towards the Thames: A journey from
Tate Britain towards the Tower
in search of clarification and discovery.
What is drawing? Again I found myself struggling with a suitable
harbour scene was based on Le
which, according to the Tate's suitably wordy caption, shows apparent
calm while at the same time concealing a sense of anxiety. This had been
selected as an appropriate exemplar of a particular method of drawing. The
quandary for me was that, again as the caption informed, the work was a
painting in egg tempera on wood, measuring 635 x 762 mm (although I
suspect it was 25 x 30 inches when completed).
Was this once more a sign of the pedantic nature of my sometimes rigid and
didactic mind or a lack of a clear definition that would now forever be
associated with the word in my psyche? I
toyed, like Walter Benjamin had, with the idea that the German word for
sign, 'Zechien', was the root word for drawing, but this train of
thought seemed to get me nowhere and I continued through the gallery like
the Wadsworth's painting; outwardly calm and yet concealing a sense of
As we worked our way along the central colonnade of the high Victorian
monument to philanthropic wealth built on the blood of African slaves we
tarried a moment longer to consider Lambert's
rather ambiguous sculpted work 'Homo Sapiens'.
Somewhat distracted from the discussion, as my unexpected appointment with
seemed to be approaching faster than I had anticipated, I overheard the
lament 'Never Again War'.
Having resolved that morning to experiment rather loosely (and when it
suited me) with Locke's doctrine of association of ideas
my minds-eye wandered back to Kathe Kollwitz's and her passionate and
haunting poster of the same title.
Like Lambert's work, Kollwitz's lithograph shows a lone figure, this
time facing left raising the right arm skyward and pressing the left hand
to the heart, the emblazoned text leaving no room for ambiguity, the world
was not harmonious. I saw here echoes of the plea in drawing by the German
Expressionist Max Pechstein, 'To All Artists!' now is a time to act, 
and so I left hurriedly.
As I stared out across the flowing and ebullient Thames
towards the silhouetted outline of the monstrous home of official criminal
and nefarious methods of governance, it occurred to me that I had received
no text message as yet from Rimmington.
Before I could walk along the river to rendezvous with Roberson eastward
at Whitehall, I
paused and looked west along the river. My imagination, as if of its own
volition wandered off like a flaneur,
aimlessly strolling through the crowds, in studied contrast to their
hurried purposeful activity, revealing to me the river's concealed past.
After conversing with Wilde and Godwin at Chelsea,
I stared at the coming dusk and saw Whistler plan his arrangements of
line, form and colour, the 'Nocturnes', before boarding a vessel at
Hammersmith to join Morris and his friends as they took the boat up-river
However, before I could begin a much sought after discussion with Morris
on art, my mobile rang and I realised the somewhat pressing engagement I
wished to attend to, that John Berger had suggested to me, was now
It was in Victoria Tower Gardens located just West of what Morris had
rather accurately described as a 'dung market'
that I met my friend Roberson, who, on seeing it for the first time was
staring rather intently at Rodin's imposing 'Burghers of Calais'.
I wondered if he was drawn to the humanity that Rodin had sought to
instil in his work. Had he seen that Rodin had set out to observe the
physiques of common people? Did he know that he had boldly declared,
against the then current prevailing ideas, that his moral stance was that
the meaning of life was best expressed by actions taken directly from
nature, not fabricated by art styles or allegorical conventions?
Before I could enquire as to his thoughts, he remarked, stroking the
chains across the burghers necks with the familiarity of a man so long
in-chained, that he found it difficult to believe that politicians of our
own age would make the same sacrifice that the burghers countenanced
before delivering themselves to the hangman to secure their City's
I was, ashamedly, a little surprised by his seemingly in-depth knowledge
of the French artist. He smiled at my quizzical expression, commenting
that whilst in detention he had read extensively not only on political and
philosophical developments but that he had also found much solace, comfort
and inspiration in the arts. He said that he had preferred the written
word, the poets Shelley and Rimbaud
numbered amongst his favourites, but he felt this bias was to be located
in the total absence of seen artefacts since he was imprisoned, and to be
frank, since his early childhood days at school.
I had said to him that it has been suggested that Kathe Kollwitz, whom I
was thinking of only a short time before we had met, germinated her ideas
from literary sources and an aesthetic inclination rather than concrete
political involvement. Again surprising me with his intellectual prowess,
he declared as to his opinion that this argument, and that of others like
Prelinger, carried with it an agenda to emaciate and isolate Kollowitz
from her political, as well as her deeply artistic motivations. He urged
me to be more inquisitive of the 'given' text, reminded me of
Benjamin's injunction to question all the more when the unbiased nature
of a text is declared.
He urged me to study her work on the murder and burial of Liebknecht
and then to ask myself if this was indeed the work of someone essential
inspired by words only.
Strolling back through the gardens we traversed Lambeth Bridge and
approached the Palace, I pointed out to him that although it had been
rebuilt just before the Second World War the crossing was indeed one on
the oldest on the river, I indicated the site of William Blake's former
residence at the Hercules Buildings, where he had been assailed by
loyalist mobs for the printing of seditious tracts,
and the location of the first Martin Brothers Pottery studio.
As we reach the south side I intoned that it felt good to find him
again. He said that he was pleased to see me, adding that although he was
now 'released' we would both have to agree that this was not the kind
of freedom we had aspired to.
To avoid any sentimentality clouding our reunion I hurriedly changed
tact and informed him of my temporary experiment with Locke. He said that
although he had not studied Locke's ideas in depth and had been denied
access to the World Wide Web, he had obtained an unabridged copy of all of
Laurence Sterne's 'Tristram Shandy' and felt thoroughly conversant
with the notions advanced by Locke. He agreed it could be an interesting
ethnological experiment if we continued in such a state of mind along our
As we gently made our way along the Albert Embankment, century flanuers seeking out the unseen and
the past to understand our present, we glanced back across the river to
the re-built dung market designed by A W N Pugin and Sir Charles Barry.
I mentioned to him some beautifully expressive little Turner sketches that
I had recently seen showing the place ablaze in 1834.
He enigmatically told me that he had not seen Turner's drawings but
would have liked to have been among the London
crowds the artist had depicted enthralled by the sea of red, orange and
white that engulfed the cradle of democracy!
Roberson said that he had understood my lack of correspondence since
mid-2000 but was interested in what I was occupying my time with now.
Wanting to avoid discussion of my involvement with the memorial to the
executed Nigerian Saro-Wiwa, I outlined my part-time MA in drawing at
Camberwell focusing on gesture and expression through the vortex of the
I stated that I partially agreed with the German artist Klinger in that
unlike painting, a so-called pictorial art, which provides pure enjoyment,
drawing, a so-called reporting art, the most salient characteristic of
which is the subjectivity of the artist, could confront not only the
beautiful but also the repugnant.
Roberson said that he knew little of Klinger's work, other than his
series of ink drawings entitled 'A Glove',
which, he said, had reminded him in some unknown way of people skating on
the iced-over Thames
many years ago. He added that he had read somewhere that the Italian
artist he much admired and would like to meet if at all possible, Giorgio
De Chirico, had said that Klinger was thoroughly modern in the sense of a
man of awareness who feels the heritage of centuries of art and thought,
who sees clearly into the what went before, into the present and is able
to confront himself.
We observed many cyclists using the river path to speed homeward after a
day's work and two tourists arm in arm meandering along the now darkened
river.For a moment the normal
gentle ambiance of the river at dusk was disturbed as three large military
craft, high in the water, sped passed us travelling up the river; to what
ends we could only conjecture.
In the chilled evening darkness we discerned office workers illuminated
in their cages of glass. I recalled to Roberson that in my schools days we
had been taught of Anthony Crossland's
vision of a society gaining more relaxation and leisure but that process
had now been reversed. I indicated that this current development of
intensification of exploitation had begun in the manufacturing industries
in the 1980's and had accelerated in the 1990's when it hit
professional and white collar workers in particular. I wondered aloud
where things better in the days of only black and white television.
Roberson declined to be drawn on the matter. I recalled the large black
and white cityscapes of the river made by John Virtue that I had seen the
previous year at the National Gallery and declared that it had also been
my intention to reduce my palette to black and white in an attempt to find
I turned and looked north to WestminsterBridge and
recalled to Roberson the Liverpool Dockers
march of 1998. I told him that just two years ago there were several
demonstrations so large that often the head of the march reached Trafalgar
Square or Hyde
before the back of the march had even departed from their various assembly
These massive protests of public indignation had been provoked by the
decision to prepare for war in the Middle East. A
decision taken by the politicians in Parliament at the behest of the man
who, as State Governor of Texas had signed more death warrants on his own
people than any other Governor before him.
Saddened, we walked in silence for a time. Lost in thought I realised
that instead of enjoying the vistas out across the flowing river I was
entranced, looking down at the ground and following my foot steps.A line had caught my attention. A line with a rhythm and regularity
like that of a side-winding rattlesnake might make as it crosses its
desert terrain. A trail of paint had leaked from an 'accidentally' pierced
pot on its journey from purchase to application. The line progressed along
the South side of the river, swinging out and back with the maker's
As we reached the small crowd around what was in a previous life County
Hall, and now the rather turgid showcase of one of the most ostentatious
and pretentious collectors of art of the moment along with some rather
large fish tanks, I frowned. Roberson, seeing my obvious dislike of one of
the buildings current tenants, reminded me that for Walter Benjamin every
cultural product leaks intelligence about the makeup of its
contemporaneous social world; no negativity is annexed to the idea of
decline and no products of culture are irretrievable to meaning.Adding that for Benjamin there are as such no real periods of
decline, for history uncoils unevenly.
Here the rhythm of the line quickened and I could see its maestro had
negotiated a similar crowd in his or her path. A line, was that the
essence of a drawing or could a description of tones be called by the same
I posited the question to Roberson: did he think that a line defined
drawing and that this line must be made with a pen or pencil? Staring
briefly out towards the imposing steel structure of the Eye he remarked
that others have made what they define as drawings employing a vast
arrangement of media. Was not Smithson's jetty creating line? Had not
Fred Sandback employed strands of wool to make lines in space,
and I was forced to concede that my peer, Bruce was attempting to create a
line with a trace of movement.
Roberson said that Dan Clowes, an American cartoonist he had read in
Huntsville, had recently said it had taken him close to 20 years trying to
work out how to draw the perfect line only to realise it could be achieved
best with a water colour brush and a lot of practice. I was not sure if
Clowes had said this personally to Roberson or if he had gleaned the
information from another source.I started to get a sense that Roberson was trying to gently point
out that maybe I was limiting myself.
At the end of JubileeGardens we
turned south and with the river behind us and Waterloo International train
station to the fore we stood for a short time to take in the ShellTower, a
monument to 20th century British and Dutch capitalism soon to
become more luxury apartments when the trans-global fiend relocates to the
Here finally I told Roberson of my work with Platform
and the Saro-Wiwa memorial project. I informed him that I was last here
just two weeks previously, standing in silent solidarity with
Saro-Wiwa's widow and others before the city hordes, filing past us on
their way to start their working days. He told me that he had missed his
mother very much and encouraged me to write to her soon.
To cheer ourselves from the gloom that was coming over us both we made a
small detour at the Queen Elizabeth Hall so that Roberson could see the
statue of Nelson Mandela. As Mandela seems in life, so the bust is larger
than life and caste in bronze, boldly serving to remind us of humanity's
power to resist subjugation.
We remembered old times, congratulated the South African resistance on
the fall of apartheid, recalled the life of the recently deceased Rosa
Park and began a vigorous discussion on the need and function of
memorials, which was leading us nowhere in particular.
I mentioned to Roberson the William Kentridge animation, 'Monument',
that I had admired at the WhitechapelArtGallery,
which I informed him was located at the east end of the city. Trying to
draw out the subversive nature of the work to Roberson I outlined its
sequential development in which Kentridge's creation of business man
Soho Eckstein, insincerely unveils a large statue of an African worker,
head bent, carrying a heavy load, which as Eckstein moves away, breaks
free, wandering off and thus resisting Eckstein's order
Before Roberson could comment our attention was distracted by a constant
thud and slap on the concrete below. Growing cold in the November night,
having paused on our walk, we turned to continue and discovered the source
of the clamour. It was being created by young and not so young
skateboarders practising their moves in the recesses of this 60's
Brutalist concrete construction of Hubert Bennett.
The skateboarders had a more colourful grotto than I remembered from
when my son regularly visited the area some years previously and all
seemed brighter, sanctioned graffiti now adorning the cavernous space.
I told Roberson about free running, a recent attempt to negate the
hostile urban environment practised by a more 'spiritual' generation.This was a pastime Roberson said he had not much experience of, but
we both agreed such a practice admirable.
Under Waterloo Bridge, where we had missed the sun-set, the book sellers
were packing up and I noticed a gentle breeze was fingering the pages of a
copy of Engels 'Conditions of the Working Class in England'.The river path still busy with a throng of people, Roberson
observed it seemed much harder in contemporary London to
discern working people from tourists and those merely out sampling the
cultural amenities available.
We considered a visit to the National Film Theatre as Vertov's
path-breaking film, 'Man With a Movie Camera',
was being screened. We decided against this option and instead discussed,
over a cup of expensive but warm hot chocolate, one of the problems that
Vertov and his collaborators raised regarding the inconspicuous
observation of subject matter.
I related to Roberson my own difficulties in trying to record workers
going about their tasks without my presence altering their behaviour and
attitudes. Following Vertov's use of hidden cameras, I mentioned that I
had briefly considered secreting myself inside one of Paul MacCarthy
inflatables, so as to conduct my observation surreptitiously. Roberson
said that he felt that this tactic may not work as the presence of a large
inflatable may also affect people's behaviour, although he could not be
sure on this point, as he had heard that many people simply walked passed
these works convinced that they constituted another selling mechanism some
clever advertising agent had produced.
Unable to form any firm conclusions, we decided to move on, rather
regretting now that we had not made the time to see Vertov's work. We
passed the London Television Centre, Gabriels Wharf, (the first of many
once crowded wharfs that now seem to have been transformed into
restaurants, shops or luxury accommodation that we would come across along
this stretch of the river) beyond the Bernie Spain Gardens and on toward
the Oxo Tower, with its roof top restaurant that sold expensive frozen
Passing the BBC's Dominic Lawson I confided to Roberson that I had all
but given up watching television, adding that I was stubbornly sticking to
analogue reception as part of a growing underground, and as yet
un-coordinated, movement to subvert attempts by the Government and SkyCorp
to get everyone ensnared into a pay-per-view scenario.
Roberson said, in what I thought was a rather tautological description
of the man, that there was a particular narrow minded neo-conservative
American critic Hilton Kramer
who had implied that everything that can be shown or said about art on TV
is a pernicious lie. He said however, that whilst not agreeing with the
sentiment of Kramer that he rather agreed with Robert Hughes comments that
TV cannot construct a satisfactory parallel to the experience of the
As we passed under Blackfriars Bridge, I considered discussing the death
in mysterious circumstances of Christianity's banker, Roberto Calvi,
some years before with Roberson, but before I spoke a rather bedraggled
and unshaven man, huddled in a blanket that had seen better days, enquired
of us had we spare any change. I obliged. Thinking him a timely reminder
that all was not as it seems in contemporary Britain and
that indeed, as Oscar Wilde had pointed out some time before, we do indeed
live in a world of surfaces.
Within a moment we were upon Tate Modern which unfortunately had closed
early that evening due to a security alert as there were a number of
unidentified packages in the Turbine Hall.
As we approached the re-built Globe Theatre I desperately tried to impress
Roberson with an appropriate citation from the great writer, but alas poor
I, I knew his work not well; I therefore merely recited some useless
information about the building's original construction in 1599.
We meandered through the growing arcades of Clink Street, a street that
at one time contained no less the seven prisons, one of which now gives it
name in generic slang to the institution, on around Southwark Cathedral,
along Jubilee Walk beyond London Bridge before stopping for refreshment in
the Mud Lark Tavern.
Roberson, who for a short time in the state penitentiary had studied
birds, pointed out that the commonly known Mud Lark was not of the
Eremophila alpestris genus as is often assumed but is in fact from the
Pipet or Motacillidae family. I re-tell of the children, known as mud
larks, that scavenged on the banks of the river for coal and wood which
they could sell in exchange for food, but I suspect Roberson, who is
well-versed in the works of Arthur Rimbaud and of his travels with
in London, knew of the plight of these young children when this place was
then Tyre and Carthage all rolled into one.
As I held the vision of the undernourished and hungry I recalled how
Kollwitz had explained that it was only after coming into close contact
with the lives of the poor did she truly begin to understand her chosen
subject's power and that to represent this through her work then offered
a vent, or a possibility to tolerate life.
We bid good cheer to the inn-keeper, who eyed us with some suspicion as
we had decided to vacate a mere 20 minutes into happy hour. However we
paid him no heed and proceeded along the waters edge.
We came across the now permanently moored battle cruiser, HMS Belfast.
Roberson, who seemed at this juncture to be fading but in possession of
more knowledge of my own city than myself, explained that Belfast and its
sister ship Edinburgh, with their 6 inch guns arranged in four triple
mounts, were designed for the protection of trade, offensive action and as
a powerful support for amphibious operations.
He said with an air of sound authority, that it seemed unreasonable to
question him, that they were ordered by the Admiralty in 1936 and assigned
by tender to Messers Harland and Wolff of Belfast.He added that Belfast had
been launched by Mrs Neville Chamberlain on St Patrick's Day 1938,
presumably to insure peace in her, and her husband's, time. He did not
mentioned the launching of HMS Edinburgh merely adding that she was sunk
in May 1942, losing 58 men, being 2 officers and 56 ratings, although in
human terms he cold not see the difference.
Not wanting to be seen as deficient on the history of the shipbuilding
trades of this spectre'd isle I mentioned that from May 1940 to March
1946 Stanley Spencer, as an official war artist, had worked on an epic
series of war paintings.
Roberson retorted that in his opinion these works merely reflected the
fact that the war effort at home was a crucial element of national
survival and that the recording of the construction of these merchant
ships with men plumbing, welding, riveting and rigging only served to
foster a mood of national reconciliation.
He said that he preferred Laura Knight's famous painting of 'Ruby
Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring',
because although it served much the same purpose as Spencer's work, it
at least represented the rising phenomena of women in the workplace. I
could see from these remarks that he was growing tired and irritable. His
countenance seemed subdued and saddened.
As we approached City Hall, new home to the latest mayor of London, my
text message from Rimmington came in. 'Draw with whatever means
necessary'.It was set.
I turned to wish my farewells to Roberson and encourage him to venture
further up river to visit the artist Edward Wolfe
and his engaging and rather profound friend the writer James O'Connor at
their home in Limehouse, but he had boarded a river taxi to cross to the
tower.He mouthed that he had
one further appointment at the water gate
and I wished him well.