Art in the Thames – Working life on Eel Pie Island

A guest post by Lee Campbell, an artist on Eel Pie Island

Most people who know of Eel Pie Island seem to associate it with the music scene of the 50’s and 60’s where jazz and R & B bands played in a great old hotel – long since destroyed.   For a little more background on the history I recommend the Twickenham Museum’s website for a list of the famous ones who used to be ferried across to the island before the footbridge made it accessible and Chris Faires excellent  ‘Eel Pie Dharma‘.

The Eel Pie Island Hotel by Dominic Mc Cormack.

I first arrived on the island looking for a studio in the year 2000 following the development of Grosvenor Dock behind the Lister Hospital in Pimlico where I had worked for Westminster Council as their Resident Artist painting views of the Thames and Battersea Power Station which loomed from the opposite bank. There was a community of houseboats moored in Grosvenor Dock and some had come to Eel Pie Island’s working boatyards for repairs – they told me there was a community of artists there and also that there had been a terrible fire several years earlier which had burned down a large number of the studios.

Fortunately there are still many studios tucked away in the boatyards and I was lucky enough to find one large enough to continue both my painting work and teaching drawing and painting.  My shed was originally built as a forge and is situated next to the old overgrown winch which would have been used to haul the boats up a slipway which is now enclosed as part of the development opposite.

The difference between working on the island and Pimlico embankment couldn’t be more acute – dodging the heavy traffic on Chelsea Bridge before negotiating the Embankment to reach the dock could be quite a challenge on my old trade bike loaded with materials. The bike still comes in handy now to bring materials over the bridge to Eel Pie but  the environment is traffic free and in the weekends the only sound to be heard is the birds and occasional festivities from the rugby crowds at the Barmy Arms pub opposite.

I cannot speak for all but would guess that the the main reason that most of the artists have remained there is the affordability of the studio spaces – a rare thing these days. The island has always had a history of bohemian activity and our local resident and raconteur Trevor Baylis is always ready with tales of debauchery of which he undoubtedly has first hand experience. Trevor is a living legend, famous for many things: swimming the Thames, inventing the wind up radio and  championing the rights of inventors are just some.

 Twice a year the artists open their studios to the public and this month the last 2 weekends will be part of Richmond Council’s ArtHouse program.

As well as the artists there are over 50 homes and houseboats on the island and many businesses including architects, designers, IT and of course the working boatyards.

The artist’s include sculptors, painters, potters and glass artists and most will be open to visitors from 11am – 6pm 23-24th June and 30th June 1st July.

For further details see the Eel Pie Island Artists website and to see a video of ITV’s House Gift visit to the island see Lee Campbell’s website.