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Powerful Tides – 400 years of Chatham and the Sea

23 Mar 2018 - 17 Jun 2018

Powerful Tides: 400 Years of Chatham and the Sea

Curated by Jean Wainwright

23rd March - 17th June 2018

Powerful Tides: 400 Years of Chatham and the Sea is not only a celebration of the artists inspired by The Dockyard and the ships that were built there, but also links The Dockyard back to the waterways and the sea to which it was once intrinsically connected.

The exhibition reflects how Chatham impacted on key artists between the 18th and 20th centuries – names such as John Constable, J.M.W Turner, William Wyllie, Norman Wilkinson and Eric Ravilious – inspired by the engineering wonders created at the Royal Dockyard at Chatham.

The historical works show a transition of styles from the romanticism of shipbuilding, including the actions fought by Chatham built ships in the 18th Century, to the colder industrial perspective of the mid-twentieth Century; where submarines and cranes replaced wooden warships with their towering masts.

The contemporary works included in the exhibition provide a link to the present – how the River Medway, Thames Estuary and the North Sea – all important route ways to the dockyard in its past, still inspire artists today. Nadav Kander’s reflections on the River Medway and the Thames Estuary, Christiane Baumgartner’s photogravures of the Medway’s banks and river; Catherine Yass’ lightbox of the Thames at low tide and Nikolaj Larsen’s extended film portrait of the Thames reflect visually on the river, its banks, bridges and its constantly changing surface. Some artists such as Langlands & Bell’s new work explore the play on words of names of Chatham built ships and the world’s waterways, others such Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA) with his Nelson’s Ship in Bottle refer both to British colonialism and its expansion in trade and Empire, made possible through the freedom of the seas and new trade routes, which contrasts with J.M.W Turners The ‘Victory’ Coming up the Channel with the Body of Nelson’.

Richard Wilson’s Ships Opera with its references to sail, steam and diesel and Layla Curtis’ maps of the journey of messages in bottles refers to time and tide, while Tracey Emin’s neon enigmatically glows in the space. Maps and historic models of lightships contrast with Chris Orr’s contemporary engraving and Steffi Klenz’ installation of images of the glowing refracted glass from lighthouse lamps. Anselm Kiefer’s photographs of the sea over laid with drawings of mathematical formulae extends our view of the flow of the river and the sea to the realms of measurement.

The Historic Dockyard Chatham is a commanding site of history. The exhibition, Powerful Tides: 400 Years of Chatham and the Sea both celebrates The Dockyard, the site’s history and also makes us think of the tidal waterways and seas that the ships and submarines moved over and under.


This year marks the 400th anniversary of The Dockyard on its current location.  The earlier Tudor Dockyard, located further down the River Medway towards Chatham, had become too small for the ships being built and the demands being put on it in terms of output.  The relocation and expansion of the Dockyard at Chatham, under the reign of James I in 1618, laid the foundation for the Dockyard to play a vital role in Britain’s military and technological history over the next 400 years.

Over the centuries the Dockyard, the ships it built and the people who have built them have also been a source of creative inspiration.  JMW Turner’s depiction of the Victory (launched at Chatham in 1765) at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 or his end of an era defining imagery of the Temeraire (launched at Chatham in 1798) being towed to the breakers yard in his painting of 1838, epitomise the power that the ships that Chatham built had.  The words of Charles Dickens (whose father John worked at the Dockyard as Paymaster) in the Uncommercial Traveller captured the revolution in building ships in iron and the impact of those who worked on them.  While the advent of submarines in the 20th century captured the imagination of a number of artists and some of the most striking works were created by Eric Ravilious in the early part of the Second World War.

This exhibition, seeks to draw on and explore key themes of place, process and product – and how this captured the imagination of artists, poets, authors and illustrators over 400 years.


Diaries & Manuscripts

From the Stuart Dockyard to the present day, delve in to a romantiscm of art from the age of sail to the industrialisation and the importance of the river and trade. Diaries and manuscripts will provide first-hand accounts of travellers through The Dockyard providing more evidence of just how important and what an impact The Dockyard has made over her 400 years.

Works by...


Loans from...

Yinka Shonibare MBE’s (RA) Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, a scaled down version of HMS Victory (a Chatham made ship), which currently stands outside The National Maritime Museum and is noted as one of the most photographed artworks in London will also be joining the exhibition.


Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA) – Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle_Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and James Cohan Gallery, New York_Photograph – Stephen White Low Res

JWM Turner – Victory at Trafalgar Sketch – Copyright Tate Low Res

Nadav Kander, from the series Dark Line – The Thames Estuary, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York.


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