The Art Traveller In Blackwall

Into the Deep East, art creeps

china plate, by Anna Chiarini

This post takes us into London’s deep, old East, the mighty Docklands and Blackwall.

Where is Blackwall?

“Blackwall” takes its name from a medieval wall built along an outside curve of the Thames, to protect the marshy area from flooding. Why was it black? Was it painted or was it already so old it was blackened?

Part of London’s historic port, Blackwall soon became a significant sea hub and site of shipbuilding and ship repairs. In 1576, the explorer Martin Frobisher left Europe from Blackwall and landed on Baffin Island, claiming it – in the name of Queen Elizabeth I – as England’s first overseas possession. This was the first step in the establishment of what was to become Canada.

From the 1620s, Blackwall was a residential area for sailors and people in the maritime industries. Poet and politician Sir Walter Raleigh owned a house here, and apparently, there were several fancy houses and Inns in the area, although none of that remains now. It was a fashionable place to eat seafood as well as an embarkation point for the New World and further.

Blackwall Yard from the Thames, by Francis Holman, 1784, in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Poplar and Blackwall dock (far right), 1703

The East India Docks were built at the beginning of the nineteenth century, bringing a lot of activity to the area and many more people. However, by the late 19th century, Blackwall was in severe decline. Charles Booth’s survey of poverty calls Blackwall ‘a wretched place inhabited by impoverished people. At this point, much of what remained of old Blackwall was cleared away to make room for the Blackwall tunnel, which opened in 1892.

Union-Castle liners in East India Docks in 1902

As the London Docklands bore the brunt of WW2 bombing, the area suffered more than most, and many people had to rehoused out of the area. But the docks were rebuilt only to fall victim to containerization, which made redundant the historic port of London, which was too small to accept container ships.

When the London docks closed, starting in 1967 and accelerating over the following decade, Blackwall’s decline was complete. The inhabitants lost their jobs in the shipping industry, and the place became a byword for poverty and decay.

the remaining block, all that’s left of the social housing estate Robin hood gardens


Starting in the 1980s, promoted by the Thatcher government, a process of regeneration has been taking place, which has seen the area transformed into residential territory adjacent to the business district of Canary Wharf

anoodyne public art that has neither feel nor appeal 😦

However,  as is often the case in Docklands, the developers of Blackwall have made no attempt to establish any connection with the neighbouring community or with the locality’s significant heritage.

this is the vision for ‘regenerating’ Blackwall

The physical separation of people typified by these supposedly luxurious dwellings served only by mini supermarkets and chain coffee shops, seems like a recipe for mental ill-health. But more clearly, it reminds me of a scene in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s superb film The Holy Mountain. In that scene, the Architect displays his latest design: housing for workers. As he unveils the maquette, what we see is hundreds of coffins linked together in a high rise format as he explains how at the end of each day, the worker returns to his coffin and gets in, covering himself and then pulls down the lid for a night of slumber, to awake refreshed ready to go back to the factory.

The worker will come here only to sleep. He won’t need electricity or water. He won’t have to cook. We’ll condition him to eat at the factory.” The Holy Mountain, dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky. Screen Grab

Enter the Artists

Unlike many other parts of east London, Blackwall and the Docklands have never played a significant role in the artistic regeneration process. While Hackney Central, Hoxton, Bethnal Green and Hackney Wick have all had their day as hubs of cultural activity and are still home to many artists and creatives, the deep East of Poplar and Blackwall have never seen that kind of high profile artistic activity in any significant way. It is not that there aren’t artists here, and there isn’t artistic work done (Cable Street Studios is not far away), it’s just that art hasn’t been part of the regeneration trend. Instead, the regeneration here has been entirely development-driven, typified by huge residential housing blocks with very few amenities and no communication or acknowledgement of the area’s fabric or original residents.

the Steamship PS, artists collective housed in a former inn, Blackwall

Therefore, it’s quite unusual to see an artistic collective like The Steamship coming to Blackwall and creating a dynamic, public-facing artistic enterprise that seeks to explore and examine the area’s lived geography.

The Timeless Thames

The exhibition Timeless Thames offers opportunities to explore the riverside side area of Blackwall and reflect upon the many missed opportunities to develop the area in a more organic and socially responsible way.

The activities of The Steamship and their assorted friends and collaborators bring new life to this area even if it’s temporary; whatever we do here will perhaps leave a mark. But even more so, like all the sailors and travellers who passed through Blackwall heading out to the four corners of the earth, we will also take something of it with us when we go away. 

Artists: Neel Bakhle | Amy-Leigh Bird |Cassandra Hendriks|Philip Elbourne|Emma Barnie |
Vesna Parchet |Adam Vass |Anna Chiarini |Julia White |Dominic Cabot | Olivia Guigue |
James Robert Brimstead |Gabriela Zigovà |Thomas Cardew |
film by Gillian McIver with Steve Hart

Performances by: Klaus Bru, Femi Oriogun-Williams, Jelena Curcic, Hannah Whyte; talk by Gillian McIver

for more on the Timeless Thames and the activities of The Steamship Project Space, see the website and facebook and Instagram. Steamship TV on Youtube.