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Illuminated River Art Trail

June 17th, 2021 | by Tom Harrow-Smith

Illuminated River Art Trail

The Illuminated River Project arrived in South Bank in Spring 2021, an artistic vision from renowned New York based artist Leo Villareal, who works with cutting edge LED technology and custom software to ‘paint with light'. Villareal has transformed nine of central London's bridges, drawing inspiration from the spirit and history of the river as well as from their architectural and engineering heritage. To mark the illumination of all five of South Bank's Bridges, we have curated our own Illuminated River Art Trail, complete with a map that you can download here, which allows you to take in not only the five bridges, but also the areas' longstanding illuminated artworks, from the instantly recognisable to those you may not have spotted before.

To find out more about about each stop on the trail, read our guide below, which also gives a helping hand to find some of the more hidden artworks and places featured. The bridges themselves only light up after sunset, so make sure to bear this in mind to get the full South Bank illuminated experience.

  • 1 - Blackfriars Bridge, Illuminated River Artwork by Leo Villareal

    Blackfriars Road Bridge was designed by Joseph Cubitt and consists of five elliptical wrought-iron arches (the first bridge to use this design) so as not to create cross-currents and disrupt river traffic. Massive granite piers topped with pulpits serve as a reminder of the ancient monastery from which the bridge took its name, and which stood nearby. Said to be the tidal turning point, it is decorated to the east (downstream) with images of seabirds and to the west (upstream) with fresh water birds. The bridge also marks the boundary of the historic City of London, with its southern landing guarded by a statue of a silver dragon.

    Leo Villareal’s Illuminated River artwork for Blackfriars Bridge uses a colour scheme that closely complements the red pillar supports that remain from Robert Mylne’s original Blackfriars Railway Bridge. Subtle scarlet and mauve hues gracefully reveal the undersides of this historic architectural landmark.

  • 2 - London Cityscape, James Cochran (Jimmy C) and Network Rail

    It took Australian street artist James Cochran (known as Jimmy C) six days in wet and rainy conditions to paint this mural outside Blackfriars Station. Cochran experimented with many different cityscapes on canvas in his studio before creating this one, taking time to find the right viewpoints and textures that would express the dazzling vitality of the Thames and its surrounding metropolis. The mural is painted in Cochran’s signature aerosol pointillist style, which brings together his two interests in graffiti and oil painting,  resulting in an urban landscapes painted entirely from blobs of spray paint. 

    You can find London Cityscape on the riverfront on the entrance to the Blackfriars Bridge underpass.

  • 3 - 65,000 Photographs, Idris Khan

    At eight meters tall, 65,000 Photographs represents every image that Khan has taken on his phone over the past five years. Made by stacking sheets of paper, formed out of the dimensions of standardise photo prints, before Khan sand-cast and formed them in aluminium. The work is a monument to the experiences he’s documented over the years, a process Khan likens to the ‘rings of a tree’. It’s also a tribute to the rarity of the tangible photograph, and a comment on our image saturated world where over 1.8 billion photographs are uploaded online every day.  While Khan’s sculpture is not intended as criticism, it aims to draw our awareness to a changing relationship with making images and how our cameras have come to replace our eyes. A good reminder to take in what we experience with our eyes first and foremost, and to photograph something only once we have really seen it as we begin our Art Trail.

    You can find 65,000 Photographs between Bankside Hotel and One Blackfriars.

  • 4 - Oxo Tower, Albert Moore

    The Oxo Tower was originally built as a power station supplying electricity to Royal Mail.  It wasn’t until the 1920s that it was acquired by the Liebig Extract of Meat Company, better known as the manufactures of Oxo beef stock cubes, for conversion into a cold store for their products.  Much of the original power station was demolished, but the company architect, Albert Moore, kept and converted the original river facing façade to an Art Deco design. In 1929, when Moore was finishing his design for the building, he presented an idea to include illuminated signs featuring the ‘Oxo’ brand name, but permissions were refused as skyline advertising along the Southbank was banned at that time. Instead, Moore built the tower with four sets of three vertically-aligned windows, each of which happened to incorporate some familiar elements of circles and crosses!

  • 5 - Bough One, Simon Corder

    Simon Corder’s 17m high light installation, Bough One, on the side of Barge House was originally conceived for Lumiere London in 2018. A scattering of fluorescent light climbing like ivy up the wall, Bough One is inspired by the tradition of taking evergreens into the home in midwinter, and also reflects the surrounds of the bustling Oxo Tower Wharf development. The artwork brings to light a fascinating piece of history.  This location is the site of the Barge House, where Royal barges were moored from the reign of King Henry VIII until the mid-17th century when it was abandoned and eventually decayed.  You can still see the alley where the barges would have been drawn up from the Thames. In those days, all major destinations and activities were on or near to the Thames, and lords and noblemen built their house close to the river. As such, the Barge House is conveniently situated between mid-way between the Tower and Westminster.

    You can find Bough One on Bargehouse Street, just behind OXO Tower itself.

  • 6 - Royal National Theatre, Denys Lasdun

    Completed in 1976, Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre is London’s most well-known and divisive Brutalist building.  Lasdun was inspired by the idea of “architecture as urban landscape”, embracing the sculptural potential of concrete. Although the construction was plagued with controversy and criticism, eighteen years later, Lasdun’s design gained a Grade II heritage listing. 

    Within the main foyers a previous refurbishment had diluted the drama of Denys Lasdun’s original design; Atelier Ten developed a new lighting concept to play with the balance of darkness and light. The lighting design creates a sense of darkness by minimising the spill of light onto the diagrid of concrete coffers. Not only did Atelier Ten’s lighting design provide the drama, sense of place, and functionality required of the theatre, but the lighting design also has been key in reducing the energy use of the National Theatre, using only 30% of the energy of the previous scheme.

  • 7 - Hayward Gallery Pyramid Skylights, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios after Henry Moore

    The 66 glass pyramids on top of the Hayward Gallery are one of the most striking and iconic features of the Southbank Centre. Esteemed post-war artist Henry Moore, a trustee of the Hayward, advised on the design and it is he who is most widely recognised as the one responsible for their distinctive look. Moore worked closely with the Arts Council to stipulate a new kind of architecture that would let ‘divine’ natural light into the gallery space and light the exhibitions below. The glass pyramids would also contrast with the rest of the buildings brutalist aesthetic and concrete material. Despite the good intentions, the pyramids were beset with problems over the years, their translucence obscured by weather damage and other elements of the buildings design, and so the exhibitions were artificially lit.  After several attempts to deliver Moore’s original ambitions, in 2018 architectural studio Feilden Clegg Bradley orchestrated an expensive restoration of the pyramids, enabling them to ‘let the light in’ once more. 

  • 8 - Waterloo Bridge, Illuminated River Artwork by Leo Villareal

    At 1,230 feet long, Waterloo Bridge is London’s longest and fittingly, was the first to incorporate electric lights. It is made of reinforced concrete with Portland stone cladding, which is a material that conveniently is able to ‘clean itself’ whenever it rains, which is why it is always in such impressively good condition. During WW2, women were employed to complete the construction, hence Waterloo Bridge is known colloquially as the ‘Ladies Bridge’.

    In the spirit of the Impressionists and the English Romantics who captured the Thames and its bridges in their paintings, including Claude Monet, Leo Villareal’s artwork for Waterloo Bridge incorporates colours that shift and blend, adjusting to the constantly changing riverscape and its surroundings.Villareal’s references for Waterloo are drawn from the bridge’s architecture, detailing, and history. Citing a visual tie with Millennium Bridge, the artist finds a similar opportunity to explore a single line of light, which, in this instance, will introduce colour on the bridge’s masonry arches. Villareal’s artwork will complement this existing aesthetic, introducing a 379 meter stretch of lighting across each side of the bridge in addition to washes of light on its underside.

  • 9 - National Film Theatre sign, Norman Engleback

    In 1957, the south side of Waterloo Bridge acquired an iconic harlequin sign as part of the National Film Theatre development. This was designed by Norman Engleback, lead architect of the South Bank complex which included the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Hayward Gallery and the National Film Theatre (now the BFI). The location of the Theatre under Waterloo Bridge was unusual, impractical even, with the clamour of traffic above. But in 1956, this was the only space available on the South Bank and Wells Coates' Telecinema from the 1951 Festival of Britain was due to be demolished and replaced by Howard Robertson’s Shell Centre.

    A glowing example of mid-century modern design, the harlequin NFT sign demonstrated Norman Engleback’s long-held interest in stained glass. Engleback’s son Luke remarks in an interview with the Illuminated River Foundation, “In the sign you can see a fascination with the luminosity of glass. He always liked Piccadilly Circus and I wonder if there is not a little flavour of that in the sign”. The epoch-defining sign fell into disrepair and went unlit for several decades until it was renovated in 2018.

    You can find the National Film Theatre sign above the steps on the Western side of Waterloo Bridge.

  • 10 - Sturgeon Lamp Standards, George John Vulliamy and Charles Henry Driver

    Although commonly thought to be dolphins, the stylised sea creatures on these iconic Thames lights are in fact sturgeons.  The lamp posts were designed by George John Vulliamy and modelled by Charles Henry Driver, the architect of the Victoria Embankment wall and river stairs.  Inspired by the intwined statues of fish at the Fontana del Nettuno in Rome, Vulliamy’s design won a competition after it was submitted in the late 1960s to the London Metropolitan Board of Works.  The sturgeon lamps originally used electric Yablochkov candles, but the early electric lights were inefficient and were replaced in 1884 by gas lights, then converted back to electricity in 1900. Many of the original lamps now have Grade II listing, with further sturgeon lamp posts were added along the Thames to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977.

    Dotted all along the Queens Walk, you'll be hard pushed to miss these iconic symbols of South Bank.

  • 11- Golden Jubilee Footbridges, Illuminated River Artwork by Leo Villareal

    In 1996, a competition was launched to design two footbridges that would flank the existing Hungerford Bridge to commemorate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Illuminated River’s architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands won the competition alongside engineers WSP Group with a design of twin cabled-stayed 15-foot-wide and 984-foot-long footbridges attached to a forest of leaning suspension masts. The original structure for the Hungerford Bridge was an elegant suspension footbridge designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel which opened as a toll bridge in 1845. On its first day, more than 80,000 people paid 1/2d each to cross. At the time it was then the longest suspension bridge in Britain at 1,462 feet.

    Villareal’s artwork for the Golden Jubilee Footbridges matches the sleek and modern style of the architecture with subtle, monochromatic lighting. The lighting scheme here acts as a fold to Millennium Bridge, the other more contemporary bridge within the Illuminated River scheme.

  • 12 - The London Eye, David Marks and Julia Barfield

    There is an innate desire in all men to view the earth and its cities and plains from exceeding high places.... for it is an exquisite treat to all minds to find that they have the power, by their mere vision, of extending their consciousness to scenes and objects that are miles away". 

    These words, written in 1862 by Victorian writer Henry Mayhew came to inspire what is now one of London’s most recognisable and iconic landmarks. Influenced by Mayhew, architectural partners and husband and wife David Marks and Julia Barfield entered a 1993 competition to design a millennium landmark for London. Despite initially losing, they convinced British Airways Chief Executive Bob Avling to put up £600,000 in development money plus a further 100 different organisations, from planning authorities to environmental pressure groups, that the Eye would work. In March 2000, the London Eye opened, a feat of engineering ingenuity, offering over fifty million visitors unparalleled views from 135m high for up to 25 miles in all directions. They were certainly proven right!

  • 13 - Leake Street, Graffiti Art Tunnel

    At 300 meters, Leake Street is London’s longest graffiti tunnel, an outdoor gallery in its own right showcasing some of the very best talent in Street Art.  Leake Street runs off of York Road and right underneath the train tracks and platforms of Waterloo Station.  It is also known as the Banksy Tunnel, because the first graffiti art was created here as part of Banksy’s ‘Cans Festival’ on the 3d – 5th May, 2008.  Owned by Network Rail, the road is restricted to pedestrians, and has recently become host to a selection of independent restaurants and bars hosted in the former railway arches.  Other arches off of Leake Street are home to London’s fringe theatre ‘Vault Festival’ and other staged immersive and theatrical adventures throughout the year. Anyone can leave their mark on Leake Street, where graffiti is tolerated despite being against the law.  There is also always new street art to see, because the turnover rate is so rapid.

    There are two entrances to Leake Street. You can either access via Lower Marsh behind Waterloo Station, or from York Road opposite the eastern end of the County Hall complex.

  • 14 - Spirit of the Thames, Ernest Cole

    Ernest Cole’s Spirit of the Thames belongs to a series of statues commissioned to adorn the façade of County Hall, built in 1908 as home of the London County Council designed by architect Ralph Knott.  Knott chose rising star Cole to produce a series of figures for the main elevations, despite being just 24 at the time and only recently graduating from South Kensington Art School. 

    Construction was interrupted by the outbreak of WW1 and Cole was enlisted to work for the Intelligence Corps. This took him to America, where he met his fiancé Laurice Manly who introduced him to abstract art.  When Cole returned to work on County Hall, Knott rejected many of his new abstract designs, and those that were delivered were the subject of controversy and debate and labelled ‘a load of modern rubbish’. Eventually, Cole left the project and Alfred Hardiman was chosen to complete the sculptural series. Spirit of the Thames survived though, where you can still see it to this day.

    Spirit of the Thames can now be found directly above the entrance to London Dungeons, on the riverfront side of County Hall.

  • 15 - Westminster Bridge, Illuminated River Artwork by Leo Villareal

    At 827 feet long with seven elliptical cast-iron arches and abutments of grey granite, Westminster Bridge has the most arches of all the Thames bridges. The Gothic revival detailing on the cast-iron parapets and spandrels was made to Sir Charles Barry’s designs. The bridge is painted verdant green in homage to the leather seats in the House of Commons, the closest part of the Palace of Westminster to the bridge. A portcullis, the cross of St George, a thistle, a shield and a rose – symbols of parliament and the United Kingdom – appear in the decorative ironwork. The bridge is lit by octagonal lanterns, grouped in threes.

    Westminster Bridge is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Palace of Westminster and is a Grade II listed structure. Leo Villareal’s sequencing for Westminster Bridge is a subtle addition, honouring the bridge’s historically significant design. It is lit from underneath in soft green tones, complementing the bridge’s characteristic colour and activating the latticework beneath.

  • 16 - South Bank Lion, William Frederick Woodington

    The South Bank Lion has had a long and varied journey, originally mounted on the parapet of the Lion Brewery, located on the current site of Royal Festival Hall. In 1949 the brewery was demolished to make way for Hall as part of the Festival of Britain. The Lion, however, was salvaged and mounted on a high plinth beside the entrance to the Festival of Britain near Waterloo Station and painted red in homage to British Rail.  When the station was extended, the South Bank Lion was moved once more, this time to its current location on the south side of Westminster Bridge, with the red paint removed. In 1981, the Lion was granted Grade II listed status and we now know that the original sculptor was William Frederick Woodington, whose initials were revealed underneath the lion’s paw. Part of the secret as to why it has stayed in such fine condition through its many iterations is the Coade stone, a type of ceramic stoneware that is very resistant to weathering, even in the thick smog of industrial London through the first half of the 20th Century. 

  • 17 - Lambeth Bridge, Illuminated River Artwork by Leo Villareal

    Designed by architects Sir Reginald Blomfield and G. Topham Forrest with engineer Sir George Humphreys, Lambeth Bridge was officially opened in 1932. It is a five-span steel arch structure, adorned by decorative obelisks at either end and with piers and abutments clad in Cornish granite. The obelisks at each end of the bridge appear to be topped with pineapples. What these fruits represent has been much debated. Some believe they are actually pinecones, an ancient symbol of hospitality. Others believe they are Masonic emblems of enlightenment. A popular theory is that they are a reference to the Tradescant family who settled in Lambeth in the 17th century. Father and then son attained the title of Keeper of His Majesty’s Garden, managing the Queen’s palace grounds at Oatlands, near Weybridge in Surrey. It was here that John Tradescant the Younger cultivated the first pineapple to grown on British soil.

    Leo Villareal's artwork adorns Lambeth Bridge with a red glow - to match the benches of the House of Lords’ chamber and mirror the red accents of the bridge’s railings and arches.