Bridge: how artists view London and its river crossings at the Museum of London

Yesterday I was at the Bridge exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands to see how artists have imagined their city through the many structures that span the winding Thames.

View of the building in progress at Blackfriars Bridge 1763 by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
An etching of Blackfriars Bridge in construction by Piranesi

The first images you see are two glowing film stills from “Sleep Walk Sleep Talk” by Suki Chan – they’re night-time shots of London, and we’re in city-never-sleeps territory, the lights of the roads and railways like the pulsing circuit-boards of a robot giant. The elevated vantage point of the first image shows the railway lines passing through London Bridge station, and crossing the river to Cannon Street and Charing Cross, as if the train cars are the mechanised descendants of watermen ferrying passengers across the Thames in wherries.

Opening up the city

The exhibition’s introduction notes that “artists have always been attracted to the Thames because it opens up the city” and, short of ascending a church spire or skyscraper, it’s true that the river and its bridges are the best way to get a sense of perspective on London. But how often do we look?

One of the displays is dedicated to the crowds of commuters who cross the river on their way to work. C.R.W. Nevinson’s “The Thames from Blackfriars” (1922) shows London’s workers as scratchy black silhouettes, processing head-bent across Blackfriars Bridge while around them the trees are skeletal, the city smoky, the sky hopelessly hazy. Ah, the joy of working in London!

And in the photographs, too, the commuters crossing London Bridge seem trapped in a process, the briefcase-carrying blood cells of mercantile London, or the living dead who flow across London Bridge in T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”.

Piranesi in London?

I was surprised to find a print of Blackfriars Bridge by the 18th-century Italian etcher Piranesi, who is known for his views of Roman ruins and imaginary subterranean prisons. I didn’t think he had come over to England, and it turns out he hadn’t, rather he produced the etching in Rome for his former student, Robert Mylne, the bridge’s Scottish architect. Naturally, the ruin lover Piranesi depicts the bridge in construction, rather than complete, and the complexity of the interlocking wedges and beams that support the bridge’s arches bring to mind the same kind of insane intricacy of human endeavour that you find in his prisons.

Lost property

A subject I plan to return to in this blog is the nostalgia London evokes for its lost buildings and streets, and the quests Londoners go on to seek out these absences. The Bridge exhibition has some good examples, as you’d expect from the Museum of London’s photographic collection, and one such treasure is Fox Talbot’s 1841 salt print of Hungerford Bridge, when it still linked the South Bank to the produce-selling Hungerford Market on the northern side.

Other Londoners quest for secret spaces, and the hidden face of the city is represented by Lucinda Grange’s photograph of the service tunnel that threads through London Bridge, as well as an unusual shore-side view from Crispin Hughes’ “Unquiet Thames” series.

A bridge that never ends

On the whole, the Bridge exhibition’s prints, paintings and photographs feel more literal than impressionistic, and only a few works stood out to me as transformative: Charles Ginner’s thickly daubed oil painting, “London Bridge” (1913), which captures a quiet, lonely moment in a city of industry; Julian Bell’s “Arrest at Nevada Bob’s” (1999), which shows the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford looping vertiginously across the Thames into the endless distance like a huge questioning “Q”; and, most movingly, John Bellany’s “The Thames (Nocturne)” (1988), which depicts a viewpoint from St Thomas’ Hospital, where the artist was being treated for a life-threatening illness, showing the two sides of London, and the bridges we use to cross to them, in restless, bleeding monochrome.

The Bridge exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands runs until 2 November

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