The Museum of London is about to open a new exhibition at its Docklands branch entitled Bridge. This will include contemporary and historical artworks, photographs and films examining the significance of bridges to London.
Given that if there wasn’t a Thames there wouldn’t be a London, bridges are very important to the city. Back in 43AD, if the Thames hadn’t cut across the country, the invading Roman army would have made its way north with no need to stop. Who knows where they might have reached before they wearied and struck camp? If it wasn’t for the need to bridge the Thames, somewhere like Welwyn Garden City might have become our capital.
Luckily the Thames was there to force the Romans to pause. To get any further into Britannia they had to cross the river, so they built a bridge. Where an invading army builds a bridge it also needs fortifications…and so appeared the beginnings of Londinium.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler – Old Westminster Bridge, 1871
Today London has over 30 bridges. Over the years some have endured, others have been washed away, been replaced or ‘improved’. But still London’s bridges are the places from which to see the city. Given the twists of the river, over the centuries it is the bridges that have had some of London’s finest views. Though written in 1802, Wordworth’s sonnet Composed upon Westminster Bridge sums up the excitement that the sights from London’s bridges can still evoke.
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
Dorothy Wordsworth, who was in the same Dover-bound coach as her brother on that Saturday morning added, ‘The City, St Paul’s, with the river and a multitude of little boats, made a most beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge’. There might not be so many little boats nowadays, but it is still a beautiful sight.
The Museum of London show includes works by famous artists of the past like Piranesi and Whistler, but contemporary pieces are also included. Photographer Crispin Hughes has created 360 degree panoramas of the undersides of London’s bridges, whilst Lucinda Grange has managed to take some photographs from actually inside London Bridge.
One of the stars of the exhibition is an image taken by the photography pioneer William Fox Talbot. Owing to its age this will only be part of the show for one month. Fox Talbot’s image of Old Hungerford Bridge dates from 1845 and is a delicate salt print of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s original bridge – one of the longest suspension bridges ever built at the time. The photo has never been on public display before – if you want to see it get to the show in the first month. I would phone to be certain it is on display if you are travelling far.
The show also includes a visualisation of Thomas Heatherwick’s proposed Garden Bridge between the South Bank and Temple. Based on an idea by actress Joanna Lumley, this will be a new bridge for pedestrians and an airborne park by 2017 – subject to planning and funding.
Bridge follows on from Estuary, the museum’s 2013 exhibition which looked at artists’ reactions to the outer reaches of the Thames. This show continues the journey through the centre of London, exploring both the history and the future of the city and demonstrating why London has always been such an inspiration for artists and photographers.
27 June – 2 November
Museum of London Docklands
West India Quay
London E14 4AL
Entrance is free