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Water Finds a Level

by Claire Barclay

Water Finds a Level, 2022

by Claire Barclay, commissioned by Tideway 

Claire Barclay has been commissioned by Tideway to create a series of artworks for the new public realm site at Putney.

The ‘cultural meander’ or heritage theme for the West section of the tunnel is ‘Recreation to Industry: Society in Transition.’ Within this heading, the site-specific narrative for Putney relates to ways in which cultural context influences popular movements advocating social change, to generate varied forms of political engagement.

The artist, Claire Barclay, in response to this has developed a series of artworks which comprise: three bronze oars to be incorporated into the foreshore balustrade in the form of lengths of handrail; text incorporated into the inlaid University Boat Race (UBR) marker line in the form of raised cast lettering; and a graphic pattern waterjet cut into the granite walling of the foreshore kiosk. The artworks refer back to Putney’s heritage as the location of the Putney Debates and a birthplace for democratic thinking, human rights, and civil liberty, as outlined in the Tideway Heritage Interpretation Strategy, by aiming to draw attention to the democratic use of the Thames.

Whilst the site is primarily associated today with elite rowing through the University Boat Race, from the 17th century the Putney foreshore was busy with commercial boatmen ferrying people and cargo across the river, predominantly in clinker-built wooden boats called wherries. Putney was also home to a number of boat builders and boat related services. With the advent of bridges and steamboats, there was a gradual shift from commercial to recreational boat use on this area of the Thames. From 1830 onwards the Putney Embankment became associated with recreational rowing and rowing contests. Putney is positioned on the River Thames at a transitional point where there is a shift from the industrial to the recreational in terms of river use. As a result, the local maritime heritage reflects this diversity and changing activities connected to work and leisure on the foreshore.

Adjacent to the Putney Embankment site is Watermen’s Green and the slipway that will be integrated into the new landscaping. This area was a landing and loading place for river vessels, including Thames sailing barges, in the past. It seems important to acknowledge that Lightermen and Watermen too share a strong connection to this context – i.e. not just the more advantaged world of the Boat Race, but the River workers, and the people that they carried across the Thames. The Lightermen and Watermen, for centuries, have laboured on the river aboard a wide range of vessels, (from small boats like wherries to much larger barges and tugboats), and for whom rowing has been central to their daily lives.

By presenting three different types of oar the artwork will subtly reference the roles played by different vessels and their crews. People that have worked on the river and experienced the hardships and satisfaction that their jobs entailed. Physical and mental endurance of a different kind has imbued the oars and sweeps belonging to wherries, barges, skiffs. The work therefore references the wide range of people that have historically used and travelled on the river for leisure, recreation, and work.

The three boats whose oars are proposed originated as working commercial boats that were commonly used to transport people and goods, but have since become used for recreational purposes too. It is important to the artwork concept that the choice of oars makes reference to both commercial and recreational activities. The resulting artwork should subtly point to the fact that the River at Putney has a rich heritage that straddles different social groups and classes of society.

As these oars are highly crafted and very beautiful in form, they should create aesthetically compelling casts. The largest of the cast oars will be a seven metre long wooden barge ‘sweep’ used for manoeuvring barge boats on the Thames. There is a strong tradition of barge driving, where barges are expertly rowed by Lightermen using only the long sweeps and the wind and tide. A number of barge-driving competitions happen annually on the River and the Barge Driving Trust is one organisation helping to keep the tradition alive. The wherry and skiff are smaller wooden boats traditionally and commonly used for transporting everyday passengers and goods across the river.

Over the decades their use has changed, for example, the skiff became known as a gentlemen’s rowing boat. They have been adapted into new forms of boat that are ideal for recreational and competitive rowing. The ship chandlers, Chas Newens Marine, is situated on the Putney Embankment at the original site of E. Ayling and Son, a renowned boat builder, well known for their oar and scull making. The company no longer exists but the beautifully crafted oars are still in use on the river.

The text for the University Boat Race Marker takes its starting point from the Lightermen’s and Watermen’s motto ‘At commandment of our superiors’. The artist found a film that includes many interviews with Thames Lightermen, with one of them describing his superiors as ‘the wind and the tide’.

The proposed texts are:

  • The Best Leveller is the River we have in Common.
  • The Tide and the Wind Direct our Paths.

The artist sees these as being applicable to anyone that has experience of working or playing upon the river, neatly tying the Marker Strip to the ideas behind her sculptural intervention and the HIS. The text is referencing the democratic use of the Thames.

Indicative visualisations of shaft and site layout.

Claire is proposing to create a graphic artwork that will be cut into specially prepared granite blocks that will clad part of the south and west walls of the kiosk building. The design will relate to and compliment her other artworks by depicting details of plans of one or more boats associated with the River Thames and referenced by the bronze oars of the balustrade: a Thames lighter barge, a traditional wherry and a Thames skiff. The kiosk artwork is using as its source, authentic plans and illustrations from books, archives at the National Maritime Museum, and local traditional boat builders and enthusiasts.

Visitors to the site will be able to naturally grip the cast oars in the same way as the original oars were gripped when used to row, the oars taking on a new function as they are formed into handrails. The flat parts of the oars will also provide alternative leaning points. Details like leather oar collars or wear from rowlocks will ideally be transferred through the casting process, creating a narrative texture within the resulting forms.

The dimensions of the oars are:

- Skiff (3.8m length x between 60mm-70mm in diameter – changes along length of the oar);

- Wherry (4.6m length x between 50mm and 44mm in diameter – changes along length);

- Barge Sweep (7.3m length)

Bronze has been chosen for its aesthetic qualities that will accentuate the beauty of the oar forms. This material is durable and will improve over time. In addition, its association with commemorative sculpture should encourage a sense of a monument to past river users. Details of wood grain, leather collars and wear and tear on the original oars will be transferred to the cast surfaces. The finish will be Penny Bronze.

The UBR marker strip visually connects the existing UBR marker stone with the marker on the north bank. The texts are located near to the fixed benches on the site and just in front of the balustrade and river wall. The font used for the texts is Doves.

The Doves Type was part of a bitter feud between the two partners of Hammersmith’s celebrated Doves Press, Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson and Emery Walker, leading to the protracted disposal of their unique metal type into London’s River Thames. Between 1913 and 1917 Cobden-Sanderson had made hundreds of clandestine trips under cover of darkness to Hammersmith Bridge and thrown parcels of metal type into the river. One century later a typographer, Robert Green, salvaged some of the type and has recreated a digital facsimile of the Doves Type and created a bespoke version of the font for use by Tideway. It features in several of the commissions and texts used on the sites. https://typespec.co.uk/doves-type-revival/. 

The kiosk artwork will be positioned on the highly visible kiosk facades at the southwest corner of the Putney Embankment site, facing both to the west, along the Embankment and south towards the road. The image will be viewed at close proximity from the street and wrap around the southwest corner in order to be visible when approaching from Putney Pier.

The lowest point of the image is 1.2 metres from ground level, making the material detailing accessible for close-up scrutiny. The lower area of the artwork will be within physical reach of most people, including wheelchair users and school-age children. The overall size of the artwork on the south elevation will be approximately 1.6 metres tall by 1.8 metres wide.

The design ideas evolved from manipulating sections of the original plans to create the resulting collage of image fragments. Each granite block will contain a section or detail of a boat plan and these will be presented as a seemingly random arrangement, suggestive of a boat designer’s drawing board. Although abstracted to some extent, the sense of a technical working drawing can still be read within the resulting design. The quality of the line will vary in scale and seem hand drawn in order to create an organic sensibility and visual dynamic within the artwork.

The artwork