Saturday, August 16th 2014
The Museum of London Docklands is holding an exhibition and so we went with friends to take a look. The exhibition is entitled Bridge and presents a set of photographs, sketches and paintings of London’s bridges from early times to the present, taken from the museum’s art collection. Admission is free and photography is allowed but without flash. Although the works on display were not without interest, I did not take any photos.
The Museum is in West India Quay, Docklands, and all the photos were taken there except one – hence the title. So let’s start with the “plus 1”:
On the way we passed through Broadgate Avenue Square and, although I have photographed it before, I took another photo of its resident sculpture. This is usually in the shade but this morning the sunlight was shining on it, making it stand out against the duller background. It shows a collection of commuters at rush hour and is by George Segal (1924-2000). The models were friends and neighbours of the artist who applied strips of gauze soaked in plaster to them to make the moulds. The sculpture was made in 1983 but cast only in 1995. I am not sure whether this is the only copy as I have seen references to it in other collections.
Our second bus dropped us off in West India Avenue in the Docklands. Here stands the now famous sculpture of an over-lifesized man with his arms outstretched and his head thrown back. It is by Giles Penny and is entitled, reasonably enough, Man with Arms Open.
The sculpture is a little mysterious in that the emotions of the figure are not clear. The pose could indicate triumph, relief or despair, and perhaps other emotions as well. I would like to be able to photograph it from above but there is no accessible vantage point nearby. I took the above photo with my arms at full stretch above my head.
The way to West India Quay from the avenue is along Willoughby Passage, named after the navigator and explorer Sir Hugh Willoughby (died 1554). At first sight, the route seems to be barred by a large gate or, rather, three gates, the larger being flanked by two smaller pedestrian entrances. However, there is a button on the gatepost and if you press this, the two small gates slowly swing open, allowing you through. The gate was designed, not by a sculptor but by a jeweller, Katy Hackney. The brief for the design apparently stipulated that the gate should offer “an open invitation to enter”. I find this curious because, surely, the best way to encourage access is to have no gate at all. Gates are, by their very nature, obstacles to free passage, however inviting you strive to make them. In this case, the passer-by is positively dissuaded from entering by the firmly closed gates unless he notices the button and is bold enough to press it. (There is presumably an ownership issue here: the land is owned by the developers but Willoughby Passage is public access, so they are presumably using gates to assert ownership while allowing access, a classic case of trying to have your cake and eat it.)
When you emerge from Willoughby Passage, which is like a tunnel though the building that surrounds it, you have your first glimpse of West India Quay. Once part of London’s docks, it has now fallen into disuse in that role and is at risk of being submerged in tall buildings as the area is developed. In the background, you can see the row of Georgian sugar warehouses (built 1802) where the Museum of London Docklands is sited.
This view shows one of the buildings that risk submerging the Quay. Looking like something that has fallen off an aeroplane and stuck in the ground, this block that has a hotel on the first 12 floors and residential accommodation above that, is called No 1 West India Quay, though why it is allowed that name when it is a johnny-come-lately, I do not know. Respect for what is already there never was a strong suit of planners whose main obsession is building to make money.
The gate in the picture above is a scaled-down model of the original gate to the dock. It was opened by the Mayor of London in the year 2000 in celebration of the founding of the dock by William Pitt the Younger. Atop the gate is a model of The Hibbert, which traded from this dock, mainly with Jamaica, from 1785 to 1813.
One of the permanently moored vessels is the above, called St Peter’s Barge. It is a floating church, the one interesting feature of which was what looked to be a floating garden attached to to it by a cable. It’s not much of a garden, consisting only of a few weeds and some tyres, but I suspect it has another purpose: we spotted a moorhen going onto it so perhaps it is there to provide nesting sites for water birds.
This is a place of contrasts where huge commercial properties overshadow vestiges of the past. This view of an old hulk with tall modern blocks behind it seems to symbolize that.
In front of the old sugar warehouses, now home to the museum, stands a monument to Robert Milligan. It was originally placed here in 1813 then moved to the main gate and later put in storage. It returned here in 1997. Who was Robert Milligan? The inscription on the probably tells us all we need to know:
TO PERPETUATE ON THIS SPOT
THE MEMORY OF
A MERCHANT OF LONDON,
TO WHOSE GENIUS, PERSEVERANCE AND GUARDIAN CARE
THE SURROUNDING GREAT WORK PRINCIPALLY OWES
IT’S [sic] DESIGN, ACCOMPLISHMENT AND REGULATION.
THE DIRECTORS AND PROPRIETORS,
DEPRIVED BY HIS DEATH
ON 21ST MAY, 1809
OF THE CONTINUANCE OF HIS VALUABLE SERVICES,
BY THEIR UNANIMOUS VOTE
HAVE CAUSED THIS STATUE TO BE ERECTED.
The newness of the environment has been tempered by a few ancient items reminiscent of the dock’s maritime past, rather as a householder might decorate his living room with the few antiques. There are two buoys and this one, painted green, was once used to mark the location of a wreck. Today it sits on dry land, its days on the waves almost forgotten.
Apart from the warehouses, the biggest reminders of the past are the dockside cranes. These once ran on rails and were used to load and unload the merchant ships that docked here. Today, they stand tall but skeletal, silent and still, the control cabin empty and locked shut.
Today you can walk without danger underneath the cranes and to do so feels like walking between the feet of giants.
Today the cranes point to the sky, perhaps because that is the position of least strain for the supporting mechanism. The empty cabin looks out on a scene very different from the heyday of the docks when the quay would have been jammed with ships and heaps of cargo.
We left the quay by the footbridge. Officially called the West India Quay Bridge, it is also known as the Floating Bridge because it is supported on floating pontoons.
I took a last photo of the Quay area from the footbridge and you can see how the view is hemmed in with tall buildings that block out the sky.
From the bridge, the road slopes upwards through Wren Landing to Cabot Square, named after John Cabot (c.1450-1498), the navigator and explorer who discovered Newfoundland in 1497, though he believed it to be part of Asia.
In the square, with their backs to the fountain, sit a pair of figures. Together they form a sculpture called Couple on Seat by the sculptor Lynn Chadwick (1914-2003). Despite their blank faces, they seem quite at ease in this setting and many passers-by stop to photograph them or to be photographed with them. I have noted before that it is interesting to see which parts of a public sculpture develop a high polish because those are the parts that people touch most often. Here there isn’t much of a mystery: the polished laps show that people sit on the sculptures to be photographed. Personally, I like to see sculptures being “adopted” in this way and becoming part of the living environment.