London has a number of monuments that are so bound-up with our idea of the city that’s it’s easy to think they’ve always been there. Tower Bridge, for example, is only 120 years old, barely making a dent in the capitals two thousand year history. It may have since become one of our most potent emblems, but it wasn’t there when Henry VIII beheaded multiple wives in the Tower, it wasn’t there when England and Scotland formed a political union in 1707 and it wasn’t there when Queen Victoria ascended the throne, or indeed for the majority of her reign.
One of the most fascinating things about these cultural landmarks then is the way in which they fit seamlessly into the London that existed before them and the one yet to come – timeless elements of a city that’s always changing. Even the London Eye, opened for the Millennium, has become an important symbol of London, with the New Year fireworks as its international showcase. Doesn’t it feel like it was always there; but really it’s been just 15 years. Similarly, the Tower Bridge of 1894 sits between the thousand-year-old Tower of London and the 13-year-old City Hall a perfect example of London’s evolving landscape. And this new exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery considers the artistic depiction of Tower Bridge, the river and its industrial purpose in the last 120 years.
It begins with two portraits – Sir Horace Jones the architect who didn’t live to see it finished and its Engineer Sir John Wolfe Barry, sitting alongside William Lionel Wyllie’s beautiful painting of the Bridge’s opening in 1894. It’s a jubilant and bustling scene full of flag-waving Victorians eating celebratory picnics on the banks of the Thames while the central bascules of the bridge are raised to allow a tall-masted boat through the centre. Contemporaries remarked on the glistening nature of the picture, and it really does glisten – particularly the pearlescent sky which glitters as the light moves across the paint.
From here the main exhibition room takes a chronological look at the way the Bridge has been depicted in art, focusing primarily on its part in the functioning industrial life of the river, rather than as a tourist attraction, seeing it as an intricate part of the docks and the flow of cargo. Most striking is Charles Pears’s red and black picture of the Tower called Blitz: Our London Dock which is incredibly dynamic and has an almost 3-D quality as the boats sail toward you and spotlights cut through the burnt red sky. Painted in 1940 it is an incredibly vivid depiction of the city at war and shows how Tower Bridge had already earned its iconic status.
Moving through the exhibition we see the river at work with Tower Bridge incorporated into the functioning aspect of London’s industrial performance, and several artists have focused on this rather than using the bridge’s tourist allure. These include Marcus Ford’s smoke covered Tower Bridge London and Mentor Chico’s gaudily coloured modern city. These are among the most interesting elements of the exhibition and one which many Londoners will hardly recognise. In the second room the focus is more on the bridge’s construction including its plans and several alternative designs that were also considered – always fascinating to see what might have been. The exhibition ends with photographs of the bridge’s construction, 1950s families enjoying the old beach beside it and the 2012 firework display around the 5 interconnected Olympic rings in the centre, that symbolically represent its journey from industrial necessity to internationally recognised symbol of Britain.
One of the most successful elements of this nicely arranged exhibition is celebrating not just our postcard idea of Tower Bridge but all the other quite practical things that it has been in the past 120 years. It’s only a couple of rooms but you can easily spend 45 minutes just in here and The Guildhall Art Gallery has one of the best collections of Victorian art in London. Even better, there’s hardly anyone there at the weekends; located in a sides street close to the higher profile St Paul’s, Museum of London and the Barbican means it is often overlooked and therefore relatively empty!
The advocated purpose of this little show was to celebrate Tower Bridge’s 120th birthday, emphasising its multi-faceted role in identity-forming – being at once a symbol of modernity, progress, industry, technological innovation, national pride, fashion and tourism, which it successfully demonstrates in its diverse collection, while emphasising its historical importance as a functioning industrial bridge and navigational tool, as well as its incorporation into national events such as the 2012 Olympics and Queen’s Jubilee celebrations. It may not have been around as long as you think it has but, as this lovely exhibition shows, Tower Bridge is synonymous with London.
120 Years of Tower Bridge is at the The Guildhall Art Gallery until 26 April. Entrance is free to the exhibition and the entire gallery. Follow this blog on Twitter: @cultualcap1