If you watch the opening and closing credit sequences of the BBC soap opera ‘EastEnders’ you might notice a small, tightly meandering river that flows into the River Thames. This tributary is the River Lea and, unlike the Thames (with its grand architectural backdrops and visual splendour), it flows through relatively unassuming and unfashionable landscapes in north east London including old industrial sites, urban edge-lands, residential estates and green spaces populated with electrical transmission towers which, for me makes for perfect backlands landscape painting.
I recall being intrigued by the river and its forlorn surroundings of council houses and scrap metal yards when passing over it at South Tottenham when travelling on shuddering two-carriage diesel trains to and from art school in Newham back in the early 1990s. At various locations along its course through London it diverts into canal routes where is named the River Lee Navigation... which makes naming paintings of it rather confusing at times.
It is an edginess and juxtaposition of elements that the River Lea sits in and contributes to that I am inspired to capture in paint. When I made the plein-air work titled Stonebridge Lock (now in the permanent collection at Bruce Castle Museum, Tottenham) I was drawn to the appearance of an old worldly rustic canal scene coupled with the rather less scenic intrusion of an electrical transmission tower looming in the distance with cables flying high above. Old worldly in feel, too, were the sailing barges moored at Tottenham Lock slightly further downstream (see images above and below), where I was intrigued by the old-meets-modern feel to the scene with the masts of the barges contrasting with a painted metal warehouse and the odd modern motor vehicle parked on the bank opposite (spot the Transit van in one of the images.)
It is a challenge to paint a scene that is not usually considered intrinsically beautiful or visually stunning, but it allows me to paint with a scruffy colour palette to reflect the artificial and gloomy ambience of the views as seen along the River Lea.
The painting Bow Creek was made after a grey rainy spell close to the Docklands Light Railway at Canning Town, where the tracks closely follow the meander of the river. A red train slopes away on the extreme right and the O2 Arena (aka Millennium Dome) can also be seen jutting up like a spaceship in the background. The painting Old Ford Locks was an example where I enjoyed working with different mark making, often scraping the paint over areas of the surface to render the geometric forms in the scene such as lock railings and the struts of the Olympic Stadium in the background.
The landscapes accompanying the River Lea's course through London have seen dramatic redevelopment over the years. As an artist I am both a witness and documenter to the dynamic relationship between this unassuming river and the ever-changing urban terrain surrounding it.