Writer and artist Rachel Lichtenstein gave an illustrated talk, with artist Jeremy Millar and chaired by Whitstable Biennale’s Director Sue Jones, at the Whitstable Biennale 2014. Rachel’s talk focused on research she is undertaking for a book on the Thames Estuary, titled Estuary: A Deep Exploration of Place, which will be published by Penguin in 2016.
Rachel is also currently working towards a new multimedia work that we will premiere at the Whitstable Biennale 2016.
This is the beginning of a recent article about the future of the Thames Estuary that Rachel wrote for Aeon, an online magazine publishing some of the most profound and provocative thinking on the web, on science, philosophy and society.
The point where the tidal waters of the North Sea flow into the mouth of England’s longest river marks the outer reaches of the Thames Estuary: the gateway for international trade, industry and travel into London for millennia. Goods and people from all over the world have arrived in Britain via this well-used sea route from as far back as Roman times, when vast quantities of luxury commodities including pottery, marble, wine, olive oil and silver would travel downriver to Londinium from the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire.
For good or ill, a pattern of conspicuous consumption, fed by river trade, was soon established. In Anglo-Saxon times the city’s visible wealth, manifest in riverside monasteries, attracted unwelcome attention from Viking raiders, whose longboats swept up the estuary in the ninth century, tearing down early timber versions of London Bridge. When a stone London Bridge was completed in 1209, it was partly to bolster the city’s defences, and later attacks by pirates resulted in merchant ships being heavily armed with cannon.
These merchant ships — hulls creaking, sails billowing — came into the estuary from across the Mediterranean, bearing exotic goods from Europe and beyond; silks, spices, gold, and ivory. They also helped to establish sea power in the East Indies, which eventually led to the founding of the East India Company and the beginning of Britain’s Indian empire. But it was the 17th and 18th centuries that were the Golden Age of the Estuary, when this stretch of water was the major highway of the British Empire. Tea, silks, opium, salt, cotton and indigo dye flooded into the port of London from India, China, Bengal and other places in the Far East. Joseph Conrad described the Thames Estuary in the first few pages of Heart of Darkness (1899), capturing the imperial ambitions of the nation:
‘What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.’
This beautiful short film A Study for the Estuary was made collaboratively by Rachel Lichtenstein and James Price. It charts the progress of an 80 foot Dutch barge, the IDEAAL, from Queenborough in Kent across the shipping channels, to the pier in Southend over five days. The project was initiated by the artists Simon Callery and Ben Eastop and sought to examine the Thames Estuary as it undergoes a crucial period of change. Others on board included filmmaker James Price, archaeologist of the recent past Sefryn Penrose, experimental cartographer Luke Eastop and composer John Eacott.
Rachel Lichtenstein is the author of books including Rodinsky’s Room (1999, co-written with Iain Sinclair), On Brick Lane (2007, shortlisted for the Ondaatje prize), Diamond Street: The Hidden World of Hatton Garden (2012). In 2011, she co-curated Shorelines: The World’s First Literary Festival of the Sea for arts organisation Metal, alongside poet Lemn Sissay.
She has shown at venues including Whitechapel Gallery, British Library (where she was the British Library’s first Creative Research Fellow), Barbican Art Gallery, Woodstreet Galleries (Pittsburgh) & the Jerusalem Theatre (Israel).