It’s a well-known fact that without the River Thames, there would never have been a London. The Romans, who first founded Londinium in the first century AD, used the river to connect their new province, Britannia, to the rest of their empire, and Londinium flourished as a port and a trading hub. But perhaps more importantly, the Romans didn’t just build a settlement on a gravel hill on the north bank of the Thames. They also built a bridge.
By building a bridge, the Romans connected what had previously been two separate realms, where mutually hostile tribes lived. By building a bridge, they linked together the major roads that led to the Midlands and the North to the roads the led to the south coast ports, and made Londinium the central hub of Britain’s road network. The Roman bridge was what enabled the island of Britain to become a single, governable province.
What the Museum of London Docklands’ Bridge exhibition does is to remind us that London is, and has always been, a city defined by its bridges. From when London Bridge was the one and only bridge, and the river was London’s superhighway, to the present day, and the more than thirty bridges that now span the Thames in Greater London. Along the way we see some of the bridges that have come and gone, including one by Brunel and no less than three by John Rennie. The Industrial Revolution brought about a flurry of new bridges, making travelling by water simply no longer necessary, and the relationship between the city and its river changed completely. The Thames, the natural obstacle that had once been a frontier between separate kingdoms, had been conquered. The construction of the embankments in the 1860s, which reclaimed acres of land from the river, and cut off the buildings that had once faced the Thames from the water completely, served to underline this fact. But it is curious how, despite this, the Thames still serves as a frame of reference for practically every Londoner. After all, someone who lives in Borough is still a south Londoner and someone else who lives in Chelsea is still a north Londoner, despite the fact that Chelsea is actually further south than Borough. Just look at the uproar that happened when someone tried removing the Thames from the tube map – something that’s not even meant to be geographically accurate!
The exhibition brings together the work of photographers, painters and other artists and looks at how London’s bridges have inspired their work. There’s a startling shot taken by photographer and urban explorer Lucinda Grange, showing the inside of London Bridge. The 1973 concrete bridge that stands some fifteen metres upstream from where the Romans built the first of their timber bridges is a box-girder bridge, meaning large parts of its inside are hollow. Then there is the intriguing and slightly bizarre film made by William Raban showing a man playing drums on a barge passing underneath every single one of London’s bridges from Richmond to Dartford. The sound of the drums change under each bridge, with the arches of each creating different acoustics. These sounds are interspersed with the rumbling of trains, the wash of the water on the shore, and the buzzing of traffic, creating a kind of audio tribute to London’s bridges. And to see the bridges from underneath in this way serves as a reminder for what they really are – feats of engineering. Just one glance at Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s remarkable print showing the construction of Blackfriars Bridge in the 1760s, with its enormous wooden scaffold and daredevil construction workers, and you are reminded of how incredible some of these feats of engineering are.
Blackfriars Bridge is tellingly placed right in the centre of Henry Aston Barker’s gigantic panorama of London from 1792. At this point in time their were three bridges in London, with Blackfriars the second of two elegant, neoclassical structures contrasting sharply with the medieval London Bridge. For centuries it had been right at the heart of London, but in this image Old London Bridge is shunted off to the sidelines, barely noticeable in the distance, a reflection of how London’s centre of gravity was shifting discernibly westwards at this time. Indeed all of the images of London’s riverscape in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in this exhibition seem to show a city in transition. Charles Deane’s painting from 1821 once again makes London’s newest bridge its primary focus, this time John Rennie’s Waterloo Bridge. It’s the same city skyline, for sure, with St Paul’s still dominant, but the perspective has shifted. The shore of the Thames, meanwhile, is still alive with activity and the water packed full of boats, a reminder of just how different the whole city looked and felt before the Thames was embanked.
Most of the images from the twentieth century are photographs, and most form a section of the exhibition that focuses on the people using the bridges. Today the continual flow of both pedestrians and road traffic seems every bit as continual and never-ending as the flow of the Thames beneath, and it underlines that fact that the river itself is no longer the busy thoroughfare that it was in previous centuries. There are some terrific photos of commuters pouring over the pavements in their thousands, whose clothes and hairstyles have changed dramatically over the past century or so but whose stonewall, slightly glum facial expressions certainly have not. There is one room where the very earliest images are displayed, most of them so fragile that they cannot be exposed to light for hours at a time, and so you have to switch on a light to view them. The photograph of the Victoria Embankment under construction is remarkable, as is the shot of the great towers of Tower Bridge half completed amid the smoke and noise of the Pool of London, teaming with ships. But I was disappointed to find that the image of Hungerford bridge made by photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot had been removed for safekeeping a month after the exhibition’s opening (sometimes you pay a heavy price for being late on the scene!). Talbot’s photograph, taken in 1845, is the oldest in the museum’s entire collection, and is believed the be the only photograph in existence of the first Hungerford Bridge, a suspension bridge that carried pedestrian traffic built by none other than Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Incredibly, it was demolished only fifteen years after its completion, to make way for new bridge taking the South Eastern Railway line into Charing Cross Station.
Given the integral part that the bridges have played in London’s history, a history of London junkie such as myself could not help but feel there was a rich and fascinating historical narrative somewhat lacking in this exhibition. The Old London Bridge, a city within a city that stood from 1209 to 1831 and had hundreds of buildings running across it, barely gets a look in. The City of London’s growing resentment of the (then separate) City of Westminster’s increasing wealth and status in the eighteenth century, which first delayed the construction of Westminster Bridge and then led to the corporation of London throwing up Blackfriars Bridge as a rebuttal, is a remarkable story that does not get a mention. But to criticise the exhibition for this would be most unfair, for this is an exhibition that is all about the art. And besides, the rest of the Museum of London Docklands does a wonderful job of telling the wider story of London’s relationship with the Thames anyway.
With that in mind, I decided after visiting Bridge to nip upstairs to the third floor and have a look at the magnificent model of Old London Bridge that they have on display, something that for some crazy reason I had yet to see. It is sure a wonder to behold, and I recommend anyone visiting the exhibition to take the time to come and have a good peruse of it, even if they have seen it before. One side of the model presents the bridge as it would have looked in about 1450, while the other shows the bridge in about 1600, by which time a waterworks, a corn mill and the splendid Nonsuch House had been added. The model is so detailed, it comes complete with pedestrians walking across the bridge, and residents of the many houses leaning out of their windows. One is able to get a very tangible feel of what this magnificent structure, the architectural wonder of its age and for more than 600 years by far London’s most iconic landmark, must have actually been like. From Chaucer to Shakespeare, and from Pepys to Johnson, this was the only bridge that a great many generations of Londoners would have ever seen.
Bridge runs at the Museum of London Docklands in West India Quay until 2nd November 2014. Since it is completely FREE, I see absolutely no reason why anyone who is interested in the history of London should not go and see it. And don’t forget to check out the Old London Bridge model on the third floor (entry into the rest of the museum is also free)!