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17 July 2014

Bridges are the rarest of industrial constructions: works of utility, yet beautiful and uplifting

Erica Wagner visits the “Bridge” exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands.

By Erica Wagner

Museum of London Docklands, London E14

We’re heading west along the river on a bright June morning. Towards the prow of our Thames Clipper, under the aegis of the Museum of London, an excitable Dan Cruickshank is singing the praises of a city both divided and united by the Thames – and marvelling at the bridges that leap from shore to shore. “Audacious interventions”, the architectural historian calls them. He’s not wrong.

For by what other method might we walk on water? You could swim across a river if you had to; you could take a ferry boat, too: but it’s hard to carry anything while you doggy-paddle, and as for ferries, if the weather’s bad or the river ices up, you’re stuck. As we cruise towards Vauxhall, the MI6 building squatting glassily on the south bank, Cruickshank points out the spot where the remains of London’s earliest bridge were found: timber piles dating back to the Bronze Age, 3,500 years ago. A millennium and a half had passed before the Romans built the first real London bridge. “Without that crossing, there would be no London,” he says.

So it’s fitting that the newest exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands is simply called “Bridge”. Following on from the success of last year’s “Estuary” show, “Bridge” will be the largest art exhibition ever to be staged at the museum and is a showcase for its remarkable collections and original commissions. It is a reminder, too, that bridges are those rarest of industrial constructions: works of utility that are nearly always beautiful and quite literally uplifting for those who encounter them.

In the gallery where the works – by artists who range across the centuries, from Piranesi to Thomas Heatherwick – are displayed, the senior curator, Francis Marshall, says, “When you get on a bridge, that’s when you see London.” The exhibition opens with a striking set of images. A pair of glowing light boxes by Suki Chan allows the viewer to hover over London Bridge Station, showing the reach of the Thames as it cuts through the city, bridges stepped along the river’s length. Made in 2011, this is set alongside a hand-coloured aquatint panorama of the city from the river, completed in 1792 by Robert Barker, Henry Aston Barker and Frederick Birnie. This impressive work, over three metres long and half a metre high, gives the sweep of the Thames from Blackfriars Bridge. Here is London as Wordsworth would have seen it when he wrote his sonnet Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802: “Dull would he be of soul who could pass by/A sight so touching in its majesty . . .”

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For thousands of years, the Thames was as sacred a river as the Ganges, as ancient offerings found on its banks attest, and London has always been home to visionary artists. There is something of the sacred in Piranesi’s etching and engraving of the construction of Blackfriars Bridge from 1766, the truncated columns at the side of the great Romanesque arches – their supporting wooden falsework still in place – looking like the ruins of a temple. There is as much of the numinous hovering around Lucinda Grange’s eerie photograph of the tunnelled interior of London Bridge, made this year.

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Among the treasures of this exhibition is a photograph: one of the world’s earliest. It is a little salt print made by the photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot in 1845, showing Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s original Hungerford Bridge in the year it opened. By 1860, Brunel’s bridge had been replaced, though its chains can still be seen in Bristol, where they were reused for the Clifton Suspension Bridge. The photographic process that Talbot developed would dominate image-making for the next century and a half: this image is, as Marshall says, “the detonation point of photography”. “In itself and in what it shows, it encapsulates a historic moment. From this point on, we see the modern world that we live in now.”

By 2017, that modern world may include Thomas Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge; its idealised design is on show here. One of the most striking features of the image is the absence of cranes on the skyline, as if London would finally be completed by this verdant pedestrian crossing, planned for the river near Temple. But no construction, however impressive, could ever mark an end to this city’s growth.

Citizens of London will recognise themselves in images old and new. The great bascules of Tower Bridge had their 120th anniversary this year; consider George Davison Reid’s photograph taken from it in the 1920s, alongside Marion Davies’s The City from Tower Bridge, taken over 70 years later. The images are nearly identically framed and hold stasis and change in their frames as the great river flows beneath.

Erica Wagner is currently working on a biography of the Brooklyn Bridge engineer Washington Roebling

“Bridge” runs until 2 November