Estuary explores how the Thames river has been represented artistically through an eclectic compilation of photography, film and painting. Seeking a narrative beyond the realms of postcard-London (the Thames is after all the second largest river in Britain, a gateway from Western England to the East and to the North Sea), the show explores an almost legendary river whose identity, though heavily altered in the modern age, remains steeped in reverence and intrigue.
Painting is the least featured medium in the exhibition, but painter Jock McFadyen’s works stand out as an expression of the show’s voice as a whole. Focusing on East London, McFadyen paints eerie and desolate places, which, though coloured in English greys, feel unfamiliar – foreign and removed. This sensation of melancholy features throughout Estuary, with the connection between the modern era and the Thames’s slow withdrawal from its heyday glory articulated in many pieces.
Actual dialogue and historical reference in pieces such as William Raban’s Thames Film and Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen’s Portrait of a River help to unravel this overriding sense of history versus contemporary; the dialogue of characters past and present is used to analyse the Thames’s ongoing transition through time as a transport link, a landmark and a specimen of nature.
The actual design and build of the show itself plays a vital part in its ability to engross the viewer. Architecture and design studio Urban Salon have created in the small space a “landscape”, which encourages exploration of the exhibition without regimentation. The discrete but beautifully designed floating light-boxes are in keeping with both the show and the ambience of the museum building (a Georgian era warehouse). Distinct contrast between the light and dark spaces creates a nautical depth and gives it a misty, ethereal feel. Museum of London has done well to put thought into this aspect of Estuary, and has not only overcome the complications that arise with a listed building, but sets a strong example of experiential exhibition design.
The miscellany of works in this show ensures that there is a balanced and comprehensive exploration of an open subject, from which everyone will find something that speaks to them. It is a reminder of the changing face of this country’s infrastructure, its natural landscape, and an insight into the Thames’s own resultant shifting importance. Estuary is a reawakening of our fascination with one of Britain’s great rivers.
Estuary is at Museum of London Docklands until 27th October 2013, for further information visit here.