I’ve often been struck by the number of people I know who feel there’s something very special about crossing a London bridge.
It’s that sudden emergence from the warren of streets to see the city laid out before you. That’s when you see the iconic London: the river, the skyline – Westminster, St Paul’s, Tower Bridge – it’s all there. One friend even went so far as to say ‘that’s when you remember why you live in London’. In Bridge, our new exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands, we’ve tried to reflect this in two works made over 200 years apart, the Barker Brothers’ London from the Roof of Albion Mills and Suki Chan’s Sleep Walk Sleep Talk. Between them, they show the constant presence of the Thames within the changing face of the city.
The bridges themselves are obviously part of that process of change. Thomas Heatherwick’s proposed Garden Bridge has been much in the news over the past year or so. If given planning approval it will create both a riverside icon and a new central London park. But new or proposed bridges always attract attention. In 1766, the Roman artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi made a print of Robert Mylne’s Blackfriars Bridge design, making it look suitably colossal in the process. I like the idea of a London bridge designed by a Scottish architect being drawn by an Italian artist who never visited the city. It gives the finished print a series of trans-national connections, which seems somehow appropriate for London.
It’s hard to think about bridges without considering the crowds of commuters flowing back and forth across them. TS Eliot sombrely observed in The Waste Land, ‘A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many / I had not thought death had undone so many.’ Barry Lewis’s 1978 image of City workers making their way across London Bridge, for instance, presents a suitably purgatorial vision of the wearying daily ritual. In contrast, the commuters scurrying across the bridge in Henry Turner’s 1937 photograph seem full of purposeful dynamism.
Some artists have taken the view not so much from, as beneath, or even through, bridges. Urban explorer Lucinda Grange, for instance, escaped the crowds by using the tunnels which run through the concrete shell of London Bridge. Her photograph shows the apparently endless perspective down one of these claustrophobic service shafts. Crispin Hughes’ 3 metre wide photograph is a 180° panorama of the Thames beneath Hungerford Bridge. And, in his short film Beating the Bridges, William Raban considers the acoustics of bridges – the soundtrack features reverberations made by a drummer on a boat sailing beneath all of the Thames crossings from Richmond to the Dartford Bridge.