WHEN it comes to artistic interpretations of London’s landmarks, Tower Bridge is a road well-travelled – not least by its 40,000 daily visitors.
The 123-year-old feat of Victorian engineering has been immortalised every which way; from film to fridge magnets to a super-sized replica in the Chinese city of Suzhou.
So when the bridge launched its inaugural artist-in-residence programme earlier this year to commission a series of artworks on the iconic structure, Alex Evans, the first cap off the rank, knew he had a difficult task ahead.
“I was terrified of it,” he admits. “How do you even begin to draw something as complex and ornamental as Tower Bridge? It almost seems quite audacious to even attempt it.”
Six months later and the fear has been replaced by a series of contour drawings, digital prints and 3D etchings on stone, mirror and silk that make up Tower Bridge’s first artist-in-residence exhibition, which opens next week.
The exhibition is yet another feather in the bridge’s creative cap following an artistic development programme that has seen installations in the bascule chambers below the towers, and the conversion of the steam engine rooms into an exhibition space.
Alex’s work will be on display in the south tower, not far from the studio – a former chair storeroom – where he has been working for the last three months.
Once the cobwebs were clear, it was time to put pen to paper, a process initially characterised by Alex drawing the bridge without looking at the page.
He also used the technique as part of an education programme with students from Boutcher Primary School in Southwark, who were invited to work with Alex on a series of rubbings and sketches of the bridge, which will also go on display.
The artistic director of East London youth arts charity Kazzum called the weeks spent working with the students some of the most important of his residency.
“The education aspect is so central to my work,” he says.
“I love putting my work on a wall but when you think about it the experience of an artist can be quite isolating, but that’s probably the most important role of an artist, to provide those opportunities for other people to take part.”
As for his own interpretation, they have taken the vein of a Victorian artistic and literary concept known as “the sublime”.
“It’s that feeling when something provokes both terror and awe,” he explains. “The bridge reminded me, in some ways, something on the scale of the Australian outback… so beautiful but so unknowable.”
It is a concept central to Alex’s exploration of Tower Bridge as an active and living building, by honing in on the organisms growing on the structure like moss and lichen, working in charcoal because of the bridge’s history with steam power, and using new technologies such as silk and mirror etching to reflect its status as a pioneering feat of engineering.
“I didn’t want to just draw a picture of Tower Bridge; I wanted to capture it somehow moving, active, live, after all it’s the only bridge in London that actually moves.”