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Life Afloat: an exhibition exploring houseboat living on the tidal Thames

Exhibition preview

Thames Festival Trust has announced Life Afloat at Watermans in Brentford (September 1 to September 30, 2016), a brand new exhibition tracking the evolution of houseboat life on one of the world’s most vibrant rivers.

This will be a highlight of the 150 unmissable Totally Thames events this September.

Just over 15,000 people live afloat in the UK today, with over 1,000 people living in floating residences on the tidal Thames. The first of these mooring communities dates back to the 1930s, with numbers increasingly on the rise since the 1980s.

However for many, life afloat lacks security and is a very fragile existence. A whole community at Watermans Park – adjacent to where the exhibition itself is taking place – are currently battling with Hounslow Council for their rights to stay on the mooring.

The story of houseboat living is largely unknown and one with no written account. Based on photography, archive research and oral history interviews, this exhibition draws together the past and the present so for the first time ever the public will have access to a hundred years of this untold history.

The exhibition delves into the stories of Thames residents and uncovers how tidal life for these communities has changed throughout the decades.

Famous river dwellers have included actor Imogen Stubbs, who likens living on a boat to ‘living in a whale or a womb’, compared to artist Denis Postle’s comparison ‘like living inside a cello or a double bass’. Denis remarks that ‘the overarching thing about living here is realising that this is a wilderness.’

River resident Valerie Coltman reflects that ‘people thought of us as water gypsies’, and Diana Everett asserts ‘I’m in the middle of a huge city and yet it feels as though I’ve got all the space in the world.’

Life Afloat includes photography by Katherine Fawssett and film by digital:works. The project has been made possible thanks to a grant of £76,900 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and parts of the exhibition will become part of the Geffrye Museum’s Documenting Homes archive.

A series of free walks will run alongside the exhibition. Experts Greer Dewdney and Dr Fiona Haughey will lead a two-mile Chiswick and Hammersmith Life Afloat walk while the one-and-a-half mile Brentford Life Afloat walk will explore the town’s long history of boatbuilding and trading.

Life Afloat Walks

Brentford Walk – Sunday, September 4, 2.30pm, with Dr Fiona Haughey and Sunday, September 18, 11am, with Greer Dewdney.

Chiswick & Hammersmith Walk – Saturday, September 3, 2.30pm, with Greer Dewdney and Saturday, September 17, 2.30pm, with Dr Fiona Haughey.

Image: Clive Wren © Katherine Fawssett.

Exhibition Times: Daily from 10am – 11pm.

Watermans, 40 High Street, Brentford, Middlesex, TW8 0DS

Totally Thames takes place over the whole month of September. It brings the river to life with an exciting season of arts, cultural and river events throughout its 42-mile London stretch. In 2015, 2.6 million people attended over 150 Totally Thames events. Highlight events included The Rising Tide by renowned sculptor of underwater art Jason deCaires Taylor at Vauxhall, Bascule Chamber Concert by Iain Chambers at Tower Bridge – the first ever public event to take place in the space – and a unique contemporary opera by Unlimited Productions, Urban Tales #2 The Lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf.

For more information about Totally Thames visit totallythames.org/.