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Bridge: Celebrating London’s iconic river crossings

24 June 2014 | Jessica Johnston

“To cross the Thames by bridge is to really see the city. Freed from the maze of medieval streets, the full, arresting panorama is laid out.”

How many of us have ever taken the time to look, with more than just a curious glance, when passing the many stunning river crossings that span the Thames from Tower Bridge to Hampton Court Bridge.  Fewer still grasp the significance of these magnificent structures and the role they have played in the history of the capital... without bridges there would be no London. The first river crossing was built by the Romans around 55AD and since then bridges have largely informed the growth of London.

It is not just from a purely functional perspective that we can appreciate London’s bridges but also through the emotional bonds that we forge with them, which have inspired painters and poets for centuries. Namely William Wordsworth, who gives us a sense of the capitals stunning panorama from one iconic bridge, in his sonnet Upon Westminster Bridge.

Now on the 120th anniversary of the most photographed river crossing, Tower Bridge, a free exhibition is being held at the Museum of London Docklands. Presenting a rich visual history of this ever-expanding city, Bridge celebrates the artistic possibilities of London’s bridges; momentous structures which have come to symbolise London itself.

The exhibition will feature both contemporary and historical paintings, prints, drawings and film, all of which aim to highlight the visual impact these remarkable structures have on the cityscape, as well as the part they play in the daily life of London.

Bridge incoporates a number of thematic subjects beginning with the river over which these bridges preside. This section explores the functionality of London’s bridges in allowing us to navigate the city. In her work entitled Sleep Walk Sleep Talk, Suki Chan takes viewers to a vantage point above London Bridge Station where one can see the ebb and flow of the Thames slicing through the city. On closer inspection these images of a sleeping metropolis also reveal the frequency of bridges built across the river within a fairly short distance.

Exploring their less obvious facets Crispin Hughes’ image entitled Hungerford Bridge gives a 360-degree panorama from the underbelly of the bridge, whilst William Raban’s film Beating the Bridges explores the curious acoustic sounds echoing off the riverside buildings.

With a total of thirty-five bridges stretching across London’s Thames River, the exhibition turns its focus to the building of bridges, notably the visualisation of Thomas Heatherwick’s proposed Garden Bridge between the South Bank and Temple. This £150 million structure takes inspiration from actress Joanna Lumley and the mountain gardens in Malaysia where she spent much of her childhood. Architecturally striking, this crossing will make a strong visual statement, changing the landscape as it takes shape. If given planning permission the footbridge will also serve as a memorial to Princess Diana, further strengthening people’s emotional connection with this elegant structure.

From the emotive and cultural associations they invoke to the strong visual identity they possess, bridges form the core of the city. Artists Ewan Gibbs and Henry Grant capture this perfectly in their nocturnal images of the hauntingly beautiful Tower Bridge and Westminster Bridge residing alongside the Houses of Parliament.

Taking a step back in time, one particular highlight from the exhibition will give visitors a unique opportunity to see a rare photograph entitled Hungerford Bridge, dating from the mid-1840s. The picture was taken by photographic pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot and is the oldest photograph in the museum’s collection. For conservation purposes, the photograph will only be on display for the first month of the exhibition.

As part of the programme for Bridge, a new sonic art commission by international artist Scanner will be unveiled at the Museum of London Docklands on 5th September. Entitled Bridging the World, this immersive sound installation will take visitors on a journey through a river of suspended speakers within the museum. Each speaker will broadcast recordings collected from people around the world, recounting personal narratives and responses to London’s bridges.

These bold feats of engineering challenge nature and capture the imagination of all those who cross them. They provide an all-important visual vista of the capital; in a single moment they can become motivators reminding us of why we are in the city. As Curator Francis Marshall so aptly puts it, “to cross the Thames by bridge is to really see the city.” This is one exhibition that is by no means a bridge too far.

Bridge will be exhibited at the Museum of London Docklands from 22nd June – 2nd November. Admission is free, for further information please click here.

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