Walking by the Thames is a pleasure and an escape for many Londoners, but one woman has her eyes firmly on the ground rather than the skyline. Artist Nicola White combs the shore for lost treasure, and makes art from many of the things that she finds. We speak to this modern-day magpie about the historical gems, plastic rubbish and numerous messages in bottles that she has found, and she reveals that if you looks closely enough, colour is everywhere.
What is the process? Are you allowed to dig or are you looking for things already exposed?
“I have a tide app on my phone and the first thing I do at the beginning of the week is to have a look to see which days might be best to go for a mudlark by the river. It is a little like going on a treasure hunt. The process for me is very much about just focusing and looking. There is an expression in the mudlarking world called “getting your eye in”. It is a meditative and mindful process for me.
Personally I prefer looking for items and objects which are on the surface. I do not use a metal detector. I prefer the organic way of finding items and believe that when something is ready to be found it will be sitting right there on the surface. There really is no need to dig.”
What is the attraction to you of the items you find?
“The Thames has been used as a rubbish bin since London began and with all of the different civilisations that have lived along its banks there is a wealth of history to be found and each object discovered has a story. The items found are a tangible link to the past and evidence of lives gone by. I wear a necklace made with three pieces of jewellery I found during various mudlarking excursions some years ago – a small silver 17th century cross, a Georgian heart and a Victorian heart charm. I love to imagine who owned them, and how they were lost. How did they come to be in the river? Were they lost or discarded? What were the lives like of the people who once owned them?”
What are some of your best finds?
“Where do I start?! I have found now well over 100 messages in bottles in the Thames. These are all fascinating and I have contacted many of the authors of these messages. At the beginning of this year I found a Queen Elizabeth I silver half crown from 1601. This was a thrilling find and all the more special as I found it near Greenwich, which of course, is where she was born and where her favourite palace was. Whoever lost it would have been very upset as it would have been worth rather a lot of money in its time.
One of my all time favourite finds is a small brass luggage tag with a name and address on it. Research revealed the fascinating life of a World War One soldier who fought in the trenches. I was even able to trace his grave. He had no children and so finding this tag was like opening a story book about a life which would have been forever forgotten.”
“In the 19th century, bottles containing poison were often a very bright blue or a striking green.
These colours helped people to identify a bottle containing poison
– especially those who could not read”
You make some of the things you find into art – how do you go about this process?
“I am extremely inspired by objects and items that have had a purpose in the past and which have, for whatever reason been discarded or lost. I use metal, driftwood, glass and pottery to name but a few. I love to give these forgotten items a new purpose in a piece of art. In particular, I use old pieces of broken glass which have often been in the river for well over 100 years and have been worn smooth by thousands of Thames tides. Each fish is made up of anything from 20 to 30 pieces of glass and every fragment of glass has its own history. Some are very clearly remnants from bottles which may have once been in a Victorian pharmacy. You can often even see part of the pharmacy name and address embossed on the glass. In the 19th century, bottles containing poison were often a very bright blue or a striking green. These colours helped people to identify instantly a bottle containing poison – especially those who could not read – and they certainly played a part in avoiding deaths by accidental poisoning. Other fragments are perhaps from old perfume bottles or pieces from vibrant Georgian glass ornaments or lampshades. Assembled together as a piece of art, these pieces of glass tell a story of London’s past. I like for people to look beyond the superficiality of the artwork itself and for their imagination to take them on a journey.”
The Thames Glass Fish for example are very colourful – is colour important to your work?
“Colour is very important to my work. I tend to use two or three colours in a glass fish, and put them together to complement each other. The glass I collect on the Thames foreshore comes in a plethora of hues and textures. There is an abundance of colour to be found in the mud. When I pick up a piece of glass I hold it up to the light to appreciate the colour fully. Some of my favourite pieces are a delicate watery violet or a fiery bitter orange. There are so many shades of blues and greens. They take on a jewel like quality when you see the array of colours in the mud glistening in the sun.”
“During a sunny day, the blue, silver and grey reflections along the river are stunning,
and as evening falls, the water and the foreshore picks up the red and orange of the sun”
What are the colours like in the natural world, in the different places you go searching?
“The colours in the natural world where I go searching are changing constantly which is what I find beautiful and inspiring. Each season casts a different palette of colours onto the Thames and the foreshore. During a sunny day, the blue, silver and grey reflections along the river are stunning, and as evening falls, the water and the foreshore picks up the red and orange of the sun. As well as the reflections and colours on the water changing with the light, there are the many shades of colours on the old piers and metal structures, rusty oranges, reds and browns, and the variation of greens and browns of moss and seaweed on the wood. The mud has so many different shades to it, from black to light browns and the myriad pieces of metal scattered on the foreshore are similar to the rust colours of fallen autumn leaves. The changing colour of the sky can make the Thames at times seem as turquoise as a tropical sea, and then a few hours later like a dark and forboding body of water!”
We also loved the Lighter Fish – what attracted you to such a disposable item as the lighter?
“Along some of the more remote coastlines of the Thames Estuary I am struck by the huge amount of multi coloured plastic littered along its banks. Although the rainbow of colours is somewhat beautiful, the Lighter Fish also has a more important message; Fish and birds are also tempted by these vibrant colours and can mistake them for tasty morsels. The Lighter Fish therefore is an attempt to highlight the entirely avoidable extent of plastic pollution in our society and the devastating impact it can have on our wildlife and environment.”
To mudlark or search the Thames foreshore, you need to have a permit from the Port of London Authority. This permit enables you to scrape down to a depth of 7 centimetres. You are also encouraged to report significant finds to the Museum of London. Details are to be found on the PLA website and the price is approximately £72 for a 3 year period.
Find out more about Nicola’s fascinating finds, and where you can buy her work, at TidelineArt.