Monday, 16 January 2012

From the Rivers to the Sea

If you travel to Newcastle by train, one of the first things you see as you step onto the platform is a caustic yellow sign marked with an 'M' which points the way to the city's Metro system.

The Metro was introduced to Newcastle in 1980. Although planners had the foresight to commission Margaret Calvert to design a typeface for the transport system, none of the Metro architecture demonstrates the decade's flamboyance and extroversion. Most stops are cursed with a determined, squat functionality, and an ominous Cretan gloom pervades the tunnels that run beneath the city centre. In recent years Tyne and Wear Metro have made dramatic improvements to the stations by introducing a number of public art works.

Hilary Paynter was commissioned to produce a work for the Central Station stop in 2004. Paynter is one of Britain's leading wood engravers, and the choice of artist was no doubt inspired by the memory of Thomas Bewick, one of Newcastle's more famous cultural exports, whose 250th anniversary fell in 2003.

Paynter describes the station as 'a fabulous commission to work on'. She was given a flying lesson so that she could get an overhead view of the landscapes and cityscapes through which the river and the Metro pass. The resulting panoramic wood engraving From the Rivers to the Sea does not miss a single historical or geographical detail from the region. 

Paynter's work pursues ‘the idea of the Metro as a journey in and out of the past and the richness of historical context’. The progressive panels show ‘changes in the landscape, including those wrought by man and, in their turn, those changes wrought within man’. The work moves from depicting from tiny natural details, reminiscent of Bewick's subject-matter, such as a snail making its way through wild grasses, to monumental buildings and wide Northumbrian views. One panel honours the architecture left behind by 20th-century mining and shipping industries, another the grand sweep of Newcastle's neoclassical streets laid out by John Dobson in the 19th century. Others reach even further back to the city's past.

In the panels shown below, a bird's eye view of the mouth of the River Tyne flowing into the North Sea has a gleeful catfish superimposed on it. Intrigued by this image, I emailed Paynter to ask about the different elements. She replied that her 'ideas entwined and led to related themes' throughout the commission, explaining that this panel refers to the Roman remains at Wallsend (or 'Segedunum' to the Romans). 'The view of the Tyne is from a satellite image. It resembled a catfish, inspiring the next bit of the design. There was an aquarium there, which was another reference. Then, in the reconstruction of the Roman baths at the site, there were murals of fish. ... I love engraving old stone. The statue of Fortuna in the niche was discovered on site.'

Paynter's wood engravings were printed and then the images applied to vitreous white enamel panels. Whether the objects depicted in From the Rivers to the Sea are modest or monumental, what most impresses me is the success with which the intimate medium of wood engraving - usually pinioned within the pages of a book - has been translated onto such a grand scale to form a public art work with a direct and dramatic narrative.


I hope some of the following images, snapped in the seconds before my Airport-bound Metro pulled in, will give a sense of the scale and success of the work. 

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