Caught by the River

Letter From A Prize Winner

24th April 2010

Alan Tyler won our competition for the tickets to the Nicola Moorby lecture at Somerset House. He wrote to say thanks:

I don’t win things. Runner up in a fishing club winter league, 1971, and an unwanted LP in a folk-club raffle sum up my competitive success, so I was surprised when I received an email to say I’d won tickets for Nicola Moorby’s talk “River of England: Turner and the Thames” in CBTR’s competition. Just the impetus I needed to jolt me out of my rut. I’ve hardly spent any time near running water this year, thanks to that winter, and even less in London “proper”.

My brain may have been tuned to anticipate river-based sound, but it was something of a surprise to me that my second perception (sight being the first) of the Thames, surfacing from Embankment tube, was not the river-smell, sweet and rotten, but the rubato squeal of boats rubbing against each other, and their moorings. Auspicious, as a prelude to the River Sounding visit, but a bit worrying as regards the Thames itself. A live river ought to have some sort of bouquet, surely? No fish “topped”; the only sign of wildlife was a dusting of black-backed gulls having a nice sit-down and a bit of a drift. Oh, well, it is the breeding season for coarse fish, so maybe – hopefully – they’re all up the side-streams and backwaters, restocking the natural way.

The front entrance of Somerset House is a bit of an experience in itself – so much happens there that it’s easy to pop in, see an exhibition or conference reception that’s totally not what you’re there for, and pop back out. However, everyone there is very helpful and well-briefed on what’s going on and where, so a quick ask is worth half an hour scouting for the right poster.

Found the venue for the talk, and “River Sounding “ is only a few feet away. Forlornly echoing bells summon you before you even reach the site proper, and then you wander the changing soundscapes, seduced, soothed, disturbed, puzzled and plain scared by turns, nosing into little alcoves and niches where river videos – some quite cryptic – are projected, and into the Dead House, with the memorial stones of “un hotage de la Reyne de la Grande Bretagne” and other poor victims of the complications of travel in reformation-torn Europe adding to the feeling that life is short, but rivers are forever. Pumping engines breathe and sigh; bridges groan under the burden of stitching the city together; water trickles, gurgles, glops and makes all sorts of sounds that the hydrophone can pick up but we cannot; and something gleefully terrifying reverberates up through your feet in the Dead House.

Navigating by the images is no use, they change. I must return with much more time; the sandwiches -and-thermos kind of more time, for Fontana “paints” moods, and they take a while to permeate.

Feeling very small and mortal, yet braced and uplifted, (no mean trick!) off to the talk: an exploration of Turner’s relationship with the Thames as a symbol of England, as a source of pictorial inspiration in its own right, and as a substitute for the exotic rivers of France, Germany and Italy that he longed to visit but couldn’t because of Napoleon’s antics – reflecting , on a smaller scale, the plight of the unfortunates in the Dead House.
Both Turner and the Thames changed during his career – notable events being the burning of Parliament and Turners continental travels after Napoleon’s downfall, which led to him painting the river through Italianate eyes on his return – and these and other changes – the development of new pigments, for instance – were explored in depth in a beautifully crafted talk.

A tidal Thames angler and a Turner fan, I was in my element.

I shall definitely be on the lookout for more from Nicola Moorby, and from Sound and Music (follow them on )and as for Somerset House, I fear I shall be enduring the tube a few more times this year than I‘d originally planned…a superb and energetic venue.

Big thanks to Caught by the River, I needed reconnecting with my city!

Alan Tyler.