diamond geezer

 Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The Line is a sculpture trail running between the Olympic Park and the Millennium Dome, notionally following the Greenwich Meridian. More accurately it's a public art walk, a transient outdoor exhibition programme with some permanent works and others that come and go. Five artworks have graced The Line since its inception in 2015, several have been added since, and five new ones have just appeared courtesy of an extraordinary local artist.

Madge Gill was born in Walthamstow in 1882, but illegitimately. At the age of eight her mother packed her off to Dr Barnardo's orphanage in Barkingside just to be rid of her, and at the age of 14 they resettled her in Canada as a domestic servant. Most such émigrés never returned but Madge saved up and in 1900 returned to the UK where she took a job as a nurse at Whipps Cross Hospital. She married and gave birth to three sons and a still-born daughter, becoming seriously unwell after the latter and unfortunately losing an eye. At this point she claimed to have been possessed by a 'spirit-guide' called Myrninerest who inspired her to create art of all kinds, especially drawings, often while in a trance state. The Whitechapel Gallery displayed some of Madge's work in the 1930s and 40s but she never sold any, claiming that Myrninerest forbade it, so most of it ended up in the attic. In her later years she became more cantankerous and less prolific, and she died at home in Plashet Grove in 1961. It's quite the life story.

If walking The Line in a southerly direction the first Madge Gill artworks are stashed under the railway line as you exit the Olympic Park. They're enlarged reproductions of postcard-sized black and white drawings, Madge's favoured medium, and mostly feature some kind of floral motif. They're not particularly well illuminated, the railway being wide hereabouts, indeed I think I'd walked past these images at least once without noticing they were there. The intervening blue lights are part of a separate post-Olympic artwork called Streamline, so ignore those. It's an interesting if unthrilling start to The Line's Madge Gill outburst, but does at least plug what used to be a 15 minute art-free gap.

The next addition is at the House Mill, Britain's largest surviving (if non-operational) tidal watermill. More specifically it's been placed in one of the windows of the modern extension round the back because you don't just slap up art on the outside of a Grade I listed building. This one's in a full colour watercolour and depicts a dapper woman in a black robe with a blue headscarf, a figure who appears frequently (in monochrome) in Madge's work. The image has to be viewed from the far side of the millstream so lacks full impact, but my view at this point also included a heron and a little egret so remember, the walk's not just about the art.

Easily the most impactful new intervention comes at Cody Dock where the cross-section of a organic drawing has been emblazoned across an 62m-long arched bridge. It features leaves, petals, abstract forms and what could be spiders' webs (and the full original is pinned up on some nearby railings if you want to see where it came from). You can't get close to the bridge, let alone cross it, because it was built to carry power cables across Bow Creek. But the newly vibrant arc makes a bold statement as you look downriver, perhaps set off by the multi-coloured towers of City Island visible underneath. As a bonus, this is the only art on The Line north of the Thames that actually aligns with the meridian.

Line supremo Megan Piper has knocked up a nice little mini-exhibition here at Cody Dock featuring a short biography, examples of Madge's art, newspaper cuttings and best of all some photos. One shows a long design on calico stretched out across what appears to be Madge's living room, while another has her wearing a startlingly colourful homemade dress made from thick embroidered wool, as if she really didn't give a damn. While you're here check out the longer-standing Line artwork, Joanna Rajkowska's The Hatchling, from which comes the plaintive sound of emerging blackbirds (unless you happen to turn up while an engineer's fixing the innards in which case it's silent). Plus of course Cody Dock has artworks of its own, and a cafe, and is well worth a visit all by itself.

Long-term readers will know that this is where the Lea footpath goes badly wrong, indeed it still doesn't exist, so The Line is forced to take a grim detour through an industrial estate. Previously there was no art to see, but the next Madge Gill installation has been cunningly positioned facing Star Lane DLR station which is the next jumping off point. This one's called Red Women, was originally drawn on a 9m long roll of paper and includes at least 50 impressively intricate faces amid a swirl of filled-in lines. I think it's my favourite, not least because the plot behind is currently a building site so Megan had to get planning permission for new railings as well as for new art.

The fifth and final Madge Gill installation isn't yet in place but should be appearing next month by the Royal Docks Dangleway terminal. Why The Line deviates to the Royal Docks has always been a bit of a mystery, given it's way off the meridian and you're supposed to catch the DLR to get there, indeed its current sculpture total amounts to one tiny birdman on a raft which might be readily skipped. Unless you're keen for a cablecar ride I'd recommend diverting straight to The Line's North Greenwich finale, a loop which inherently isn't a line either.

All that said, the walk down the Lea from the Olympic Park to Cody Dock has long been a favourite of mine for its bleak beauty, and Madge Gill's art only adds to the reasons you should maybe give it a try.

The Line from North to South: Orbit/Madge 1/woman on the phone/Madge 2/spiralling supermarket trolleys/hatching egg/Madge 3/Madge 4/tiny birdman/Madge 5/dangleway audio/millennial Gormley/something limblike/sliced ship/circumnavigational signpost/upturned pylon

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