Nicola White is a London-based artist best known for the stunning artworks she creates using river glass, driftwood, plastic, and lost/discarded objects found along the Thames foreshore.
When did you first start making art – was there anything in particular that inspired you?
I first started making art when I was a young girl in Cornwall. I used to frequently go for walks on the beach and pick up shells, sea glass, old rope and driftwood – and enjoy making collages out of them. There was something inspiring about collecting materials that have been tossed out by the tide, objects with a story behind them.
You make some of the things you find into art – how do you go about this process?
I am extremely inspired by objects and items that have had a purpose in the past and which have, for whatever reason been discarded or lost. Most of the items which I use in my art and which I collect on the foreshore, have spent a considerable amount of time in the river subjected to the strong currents and tides of the Thames. I use metal, driftwood, glass and pottery to name but a few. They end up washed up on the banks of the river, with no further apparent use to society. I love to give these forgotten items a new purpose in a piece of art. In particular, I use old pieces of broken glass which have often been in the river for well over 100 years and have been worn smooth by thousands of Thames tides. I make Thames glass fish with them.
Each fish is made up of anything from 20 to 30 pieces of glass and every fragment of glass has its own history. Some are very clearly remnants from bottles which may have once been in a Victorian pharmacy. You can often even see part of the pharmacy name and address embossed on the glass. In the 19th century, bottles containing poison were often a very bright blue or a striking green. These colours helped people to identify instantly a bottle containing poison – especially those who could not read – and they certainly played a part in avoiding deaths by accidental poisoning. Other fragments are perhaps from old perfume bottles or pieces from vibrant Georgian glass ornaments or lampshades. Assembled together as a piece of art, these pieces of glass tell a story of London’s past and the River Thames. I like for people to look beyond the superficiality of the artwork itself and for their imagination to take them on a journey.
The Thames Glass Fish for example are very colourful – is colour important to your work?
Colour is very important to my work. I tend to use 2 or 3 colours in a glass fish, and put them together to complement each other. As you can see from the attached pictures, the glass I collect on the Thames foreshore comes in a plethora of hues and textures. There is an abundance of colour to be found in the mud. When I pick up a piece of glass I hold it up to the light to appreciate the colour fully. Some of my favourite pieces are a delicate watery violet or a fiery bitter orange. There are so many shades of blues and greens. They take on a jewel like quality when you see the array of colours in the mud glistening in the sun. If you hold up a Thames fish to the light to appreciate the translucent colours of the river worn glass, it is hard to imagine that these fish, almost tropical looking, all come from glass salvaged from the dark depths of the Thames. I like that contrast. Occasionally I will make a fish using just clear glass, but I add a small piece of bright red or sapphire blue – just to draw attention to it.
What would you say are the main driving forces behind your work?
The driving force behind my work is the need to create, and to express myself creatively. It really is a huge passion for me. I feel a real joy when I’ve finished making a Thames glass fish or a collage using metal and pottery from the River. It’s a great sense of achievement. The need for inner peace and calm is also a driving force. Whenever I’m creating something out of the objects which I pick up along the banks of the River Thames, I’m at complete peace and it is a meditative process.
You’ve found everything from clay pipes to human bones over the years. What’s been your most intriguing find to date?
I’ve found such a variety of fascinating objects in the Thames mud, so it’s hard to choose the most intriguing! I have a few favourites. One is a small brass luggage tag with a name and address engraved on it. Research showed that it belonged to a World War I soldier called Frederic Jury. I found out about his life, how he fought in the trenches, how he married his landlady, and lived in a house not far from where I found the tag. My research finally lead me to his grave in an overgrown part of a cemetery just outside of Greenwich. He married his landlady and had no children. Finding this tag was like opening up a story of a life long forgotten. Another of my favourites is an Elizabeth I half-crown from 1601. I’ve found human remains from the 17th century, and an unexploded hand grenade from World War II. Each mudlarking outing is like going on a treasure hunt. You simply don’t know what you are going to find.
I particularly enjoy finding personal items that would have meant a lot to the owner. I wear a pendant made with three pieces of jewellery I found at different times along the river – a Georgian heart, a Victorian heart charm, and a small silver 17th century crucifix. As well as all these older finds, I have discovered over 100 messages in bottles sent out by Londoners and foreigners over the years. Each message in a bottle has its own story (you can see a selection of Nicola’s mudlarking finds and messages in bottles on her website.)
During my mudlarking excursions I often come across religious offerings washed up on the foreshore, and this has motivated me to find out more about them and why they were thrown in the River. The Thames is considered a holy river by many communities with a variety of faiths and religions. I find a lot of replicas of Gods and Goddesses that have been committed to the Thames. Some are to celebrate festivals, others are offerings of thanks, or prayers for help. The most common finds are Ganesh, Shiva and Boddhai. Even dating back to medieval times, Pilgrims threw badges into the Thames to commemorate places that they had visited. Water has long been associated with spirituality and so it is no surprise that so many prayers and offerings are thrown in the River. I have a great respect for them and usually photograph them, then leave them where they are.
Nicola White is a self-taught artist and River Thames mudlark. Her work is inspired by found objects old and new which she picks up along the Thames foreshore in London. Her aim is for people to look beyond the superficial nature of her work and to embark upon a journey which explores the history and beauty of the individual fragments from which a piece is made.