How Thames Narratives happened

How the Thames Narratives exhibition came about, by Rosie Barker

The light-bulb moment, when I knew I wanted to hold a Thames- focused exhibition resulted from an accumulation of experiences. Not least was a recent increased awareness of the Thames.

That it was recent may seem surprising because I lived in Sunbury-on -Thames as a child. When quite young I bunked off Sunday School to net tiddlers; I also fished and swam in the Thames, went rowing and attended the annual Sunbury Regatta.

At the age of 18 I moved to Inner London, swopped the rural river for the city one and became interested in the river’s industrial history. I wrote a dissertation on decasualisation in the Port of London.

But none of these activities involved seeing the river for itself.

All this changed when in 1999-2000 Mark Dion staged his inspiring Tate Thames Dig as part of the pre-opening and opening of the Tate Modern. I remember seeing finds collected by his team ranged along the river path and became aware of the river not just as a view or as a surge of water containing some fish and eels with boats on top but also as a carrier of objects. Soon after, I went on the foreshore with an inter-tidal archaeologist. Fascinated by what one might find I started mudlarking.

It was from the foreshore that I first really saw and experienced the river – the wildlife it supports, its tidal and non-tidal movements and its changing moods. I found it incredible that the tide could rise so high – up to 7m – and so fast. And what the river held, then disgorged, captivated me – mudlarking, collecting tangible evidence of past and present lives, became a compulsion. My art began to reflect this river interest

My river interest also led me to the September, Totally Thames Festival events, including art exhibitions. I felt there was room for even more art in the Festival and from this the idea of an exhibition arose and became a ‘have-to-do’. Three river-inspired artists agreed to join me: Abigail Downer, Iina Heiskanen and Lucie Winterson, each with a different perspective on the river and a story to tell.

As a postscript I must mention that it took time to get organised. The idea occurred to me way back in 2017 and finding a suitable venue wasn’t easy. Context was important: we scoured the river bank from Leamouth to Hammersmith. Eventually we found the Menier Gallery, in Southwark, near to the river. Venue secured we then applied to Totally Thames for partnership – and were accepted.