-seventeenth century work, was featured in the first exhibition of early drawings, British-Born Artists of the Seventeenth Century, held at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1938. This was a ground-breaking display envisaged as a survey of drawing, that was designed to encourage the study of early drawings beyond the consideration of individual artists' work. This sketch was included principally because its lively use of watercolour, applied rapidly in transparent washes, was unexpected at this date. Kim Sloan has suggested that the use of transparent washes of watercolour that became ubiquitous in Britain in the later eighteenth century had its origins among the Flemish immigrant painters, from Van Dyck to Siberechts and Tillemans. Watercolours such as this view of Greenwich, therefore, are important documents in the early history of English watercolour. Handled with fluency and assurance, this hugely appealing topographical view of the Thames river bank was owned in the eighteenth century by Joshua Reynolds, suggesting that it was understood to be by a known artist, possibly Siberechts or Griffer.