Following on from the Museum of London's superb Estuary exhibition, which looked at artists' responses to the outer edges of the Thames, Bridge explores how bridges influence our visual sense of the city and provide a source of inspiration for artists and photographers.
The star exhibit in this show about the structures crossing the Thames is a shot by pioneering photographer William Fox Talbot. It was taken in 1845, the year he perfected his printing process. At a time when people were still blinking, sneezing and wandering off while having their picture taken, a bridge must have seemed like a nice, unmoving subject. Ironically – given the extreme fragility of the print – its subject, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s old Hungerford Bridge, didn’t last nearly so long. Despite IKB’s reputation, the Victorian era’s insatiable appetite for progress had no truck with superstars, and the bridge was pulled down just 15 years after it opened, so a new railway crossing could be built in its place, and we could start commuting from Chislehurst. For the first month of the show's run you'll be able to view this, the oldest photograph in the museum's collection. The salt print photograph is extremely fragile so visitors will have to press a button to illuminate it to minimise unnecessary exposure to light.
The image neatly encapsulates this exhibition’s twin themes of continuity and change: the Thames flows, but is always there; the bridges are massive and static, but ultimately less permanent. The show is timed to commemorate 120 years since the world’s most famous bridge, Tower Bridge, was opened, but also nods to its twenty- first-century descendant, Joanna Lumley and Thomas Heatherwick’s proposed Garden Bridge.
As well as being a history of these ever-evolving structures, the show celebrates the artists they have inspired. There are paintings by Whistler and Nevinson and some superb engravings, notably Italian proto-goth Piranesi’s study of Blackfriars Bridge under construction. And some of the photos are incredible, probably for the same reasons the subject attracted Fox Talbot: bridges are focuses of flux and movement, channelling the blood of the city, intensifying our awareness of direction and restriction. Barry Lewis’s 1970s picture of commuters on London Bridge is hilariously grim, all sniffles, smog and sideburns. By contrast, Henry Grant’s 1965 nocturnal portrait of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Bridge is almost Cecil Beaton-like in its glamour and serenity.
Nothing defines this city like its bridges, and this is a brilliantly focused look at a subject packed with symbolism, history, aspiration and change. London, in other words.