There are different Thameses aren’t there? The Thames of Oxford and Henley through Windsor and all the way to Richmond conjures up summer days, pretty girls in frocks, tipsy young men laughing too loudly, stripy blazers and straw boaters. The Thames of Chelsea, Battersea, Westminster and the City is greyer, more business-like, lined with towers and amusements in equal measure; its world-famous bridges and citiscapes, instantly recognisable even by millions who will never visit us. These are the Thameses we all know. Then, familiar only to those who live in direct proximity – beyond Royal Greenwich and industrial Woolwich and Silvertown – is Thames the Obscure: the estuary. When London was the busiest port in the world, this part of the river was alive with shipping. Today it is populated mainly by gulls and ghosts. But it is celebrated in a highly evocative new exhibition at Museum of London Docklands.
Estuary features the work of 12 artists, photographers and film-makers, who follow in the footsteps of Turner and Constable who themselves drew inspiration from the lowest reaches of the Thames, as did Dickens and Conrad. All the works are beautifully and skillfully done but more importantly – thought-provoking: one supposes that is why they have been chosen. Those that appeal most to me are the ones which succeed in emphasising the vastness – the grandeur in a way – of this part of the world. As you enter, you get instant succour from the huge canvasses of Jock McFadyen which deliver real breadth and sense of space. They are quite beautiful.
Two other works succeed in the same respect and they are both film installations which take up a whole wall as you sit in the dark and absorb. Each runs for 15 – 20 minutes. The first is the one that’ll appeal most to historians. Thames Film by William Raban is a stew of clips and stills judiciously edited together and with the words of Thomas Pennant from 1787 read by John Hurt. It employs the artist’s own clips of his journey down the Thames, following the route described by Pennant himself. These are intercut with historical clips and photographs mainly from the mid-20th Century. The whole work recalls the estuary’s denizens from days gone by. It is evocative, atmospheric, disturbing. One gets a sense of constant danger.
The other big-screen number is Horizon by John Smith. It’s simply a series of fixed-camera clips filmed in and around Margate, then spliced together. So we see the open sea in a variety of lights and weather conditions. The water is mill-pond still occasionally, but mostly it is lively, sometimes angry. Humans and vessels occasionally intrude: a red cargo ship, a tanker, an inflatable RIB, a dinghy, a lifeboat, a container vessel. Sometimes the tide is out and we get a view of the beach, sparcely populated by pedestrians. The soundtrack assists to put salt on your tongue: breakers, gulls, muffled voices, a lonely foghorn, that sort of thing. Towards the end we are given a split sequence featuring the sun setting which is cleverly and beautifully done. This is such a good installation, it transports you there. Almost.
The opposite of these panoramic pieces is the micro, and a series of several dozen framed photos does exactly this: The Golden Tide by Gayle Chong Kwan. They are snapshots which the artist uploaded to Instagram over a period of time. They feature people interacting with the estuary landscape through the means of human detritus: toys, plastic bottles, shopping trolleys (of course!), tyres, wheels, wrappers, bits of broken glass, and so on. It works brilliantly.
This excellent exhibition should take you about 45 minutes to an hour. If, like me, you haven’t been to Museum of London Docklands before, you’ll spend a further several hours enjoying fascinating displays about the history of our great river. I had high expectations of this museum: it effortlessly surpassed them.
Estuary runs until 27 October. It is free, as is entry to the Museum.