This Charter’d City

This Charter’d City, 2022, 185 cm x 210 cm, oil on MDF


I began work on this painting in November 2021. However, the germ of an idea was planted in July 2012 when I spent time photographing parts of London prior to the opening of the Olympic Games.

Photograph taken by John McSweeney, adjacent to the Shard, London, 2012
Hoarding, The Shard, London, July 2012

London’s tallest building, The Shard, was about to open and so I made my way there with a digital SLR. I took many photographs that day. The above is one of them.

The city had been captured from the air, and I thought at some point I would incorporate it into a painting. It was not until the following year that I began making a series of figurative paintings that formed a departure from my previous work, which, although inspired by my environment, was highly abstracted.

92cm x 122cm. Oil on MDF

Showtime (above) is a good example of where my work was heading. Painted in 2013, it incorporates both figures and urban architecture.

Fast forward to 2021 and I was intent on making something more ambitious, both in scale and subject matter. That subject was London, my birthplace and where I have spent most of my life, and the starting point was that hoarding.

William Blake

Once I began work I also read William Blake’s poem ‘London’. Again this is a typical approach, finding inspiration in poetry.

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

Blake’s poem was published in 1794, and I am happy to report that much has changed for the better. However, there are parallels with my own experiences of the city.
As a boy, I often walked along the streets of London with my father. He instilled in me a passion for its history and architecture. We also took trips by boat, both east and west, along the Thames. I did the same with my own children, and despite often cursing it, my love for this city has lasted a lifetime.

Working Methods

Photshop image developed fby John McSweeney and used as a starting point for his paintingThis Charter'd City
Photshop image used as a starting point for This Charter’d City

My working method involves ‘breeding’ images using my photographs and Photoshop. As I was painting it at home it would need to be split in order to move it to another space. Therefore the painting is a diptych.
So, with that in mind, I produced many images, one of which would act as a starting point for the painting. I emphasise starting point because things always change once I begin painting. For example, the construction worker peeking out from the right of the picture did not survive.

Also note that at this stage I envisaged two separate panels. Again this soon changed.

After some research, I came to believe Jason Hawkes took that aerial photograph. I was concerned about infringing his copyright, and so I decided to talk with him. He was friendly and helpful. However, on looking at my photo of the hoarding he was unsure whether The Shard’s developers had used his work or not. Nonetheless he said that if it was his, he didn’t have a problem with me using it in the way I envisaged.

Details from 'This Charter'd City, an oil painting by John McSweeney
Some of the changes I made to the image of London

Since that photograph was taken, the skyline has changed, such is the nature of London. I adjusted accordingly by inserting several buildings, including the Blackfriars development (above left) and 30 Fenchurch Street, aka ‘The Walkie Talkie’ (above right), which wasn’t completed until 2014. A helicopter was not available, and so I used Google Earth.

Foreground Figures

The initial three figures are based on people I observed in the City of London, on Threadneedle Street by the Bank of England, and on Watling Street. I had in-tended for the Thames to act as a substitute for a figure. That did not work, and it left me with a large ‘hole’ in the picture.

Two stages of This Charter'd City, an oil painting by John McSweeney
Before and after adding the extra foreground figure

It took several months before I took the plunge and obliterated a large chunk of Tower Bridge with a fourth figure. She is based on a woman I saw on the concourse of Liverpool Street Station. I changed the colour of her jacket and pashmina. Her face is pure invention, as is the woman’s on the left of the picture.

Additional Space

At that stage the picture space was very compressed. To extend it, I painted a peephole in the hoarding to provide a glimpse of the space beyond. I painted various scenes for that space but none of them felt right. So I took a morning out and went to the City, where I found a construction worker and a suitable backdrop, St Mary Axe, better known as The Gherkin. Later, I tacked on a chain-wire grille, which adds to the sense of the flatness of the hoarding.

This structure also chimes with other paintings where I arranged spaces parallel to the picture plane. The peephole can also be viewed as a picture within a picture – another motif I often use.

An example of how to create additional space in a painting
the space behind the hoarding

It took a long time to make sense of the space beyond the hoarding. The tiny figure of a construction worker was added almost at the last moment in order to give a sense of distance between the hoarding and the ‘Gherkin’. A considerable amount of abstraction was involved. But as Matisse once said, exactitude is not truth … or so I keep telling myself.
This section of the painting also unifies the light with that of the foreground. It also allowed me to use some lovely colours like Indian Yellow.

Blakey Leaves His Mark

Detail from This Charter'd City, an oil painting by John McSweeney
A reference to William Blake

Blake’s poem had to make an appearance in some form or another. So I invented ‘BLAKEY’, a street artist. His tag includes ‘mind-forged manacles’ and several tears.



Manet catalogue from Musée d'Orsay show 2011
Manet catalogue- Musée d’Orsay, 2011

In 2015, I visited the Musée d’Orsay, where I was particularly struck by Manet’s paintings. I had seen them before, twice in fact. And yes I knew he was a great painter. But knowing and feeling it are two different things.

Manet painted modern urban life. He depicted the young and old, the poor and wealthy, the beautiful and the less than picturesque. All fell before his gaze in what was then the centre of 19th Century modernity. He even ventured into painting political and historical events. All of this chimed with my attempts to paint this type of subject matter.

As he progressed, Manet developed a much looser type of brushwork. One can see the speed of application in his brushstrokes. There is no tightness or hesitation. It’s all very direct. Certainly confidence played a part in this. Yet it also took courage in the face of critical derision.

I think at that stage I was determined to be braver. To take a more painterly approach to the figure. I was unconcerned about using paint. My earlier non-figurative work was often quite experimental and painterly. But it took time to apply this approach to depicting the human figure.

A detail from Black and White and Red All Over, a painting by John McSweeney
Detail – Black and White and Red All Over, 2019

I don’t think it was until 2019, when I painted a series of paintings based on the Grenfell Fire, that I got on board the Manet Express.

The Fourth Estate

The Fourth Estate by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo

I saw ‘The Fourth Estate’ by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo at the Royal Academy in 1980. This was shortly before I went to art school. It was exhibited in ‘Post-impressionism : cross currents in European painting’. It is a a painting that has stayed with me all these years.

When I began ‘This Charter’d City’ I was intent on painting at least one figure who would look straight at the viewer. Eventually I made sure three of the four central figures did this. I used the trick of painting their eyes so as to make them stare at me. The human brain does the rest by converting the flat image into a 3D one, which is why, no matter where viewers stand, these figures directly engage them. And I learned this from ‘The Fourth Estate’ where the central figure does exactly this.


This picture represents the summation of a decade’s work developing figurative paintings that I hope convey a sense of urban modernity.

I’ve tried to capture the essence of the city. One that has been historically driven by the human desire for wealth and power. A city that attracts people from the four corners of the earth, seeking refuge and the chance to make a new life. A city that constantly spreads itself outwards and upwards.

So this is modern London, the charter’d city of my birth.