Artist Richard Wentworth CBE has been commissioned by Tideway to create an artwork for the new public realm site at Albert Embankment.
Richard Wentworth’s approach to making work typically involves taking a mundane utilitarian object and transforming its role and identity. He is an internationally renowned sculptor, closely tied to the pioneering artistic movement of New British Sculpture in the early 1980s. Since the 1970s, he has also created hundreds of thousands of photographs for a series entitled Making Do & Getting By. Rejecting a linear approach to making work, his work develops intuitively and fluidly: "I don't do projects. I just work and my work takes all sorts of different forms."
For his commission at Albert Embankment the artist has developed a playful yet practical response through two artworks, which at first glance represent the everyday but can take on a range of meaning and uses; seating and plaques.
The form of the first directly references both the sewer and Royal Doulton and comprises a series of three bronze-cast sculptural seats of two sizes, which will be located on the shaft site. This group of informal seating will enable people to sit and look out across the river, creating an opportunity for gathering and viewing.
The second are two identical plaques. Cast in bronze and A3 in size, they take the form of an open letter to passers-by or visitors to the site, questioning and drawing attention to the river itself. The proposed text is:
We may never have met, but trust me, I can imagine you.
How one spot in London distinguishes itself from another is puzzling enough for one lifetime.
Perhaps you wondering how this spot was made and why and all its different stories.
How did the river get here? Where does the water come from? How far is it to the sea? How do the tides work? Where did the shore used to be? How did you get here?
It will give me great pleasure to imagine you falling into conversation with your nearest neighbour at this spot.
Please imagine what you might tell me about your conversation at a later date.
Richard Wentworth, 5th October 2021
Part of the artist’s response to the site and the project is to consider the future history of this new area of public realm and how it both integrates into the current heritage environment and then becomes part of it. The development of the plaques derive from small urban details that are often unnoticed, such as texts and signs, which you might come across by happenstance. It is hoped that the plaques will encourage passers-by to consider the site and the river, as well as the plaques themselves and the reader’s context in the history of the city and the time they are living in. The plaques will be integrated flush to the internal surface of the low wall and paving of the interception site. Discrete in nature, a visitor may just notice them by accident.
The permanent Tideway commissions respond to the site-specific narratives set out in the Tideway Heritage Interpretation Strategy. The cultural meander for the Central section is ‘Babylon to World City: Civic London’, the site-specific narrative references the creation of the Albert Embankment, the construction of which was funded by selling 8.5 acres of reclaimed land to St Thomas’ Hospital.
In response to the Heritage Interpretation Strategy (HIS), Richard Wentworth has developed a site-responsive artwork which takes its inspiration from the engineering achievements of engineer Joseph Bazalgette and the Metropolitan Board of Works who sanitised the city and drastically reduced the deaths from Cholera. Victorian ceramicist Henry Doulton’s factory in Lambeth was central to this process, manufacturing the first salt glazed stoneware sewer pipes in the world. Assisting in the creation of London’s sewer system, the life-saving network that connected all its citizens.
During the early 19th century the River Thames was an open sewer, which led to poor heath and cholera epidemics. In 1858 Joseph Bazalgette, a civil engineer, began work on a drainage system to divert London’s waste downstream, away from the centre of population. He commissioned Henry Doulton to make the pipes that joined buildings to his sewer.
Doulton’s pipeworks on the Albert Embankment perfected the mass production of non-porous sewer pipes by extruding them in salt glazing stoneware clay. Doulton's 1,000 miles of pipes had a vital role in the success of the Victorian sewer and the safe transportation of waste across London. The proceeds from the sewer pipes were used to set up and finance the Royal Doulton Company for decades.
The history of Royal Doulton, and its impact on Lambeth and the city is significant:
1815 John Doulton invests his life savings of £100 to become a partner with Martha Jones who owned a pottery in Vauxhall Walk, Lambeth, London. John joined with John Watts and the new company of Jones, Watts, and Doulton commenced the manufacture of salt glazed domestic wares.
1820 Henry Doulton born to John Doulton. He was one of eight children.
1826 Company trades as Doulton and Watts from new premises in Lambeth High Street. The new premises had the largest garden in the area other than that of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lambeth Palace. This provided room for expansion - later to prove significant in the company's progress. The company manufactured salt glazed stoneware vessels, chiefly bottles for blacking, ink and beer.
1842 Chadwick's report on the "Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population." Sanitary conditions throughout Britain are appalling. 50,000 die of cholera.
1845 Henry Doulton builds a new factory in Lambeth to manufacture salt glazed stoneware sewer pipes - the first of their kind in the world, to supply Bazalgette.
1871 Henry Doulton had launched a studio at the Lambeth pottery, and offered work to designers and artists from a local art school. Their names included the Barlow family (Florence, Hannah, and Arthur), Frank Butler, Mark Marshall, Eliza Simmance, and George Tinworth.
1890 Doulton Lambeth Combination WC produced.
1909 31st March Construction began in Belfast of the RMS Titanic. The ship was launched on 31 May 1911 but it sank on its maiden voyage on 15 April 1912. Neil Egginton, of Stoke-on-Trent, wrote in October 2018 "In first class it was the Doulton 3019A WCs made in Lambeth, in second and third class they were Shanks Pacific WCs made in Barrhead Scotland."
1956 The Lambeth factory finally closes due to new clean air regulations that prevented the production of salt-glaze in the urban environment. Following closure, all work was transferred to The Potteries. The firm's headquarters remained there until 1971.