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Thames: the art of reclaiming the river

Peter Gruner takes a peek at an exhibition that revolves around the issue of pollution on the capital’s river

29 March, 2018 — By Peter Gruner

A detail of Eloise’s By the Deep, By the Mark

PIONEERING artist Eloise Hawser’s new free exhibition at Somerset House studios carries a dire warning about pollution of the river Thames.

Called By the Deep, By the Mark – a historic naval term for measuring the depth of water – the exhibition combines intricate sculpture with in-depth analysis of the workings and ebb and flow of the river.

The studios, which opened in the Strand just over a year ago, provide affordable gallery space for experimental artists like Eloise. She uses both art and science to present and investigate important issues.

Looking at over-subscribed sewage systems that keep the Thames clean and its population healthy, Eloise examines attempts through the ages to reclaim the river as a space for leisure.

Eloise Hawser with a model of the Super Sewer

She delves into Joseph Bazalgette’s 19th century sewer system, which helped remove cholera from the City. It was created in response to “The Great Stink” of 1858, when the Thames became horrifically polluted with human waste.

Interestingly, Eloise will be in public conversation with Joe’s great, great grandson, TV executive and former Arts Council chief, Sir Peter Bazalgette, at the studios on Tuesday, April 10, at 7pm.

The exhibition also presents an artist’s view of a segment of the current Thames Tideway “Super Sewer” project.

Eloise even interviewed Stuart Williams, the lead engineer for the £ Tideway project. The 16-mile long tunnel from Acton in the west to Stratford in the east of the capital will capture and store almost all the raw sewage and rainwater discharges that currently overflow into the river.

A Drop of London Water as seen in Punch

She said: “London’s ever-growing population and increased rainfall generates more water than the Victorian sewers can accommodate. The excess flows into the Thames, threatening leisure and endangering human and animal life. The new Thames super sewer currently being built is due to open in 2023 and will hopefully help solve the problem of pollution.”

An 1850 edition of Punch magazine’s “The Wonders of a London Drop,” is given pride of place at the exhibition. It captures the fear and mystery associated with a single glass of water at that time.
Eloise also explores interesting parallels between the hidden flows beneath the city and the circulation in our bodies.

“I work and also live near the Thames,” she says. “Like a lot of Londoners I feel I have a very close relationship with it.”


The Thames lapping Somerset House. Photo: Historic England

The exhibition traces links between extraordinary feats of civil engineering and the intricate inner workings of the human body.

Along with sculptures, collage and video simulations, there is also sound art provided by Eloise’s colleague, Laura Mitchison of oral history organisation On The Record, who sourced sound recordings from the Thames, including the sound of river and tourist traffic and pilings being driven into the riverbed. The resulting sound design was shaped by Gareth Fry.

Archival images show how the river once flowed right into Somerset House studios’ building.

While the show may be a little technical for your average punter, it inspires interest in the river, its history and environmental threats to this, the capital’s major artery.

By The Deep, By The Mark runs at Somerset House, Somerset House, Strand, WC2R 1LA until April 22. For information visit or call 020 7845 4600.


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