Saturday, August 3rd 2013
In the days of the Anglo-Saxons, a man called Beornmund claimed a tract of land situated near a bend in the river Thames. This property became known as “Beornmund’s eg”, a word meaning land raised above surrounding marshes or possibly simply land near water. Today, we know it, and the area surrounding it, as Bermondsey. It lies south of the Thames, near Tower Bridge, and today forms part of the Borough of Southwark.
Alaska Factory Gate
Dated 1869 but rebuilt
We were going there to see an art exhibition but on the way, our eye was caught by another famous Bermondsey landmark, pictured above. This is the gateway of the old Alaska Factory which occupies a distinctive place in the industrial history of the area as well as influencing Victorian fashion and keeping Allied airmen warm during the Second World War.
Only parts remain
The factory tends to be associated with the name of Charles W. Martin who held ownership from 1873, first jointly and then alone, and subsequently passed it on through the Martin family. Originally, though, it was built in 1869 by F.A. Schroeter. The factory’s heyday was in the Victorian era after a method had been found to remove the long guard hairs from sealskin pelts and sealskin garments came into fashion as a result. The name derives from the fact that many of the seal pelts came from Alaska.
The Art Deco Building
By Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, 1932
As times and fashions changed, so did the products and fortunes of the Alaska Factory. It was still doing well enough in the 1930s to replace the old building with a new Art Deco one designed by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, a firm that also built, among other things, the Victoria Coach Station. Today, the factory has been converted into apartments run by a company called Managed Living Associates. It is firmly fenced off and this makes it difficult to photograph but perhaps the above pictures give some idea of it.
Because there doesn’t seem to be very much information online about the Alaska Factory – mere snippets only – and its history is fairly complex, I have copied out the text that appears on a Borough of Southwark information board beside the main gate and made it into a page entitled The Alaska Factory, Bermondsey. You may peruse this at your leisure.
The Bermondsey Project
A co-operative venture with Bow Arts
Our next port of call was to Willow Walk, Bermondsey, and the premises of the Bermondsey Project. The Project describes itself succinctly thus: “The Bermondsey Project is a partnership project between Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, and Bow Arts; working with the artists to make better communities.” For more details, see the Project’s About page.
The main exhibition was Art in Crisis, which is part of a festival of the same name, described as “a national visual and performing arts event championing the extraordinary talent of people who are homeless, who have experienced homelessness and who are at risk of homelessness.” It also included Identity and Representation, a collection of portraiture using painting or photography, and Inside Out, “a selection of work recently produced in some of London’s prisons, including Pentonville, Thameside, Wandsworth, Brixton, Downview, Blantyre House and Wormwood Scrubs. Demonstrating the rehabilitative effect that engagement in the arts can have on people”. There was also work by Outside Puppets whose blog provides more details of their rationale and activities.
Made by Outside Puppets
Admission to the exhibition was free and we were allowed to take photographs. The first set of figures that we saw, in a side bay, were made by Outside Puppets. Even this small collection showed the broad scope and imaginative vitality of the group…
…eating a frog
…even if this figure – a rabbit apparently eating a frog – was slightly unsettling!
Art in Crisis
General view of the exhibition space
The exhibition as a whole presented a wide variety of genres, both figurative and abstract. I was struck by the high quality of much of the work. Some of it could fairly be judged as being of a professional standard. There were too many exhibits for me to do more than show a few samples. Nor can I claim that the sampling gives an impression of the whole. The works were individual and each stands apart on its own merits. They are not shown in any specific order.
Walking down the street
By Mike Lane
I liked this one for its sense of movement, for its dramatic air and the feeling of mystery that it induces. Who are these people? Where are they going? What do they have in mind?
By Jose Gomez
This was a fairly large format painting. Would you call it abstract? Impressionist? Does it represent something or does each person’s mind put into the picture whatever they think they perceive? While not a fan of the more abstract types of art, I felt myself drawn to this picture, perhaps precisely because of what my own mind was projecting into it.
The Beauty of the post
This colourful canvas, reminiscent in some ways of Picasso’s cubist paintings, forms part of the Inside Out collection, paintings done in prison. I mention that as a point of fact, not because I believe it should influence our opinion of the work as art. This is one of those paintings that I like despite thinking that I don’t like this sort of art! Explain that how you will. The picture has balance and poise and, despite its analytical nature, a hint of movement.
Birds in Courtship
By M Wright
I liked this one for its delicacy but sureness of touch, and the accuracy and liveliness of the representation. Wildlife art presents special challenges to the artist who has to recreate the living warmth and vitality of his subjects without sliding into sentimentality or anthropomorphism. I would like to see more of this artist’s work.
The View from the Art Room
This painting was the one that, for me, encapsulated the title of this section of the exhibition, Inside Out. Standing looking out of the window is often a way of expressing a desire for escape, whether physical or mental. This painting shows buildings, sky and countryside, seemingly beckoning the observer to go forth and join the world, but between him and that world is a high fence. topped with barbed wire. The solidity of that barrier which, by its relative size, dwarfs the world beyond, induces a strong feeling of claustrophobia.
Identity and Representation
The Identity and Representation exhibition comprised two parts, painting and photography. There were very many works entered in both sections, far too many to do justice to them all or to select a representative cross section. The paintings were the most varied because of the individual styles and approaches adopted by the artists. All were interesting and some were impressive.
Identity and Representation
Portrait photography is apparently easy: point the camera, press the button – done! For the most part – pictures of friends at the party, family on the beach, etc – that’s good enough. But real portrait photography is an art. You have to engage with the subject but without slipping into histrionics, “poses” or fixed smiles that turn wooden as you wait for the sun to came out again. These photographic portraits (just one section is shown above) were impressive for their liveliness and spontaneity and for their technical excellence.
This was a very successful exhibition, even without considering the positive principles and motivations of the Project itself and judging solely on the quality of the art. I enjoyed it all greatly and hope that the artists represented will continue to produce work and that new artists will join their ranks and discover and develop their own talents.
An 1889s pub – or perhaps older?
After visiting Art in Crisis, we went to look at some other galleries. Although these were commercial and we were obviously “time-wasters” (people without money to spend on expensive art), we were welcomed and encouraged to look around. Photography of course was not permitted, so I will not bother going into details. Quite a lot of it was in any case not very interesting, at least to my eyes.
I photographed the pub in the above picture in passing. It is in Pages Walk and is a nice example of an unpretentious Victorian local. The pub’s own Web site says it dates from the 1880s but the Pub History site references records going back to 1869. Perhaps the andswer is that the pub was rebuilt in the 1880s.
A fascinating street in the Waterloo area
We worked our way back to Waterloo and visited a fascinating street there called Lower Marsh. (And if you are wondering, yes, there is an Upper Marsh too, but Lower is the more interesting.) We often go there to look at the quirky shops and cafes and today we were treated to an extra entertainment, a suspended installation made of orange umbrellas.
Dodecahedron of Umbrellas
By Yard Sale Project
It is called Dodecahedron of Umbrellas and it is by Yard Sale Project, a partnership of artist-designer-furniture-makers (take a look at their Web site and see what you make of them), though whether it is intended as art, as an advertisement or perhaps as both, I do not know. There are supposed top be 12 umbrellas but every time I counted them, I came up short.
Once better known as Scooterworks
We went for coffee, as we often do when around here, to what we used to know as the Scooterworks Cafe but has rebadged itself as Scootercaffè. Originally, I think it was literally a scooter works, i.e. a place where you could get your motor scooter serviced and repaired and buy accessories, but with the passing of time, the scooter function has gradually faded away and it is now a cafe, albeit with reminders of its old role.
Suitable for filming
Afterwards we went for a little ramble around the area. There is a mixture of older residential properties and warehouses, while the presence nearby of the station makes itself known in the appearance of railway bridges and viaducts. We have met film companies filming on location here and I think that some sequences from the TV series Call the Midwife were filmed in these streets.
In a street that was clean, tidy and well-kempt, this derelict building stood out like a sore thumb. It has an estate agent’s sign board on it but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to take it on. More probably, it will be demolished and the site “developed”.
The board over the door reveals something of the building’s past usage. Despite the fading of the paintwork, we can read “Scouts”, “Guides” and “Cornwall Club”. We can also see what looks like an eagle and a pair of crossed fishes. What is the significance of that iconography, I wonder? The club was called the Cornwall Club, not because its members came from Cornwall, but because the street in which the building resides is called Cornwall Road.
Finally, we walked to Blackfriars Bridge where we caught a bus home. Just before the bus arrived, I took my last picture of the day, looking up-river along the Thames.
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