Although once charged with the incredibly unglamorous task of eliminating sewage from London, the Crossness Pumping Station boasts a stunningly ornate interior. For decades it lay abandoned, targeted by vandals, rust, and pigeons freely relieving themselves, but following a lengthy restoration completed last month, visitors can now see the structure as it was when it first opened in 1865. Besides fresh paint jobs that make its masterly ironwork and carvings shine again, the station has also received a new cafe and now hosts exhibitions as well as tours.
A massive feat of Victorian engineering, Crossness Pumping Station emerged as part of a total reconfiguration of London’s entire sewage system, designed by Metropolitan Commission of Sewers’s Chief Engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette to solve the city’s grave water contamination problems. The Thames was so polluted then that in the particularly hot summer of 1858, a ghastly stench radiated from its waters. The historic event became known, simply, as the Great Stink, and it jolted members of Parliament to find a longterm solution. The following year, Bazalgette began work with architect Charles Henry Driver on Crossness, which opened in 1865; Abbey Mills Pumping Station, also embellished, followed, with completion in 1868.
“Bazalgette’s solution in the 1860s was to intercept the tributaries of the Thames by building massive sewers along the Victoria and Albert Embankments,” Mike Jones, trustee of the Crossness Engines Trust, told Hyperallergic. “And to take the sewage out to Abbey Mills on the North and Crossness on the South, and dumping straight into the river there, rather than have sewage flowing backwards and forwards to Westminster, which it was tending to do at the time.”
Closed in the 1950s, the old Crossness Pumping Station sits on the site of the operational Crossness Sewage Treatment Works. It became a Grade I-listed building in 1970, and the Crossness Engines Trust began restoration in 1987. Lack of funding and other obstacles stalled the entirely volunteer-managed project, but it received a boost thanks to a £2.7m (~$3.5m) grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which helped to fully realize landscaping projects and exhibition programming. Public access has been available sporadically for a number of years, but this July marks the first time you may appreciate Crossness and its gardens in its full, restored glory. Visitors, though, still have to check online when the station is open, as the dates shift depending on volunteers’ schedules. Jones said it may be a few years before the site has the proper resources to operate with a set calendar.
Crossness still shelters its original four huge, rotative beam-engines, considered the largest of their type in the world. All around are intricate wrought-iron screens, restored to green, red, and gold hues that restorers have carefully matched to reflect the original color scheme. The building’s windows also feature arches made of high-quality, hand-rubbed red bricks that taper slightly to create the curved forms. Perhaps the most impressive details, however, are the carvings on columns near the windows: no two are the same, according to Jones. And adding a whimsical touch to the vivid environment are columns embellished with painted figs — a natural laxative.
Back in the day, when the pumping station received sewage, it would either pump the waste directly into the Thames or, if the tide was sweeping in, divert the waste into a holding reservoir until the tide turned. This solution to the city’s stench was such a huge deal that crowds of dignitaries visited Crossness to celebrate its opening with much fanfare on April 4,1865. Inauguration day drew about 300 members of Parliament, 17 lords, the archbishops of York and Canterbury, and the Prince of Wales, who had the honor of turning on the system. Everyone later enjoyed a meal on-site as the Band of the Royal Marines performed; curiously, there was actually more cause for celebration than attendees realized.
“At the time they didn’t know, but the impact of Bazalgette’s system was that it eradicated cholera from London,” Jones told Hyperallergic.
Like many in those days, Bazalgette was a miasmatist, believing cholera was transmitted through contact with contaminated and foul-smelling air. (The English physician John Snow had recently conducted research suggesting cholera’s transmission by water, but government officials turned down his theory.)
“So in a way, Bazalgette built the sewer system for the wrong reason,” Jones said. “He was trying to get the smell out of London, but in building the sewer system he actually removed the dirty water, which was the cause of cholera.”
London experienced its final cholera epidemic in 1866, a year after Crossness opened, and the outbreak occurred in an area that had not yet received access to Bazalgette’s new sewage system. Today, the station’s engines no longer have the duty of pumping heaps of waste, with the building serving instead as home to tours and temporary exhibitions. Some will relate to the history of Crossness, but the space may also welcome community events including art shows, Jones said. It also suits performances well — having similar acoustics to a church, the building is known as “the Cathedral on the Marsh.” Together with Abbey Mills, Crossness is a beautiful, physical reminder of the hidden, underground network of pipes comprising the giant civil engineering project that forever changed Londoners’ lifestyles.
MTV’s The Exhibit Is Back With an Inflatable Dolphin
Episode four, in which artists tackled themes of justice and injustice, was the most lifeless of the reality TV show so far.
Florida Principal Ousted Over “Pornographic” Michelangelo Sculpture
Parents complained that the famous sculpture was shown to their sixth graders.
The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation Presents The Feminine in Abstract Painting
Curated by Jennifer Samet and Andrea Belag, this group exhibition in NYC explores the feminine through aesthetics, as opposed to identity or gender.
Tickets to Sold-Out Vermeer Show Are Going for Hundreds
The online resale market for the Rijksmuseum’s smash exhibition is booming, with tickets selling on eBay for over $2K.
NYU Steinhardt Opens 2023 MFA Thesis Exhibitions
Taking place at 80WSE Gallery in New York’s Greenwich Village, Part I is on view from late March through April while Part II opens in May.
Miniature Worlds: Joseph Cornell, Ray Johnson, Yayoi Kusama
Through small-scale works, this exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York examines Cornell’s prominent role in the lives and careers of Johnson and Kusama.
Three Looted Antiquities at the Met Repatriated to Turkey
Nine other repatriated works were seized from Met Trustee Shelby White, whose collection was subject to a criminal investigation.
This week, the world’s lightest paint, Pakistan’s feminist movement, World Puppy Day, and were some of Vermeer’s paintings created by his daughter?
The Wider World and Scrimshaw
On March 28, join the New Bedford Whaling Museum online and in-person for a symposium on global carving traditions from across the Pacific Rim.
Who Will Decide on the Future of a Miami Native Burial Ground?
Native activists say sacred remains and objects dug up from a Brickell construction site should remain there, but mega-developer Jorge Pérez is pushing back.
How Can a Curator Approach South Asian Futurisms?
How do I acknowledge my shortcomings while reckoning with obscured histories and the exclusion of subaltern narratives in the fine art landscape? A working checklist for curators.
MCA Chicago Presents On Stage: Frictions
Will Rawls, Shamel Pitts | TRIBE, and Barak adé Soleil explore Blackness, queerness, movement, and dance in performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
The Complicated Legacy of Camilo Egas
The Ecuadorian painter, a leading figure of Latin America’s Indigenismo art movement, has been both praised and scorned for his representation of Indigenous peoples.
Tom Jones Zeroes in on Ho-Chunk Visibility
“I think about the young kids, the teenagers, and I think being able to see yourself represented in art is so powerful,” says the artist.
What a wonderful restoration! Every time I think of the Victorian era, like so many, I can’t help but think of it in black and white or sepia tones due to the photographs from the era. When I actually see living examples that have been restored to their colorful palettes like this, it is always a pleasant jolt. I guess it could be argued that the disconnect between the colorful reality and the drab fantasy isn’t so different from the polychrome truth of ancient sculpture from Egypt, Greece or Italy.
Comments are closed.