Which is your favourite London bridge? There are many to chose from, but whichever it is you’ll probably find an image of it at the new Bridge exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands. If you’ve always thought Canary Wharf was just for bankers and currency traders think again. The Docklands London museum on West India Quay is housed in a Georgian warehouse. Trading may have been the building’s raison d’être years ago, but now it gives the Museum of London a Grade One listed eastern outpost.
William Henry Fox Talbot – Old Hungerford Bridge, c1845
The star of the show is photography pioneer Fox Talbot’s 1845 image of Old Hungerford Bridge – reproduced above. It is the earliest photo in the museum’s collection and is on display in a lightbox which illuminates briefly when you press a button. You only get ten seconds to look at it, so don’t blink. A record of a working river, the image is already very faded and the museum is to be applauded for putting it on display. Unfortunately though, for conservation reasons it will only be available for a month – get down to Canary Wharf pronto if you’re interested.
The darkened room in which the Fox Talbot is shown also houses several lantern slides from the late 19th century. The museum has no fear of these being damaged. They are brightly backlit and give small 5x5cm or so glimpses of how the Thames used to be. Paintings by Joseph Farrington drop back further into history, showing the Thames before the Embankment was built, when the river was much wider and boats could sail into Somerset House.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi – View of the building in progress at Blackfriars Bridge, 1763
The oldest picture in the show is from 1763, by Giovanni Battista Piranesi – an artist who never visited London. Impossible, you cry, but no, the Blackfriars bridge architect Robert Mylne visited Rome and must have given Piranesi a drawing to copy. Amongst the exhibition’s many views of and from bridges this is an interesting look at the process involved in building a river crossing – complete with a definitely pre-Health and Safety approach to scaffolding construction.
Contemporary adventure photographer Lucinda Grange also provides an image that is not a straightforward picture of a bridge. She has managed to access the inside of London Bridge. It is a hollow concrete structure and has service tunnels running across the Thames below the road. She shows a secret side of bridges where people rarely venture and offers a completely different, more utilitarian perspective of what a bridge looks like.
Whistler gives lightly-worked etchings of Old Hungerford and Old Westminster bridges. An ink work by Christopher Nevinson of Waterloo bridge feels unfinished – the bridge ends abruptly, Avignon-style to the left side of the brown-washed image. Actually it is the bridge itself that was unfinished when Nevinson sat down to work in 1934.
Wordsworth’s sonnet Upon Westminster Bridge is reproduced at the start of the show. Curator Francis Marshall says that he used the ideas embodied in this poem as a means to frame the exhibition. He also notes that ‘Artists have long sought inspiration in the river’. With lino-cuts, photo-journalism, and film from today as well as the older pieces, the results of artistic inspiration for over 250 years is on display in this show.
Big-hitters in the long list of paintings of London bridges are not present – nothing by Derain, nothing by Monet, no Whistler painting. Instead the show is mostly derived from the museum’s own collection. Staid images of bridges are joined by more exuberant pieces such as John Bellany’s big, bold, brown, recreation of a wild, busy day on the Thames, whilst Marion Davies uses Tower Bridge as a carefully cropped framing device for the City.
Marion Davies – The City from Tower Bridge
Not content with the bridges that did exist or do exist, the show also shows one that may exist in the future. The Garden Bridge has been designed by Thomas Heatherwick, from an idea by Joanna Lumley and an image of what it might look like is included in the exhibition. A park on a bridge, it needs a large amount of cash to become reality, but if it is built it will become an immediate novelty and icon to rival Tower Bridge.
One important piece in the exhibition is not yet on show. The museum has commissioned a new piece of work which will appear in September. This is a sound installation by Scanner, who will create a piece combining the names of iconic and forgotten bridges will create a world travelogue.
So, go early to see the Fox Talbot photograph and go late to experience the Scanner piece. It’s probably best to go twice.
Bridge is on until 2nd November 2014. It is free to visit.