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Views of London’s Thames bridges reveal a long and surprising history of the capital

James Abbott McNeill Whistler – Old Westminster Bridge, 1871.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler – Old Westminster Bridge, 1871.

From Monet to Whistler, London’s Bridges have captured artists’ imaginations, not just because of their strength and beauty, but because of the views they offer of the city.

The Museum of London’s new exhibition, Bridge, explores artistic responses past and present to these structures – from Piranesi’s typically grandiose reading of the construction of Blackfriars Bridge (1766) through to Heatherwick Studio’s current proposal for a garden bridge crossing.

Bridges are central to the capital’s very existence. At the launch of the exhibition, the Museum of London’s Caroline McDonald, senior curator of Prehistoric & Roman collections, explained how the city began when merchants gathered to exploit the commercial potential of the first Roman bridge in London, built as a short cut to the rest of the country. Yet this was not the first – back in the Bronze Age, a wooden bridge at Vauxhall crossed to a long–gone island that is thought to have been a religious site involving votive offerings. The Ganges, it seems, is not the only sacred river.

According to architectural historian Dan Cruickshank, bridges were held in awe as acts of God capable of initiating great change through their engineering prowess.  Indeed, the great Medieval Bridge, which astonishingly lasted until 1831, even had its own chapel half way along.

After the replacement of London Bridge there was a flurry of bridge building for road and rail alike, leading eventually to London’s 35 present crossings.

  • Giovanni Battista Piranesi - View of the building in progress at Blackfriars Bridge.
    Giovanni Battista Piranesi - View of the building in progress at Blackfriars Bridge.
  • Thomas Heatherwick – proposed Garden Bridge.
    Thomas Heatherwick – proposed Garden Bridge. · Credit: Arup
  • William Henry Fox Talbot – Old Hungerford Bridge, c1845.
    William Henry Fox Talbot – Old Hungerford Bridge, c1845.
  • Joseph Farrington, View of Somerset House and the Adelphi from the Thames, 1789.
    Joseph Farrington, View of Somerset House and the Adelphi from the Thames, 1789.
  • Lucinda Grange – Inside London Bridge.
    Lucinda Grange – Inside London Bridge.
  • Barry Lewis – Rush hour from the south side of London Bridge 1978.
    Barry Lewis – Rush hour from the south side of London Bridge 1978.

This exhibition shows how early photographers were particularly drawn to bridges. One such was William Henry Fox Talbot, whose 1845 photograph of Brunel’s short-lived Hungerford Bridge is in the exhibition. Paintings such as those by Joseph Farrington in 1789-90 are fascinating for their depiction of buildings such as Somerset House before Bazalgette built his Embankment. Artists including Whistler made repeated studies of the river, drawn to both the structures and the teeming activity of the river traffic that passed beneath them. As curator Francis Marshall says, “Bridges allow you to reveal the city panorama.”

As well as classic bridge perspectives, this show is interested in alternative views – such as Crispin Hughes’ photos of the undersides of bridges, wharves and piers and Lucinda Grange’s interior shots of London Bridge.

Certainly bridges often have a special place in people’s hearts, whether as the route they cross everyday in their commute, or as the site of a personally significant event. In a sonic art commission to accompany this show, Scanner is inviting people to share their memories of significant moments in a soundscape interspersed with names of bridges from around the world.

Crispin Hughes – Hungerford Bridge.
Crispin Hughes – Hungerford Bridge.

Bridge
Until November 2
Museum of London Docklands, West India Quay, London