Of all the buildings in London to attract that much laboured adjective ‘iconic’, Tower Bridge is perhaps the most deserving. Show a photo to nearly anyone in the world, and they will immediately recognise it as London (although how many will say ‘London Bridge’?).
The gothic span celebrates its 120th anniversary this year. To coincide, a new exhibition at Guildhall Art Gallery shows off numerous paintings and photographs to feature the bridge. And it’s an absolute humdinger.
The show opens with an exceptional portrait of architect Horace Jones hanging beside chief engineer John Wolfe Barry (son of Charles, who designed the Houses of Parliament…what a family of icon builders). We’re then into the main room, which is decorated with canvases from across the past 120 years. Detailed panoramas rub shoulders with hazy, impressionistic views. A specially commissioned view from the bridge by Mentor Chico was painted so recently that it even includes the Walkie-Talkie and Cheesegrater buildings of the City.
This first room is impressive enough, but the second space holds the real treasures. Here we find rarely seen photographs from the bridge’s construction. The part-built bridge looks like a vast steampunk machine when denuded of its stone cladding. The adjacent wall holds concept paintings from the initial design competition. One huge illustration, which we’ve never encountered before, shows a proposed Brunel-esque rail bridge spanning the river. Another depicts Horace Jones’s earlier design, where the familiar gothic towers are joined not by aerial walkways, but by a vast glass arch. The room is completed by four remarkable illustrations by Chris Orr, each in a different style, but all including the bridge.
Guildhall Art Gallery is a joy to visit at any time, but this new exhibition will enthral anybody with a soft spot for London.
Tower Bridge: A Celebration of 120 Years is at Guildhall Art Gallery until 27 July and will return on 13 October. Entrance is free.