The Moment - Feb 22, 2020

Artist Leo Villareal Lights Up London With 'Illuminated River' Across Thames Bridges

  • July 18, 2019 12:58

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London Bridge, as lit for Leo Villareal’s Illuminated River artwork.

Heads of traitors on spikes, bustling industry, quiet moonlit scenes by artists from Grimshaw to Whistler, the River Thames and its bridges have figured large in the lore of London. Now the public will see the historic waterway in a whole new light.

Artist Leo Villareal – in collaboration with architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands – has melded technology with artistry to bring a fresh vision to London's famed bridges, starting this summer. The iconic River Thames is center-stage in Villareal's public artwork which will eventually span across up to 15 central London bridges.

Southwark Bridge, as lit for Leo Villareal’s Illuminated River artwork.

Illuminated River showcases each bridge in differing but unifying light, to bring awareness to their role in history over the centuries. Four bridges – London, Cannon Street, Southwark and Millennium – are now the first to be lit for an anticipated run of at least ten years. 

The Illuminated River Foundation plans to continue the project upstream, including Tower Bridge, due for completion by 2022. The philanthropically-funded project incorporates a maintenance program, funded for the lifetime of the artwork. 

Two years ago, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced that the commission went to the team of Villareal and London architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands for winning the international design competition to reframe the Thames at night and celebrate London's historic links with its river. The collaboration took years of planning before installing the latest generation of LED technology onto the bridges to allow Villareal to ‘paint with light,’ culminating in a beautifully sequenced pattern for public enjoyment at night.

The Thames by Moonlight with Southwark Bridge,1884. John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836–1893)
Image: Guildhall Art Gallery

"With Illuminated River, the largest artwork I’ve ever conceived, I’m hoping to follow in the footsteps of Monet, Turner and Whistler and reveal the truly unique, inspiring and poetic character of the Thames," said Villareal. "Studying the river and the history of London for the last three years, was a fantastic experience that changed me and allowed me to grow as an artist. The integrated nuances and motions across the bridges create a unified piece that celebrates and enhances the river as a continuous living entity. I’m both delighted and humbled by the completion of this initial phase and I can’t wait for the public to experience the first four bridges.” 

Also on view, London's Guildhall Art Gallery presents the exhibition 'Illuminated River,' with Thames-inspired historical works by Whistler, Grimshaw and other great artists, running alongside 'Architecture of London', the gallery's summer show.


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