Fish made from fragments of a Pepsi glass bottle from the 1900s

The Unlikely Hunter Gatherer

29th December 2017

Jack Watkins talks to an artist whose inspiration lies on the Thames riverside…

Many people nurture a vague hope that, at some point in the future, they’ll be able to ditch a humdrum day job to do something more imaginative. Few, however, have the pluck to put their dream into practice for fear they’ll end up floundering. Nicola White, aka the Thames Mudlark, is a rare example of someone who made the brave leap and reached dry land.

“I left banking because I didn’t feel I was living an authentic life in that environment,” she says, reflecting back on twenty-three years in the sector. “I wanted to wake up in the morning feeling excited about my work. I’d long hankered after spending more time pursuing my creative endeavours, and to have a go at making my living from artwork, even though this would mean taking a risk and stepping outside my comfort zone. But I knew that if I didn’t take steps to change my career, I’d regret it later, and I certainly didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in the corporate world.”

For some time, while working in the City, Nicola’s recreational hobby had been to go down to the Thames and forage – or ‘mudlark’ – along the river foreshore in search of discarded or lost items. Gradually, she hatched the idea of creating saleable art works from the items she found.

“Most weekends, if the tide was right, I’d be down there collecting material for my creations,” she explains. Initially these came from glass and pottery discards but, as her confidence grew, her field of interest widened. “Gradually, I started to find buttons, coins, clay pipes and pieces of jewellery, which I see as small pieces of history. I became fascinated with tracing the stories behind these objects.”

Nicola has lived most of her life near water, either by the sea in Cornwall, where she was born, or close to the Thames after she moved to London. Even in her childhood, she was putting that proximity to active use. “As a kid, I loved making collages with shells and glass I collected on the beach. I’ve never lost that fascination with found objects and their secret history, and I enjoy giving lost or discarded items a new life in a piece of artwork,” says Nicola.

Alongside “all those who see beauty in something used and thrown away and can breathe new life into it,” as she says on her entertaining website Tideline Art, it’s unsurprising that she cites some unorthodox, out-of-the-mainstream artists as her inspirations. “I love Margaret Mellis, one of the St Ives group of Cornish artists in the 1930s. She’d make abstract compositions out of driftwood. I share that love of driftwood, and collect it along the Thames Estuary. Her studio stacked high with the wood she’d collected from the beach makes mine look tidy. I also love Guy Taplin, who makes these wonderful birds and fish from wood he finds washed up along the Essex coast.”

Taplin’s simplicity of approach is such that, when asked how he made a duck he replied: “You chop off anything that doesn’t look like a duck.” A man after Nicola’s heart. Another of her favourites – who was also a member of the St Ives group – is the fisherman artist Alfred Wallis. “He basically painted anything he could find, and had a genuinely naïve style. I love his depictions of boats and harbour scenes.” Driftwood Harbour, which Nicola made with gatherings from the Thames and Guernsey, has a distinct touch of Wallis about it. “I guess the common theme is the use of items that have had a previous life,” she reflects.

There’s definitely an element of serendipity about her creations. Among her most recent works are some depictions of swimming and soaring seabirds, constructed from various pieces of metal foraged from the Thames mud over several years. “I love seabirds and when I go mudlarking on the Thames or Thames Estuary, I often have seagulls and terns soaring above me,” explains Nicola. “It seemed fitting to use some of the objects I picked up along the Thames to create them. It was fun looking for pieces that would go well together to create the wings. Two spoons were perfect for the eyes of the two birds.” Along with the birds and harbours, other artworks creating from ‘found’ objects include fish made from fragments of glass, and imaginative assemblages of old doll parts, and ceramic pieces.

Earlier this year she started displaying her work at the Skylark Gallery on South Bank for the first time, but she says her preferred mudlarking areas are more ‘out-of-town’ locations such as the riverside at Greenwich, Woolwich and Rotherhithe. “I don’t go too much into town really. I like to stay away from the crowds.”

She also has a studio on the Isle of Sheppey, and spends roughly half the week there. Some of her best-loved walks are along the Thames Estuary: the area Charles Dickens roamed as a youngster, and used as the backdrop to the early pages of Great Expectations, so hauntingly recreated in the opening scene of David Lean’s film adaptation of 1946. The churchyard in which Pip encounters the escaped convict Magwich was at Cliffe, one of Nicola’s favourite villages, where she recently found “a wonderful churchwarden pipe from the early 1800s.”

She admits that there is something obsessive about the collecting of objects, and that her interest goes beyond artistic inspiration. “When I am mudlarking it’s like going on a treasure hunt. You just don’t know what you are going to find, and it’s compelling. I’ve found over a hundred messages in bottles. The river is full of social history and it really is history you can touch. Each time I find an object, I love to imagine where it came from and how it ended up in the Thames. There are so many potential stories to discover simply from what might look like a very small and innocuous object on the surface of the Thames mud.”

She posts short film clips on her Facebook page of some of her searches, and if you have a taste for ephemera from the past you’ll find them intriguing, too. A name stamped on a clay pipe found on the foreshore at Woolwich led her on the trail of a whole family of local pipemakers, and a brass luggage tag found not far from her home in Greenwich uncovered the fascinating story of Fred Jury, a labourer who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces and survived the Western Front, despite being hit by a grenade at close range.

Following these stories, what I like as much as anything is the sound of the water, the soundtrack of birds, the occasional boat. London in winter, in fact at any time, can seem such a clogged, claustrophobic place. Near the water, though, there’s a whole different, more elemental vibe, because of course, down by the river is exactly where the the City began. In the search for her art, Nicola has rediscovered an elemental quality that many of us have lost.

For details on Nicola’s art and inspiration: www.tidelineart.com
For information about mudlarking: www.thamesdiscovery.org

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