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Water Finds a Level

by Claire Barclay

Putney Embankment Foreshore

Claire Barclay: Water Finds a Level, 2022

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

As with all of the other permanent commissions, the artist’s proposal responds to the site’s history as set out in Tideway’s Heritage Interpretation Strategy. The ‘cultural meander’ for the West section of the tunnel is ‘Recreation to Industry: Society in Transition.’ and 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.

In 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, however, there was a gradual shift from commercial to recreational boat use on this area of the Thames and from 1830 onwards the Putney Embankment became associated with elite rowing through the establishment of the University Boat Race.

The three artworks outlined below 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, aiming to draw attention to the democratic use of the Thames.

Bronze oars for the balustrade

Claire has selected three different types of oar from which bronze casts were made to subtly reference the roles played by different vessels and the range of people that have historically used and travelled on the river for leisure, recreation, and work. Formed into handrails, 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 flat parts of the oars will also provide alternative leaning points. Details like leather oar collars and wear and tear from rowlocks and general usage have been transferred through the casting process, creating a narrative texture within the resulting forms.

The largest of the cast oars is a seven metre-long wooden barge ‘sweep’ used by Lightermen for manoeuvring barge boats of goods or cargo by using only long sweeps, the wind and the tide. The wherry oar measures 4.6 metres in length and the skiff oar, as the shortest, 2.8 metres. Both oars are traditionally and commonly used on smaller boats for transporting everyday passengers and goods across the river. Over the decades they have been adapted into new forms of boat that are ideal for recreational and competitive rowing.

University Boat Race Marker

Taking its departure from found footage of a Thames Lightermen describing his superiors as ‘the wind and the tide’, the artist has proposed the following text to be incorporated into the bronze inlaid University Boat Race Marker:

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

Applicable to anyone that has experience of working or playing upon the river, the artist’s intention is to reference the democratic use of the Thames.

The UBR marker strip visually connects the existing UBR marker stone with the marker on the north bank and the texts are located near to fixed benches on the site and just in front of the balustrade and river wall. The typeface used for the texts is called Doves Type, created in 1899 for The Doves Press, Hammersmith but thrown into the River Thames in the early 20th century following a feud between the owners of the press. A century later 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.

Foreshore kiosk

For the mechanical and electrical kiosk building, Claire has created a graphic artwork sandblasted into specially prepared granite blocks that clad part of the south, east and west walls. The design uses authentic plans and illustrations from books, archives at the National Maritime Museum, and local traditional boat builders and enthusiasts as its source to depict details of plans of a Thames skiff boat.

Each granite block contains a section or detail of the boat presented as a seemingly random arrangement, suggestive of a boat designer’s drawing board and providing interest from afar as well as detail for close-up scrutiny. The overall size of the artwork on the south elevation is approximately 1.6 metres tall by 1.8 metres wide. 

The artwork