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The Centre is in Progress!

by Lindsey Glen, Quentin Blake Centre team

We are converting a former waterworks in Clerkenwell called New River Head into a permanent home for our work. By 2024, it will be a welcoming space for seeing and creating illustration, but at the moment, it is a derelict (but beautiful!) place.

New River Head has 400 years of history as a busy industrial site, but it has been lying empty behind locked gates for more than 70 years. That changed this September, when we opened for Open House and London Design Festival, welcoming over 1,850 people. We invited them to explore the site’s fascinating history, and tell us what they want to see there in future.

People standing in front of a derelict building.
People standing inside of the base of a windmill.

Inside the site’s 18th- and 19th-century buildings were installations by our resident illustrators that offered new ways into New River Head’s stories. Sharpay Chenyuè Yuán’s Lost Springs, Coming Spring mixed observational drawings of past and present. Laura Copsey and Philip Crewe’s fictional museum, New River Folk, displayed beautifully-crafted artefacts said to belong to a mole-catcher, water-carrier and well-owner whose lives were intertwined with the New River in the early 17th-century. Their New River: Immersions installation included cameraless photography that captured the beauty of light through New River water.

Installing artwork in the derelict buildings was not without its challenges. Leaky roofs, crumbly wall sand a curious resident robin! But this became part of the displays: an abandoned rusty pipe became a table for an animation made with 16mm film. A fallen branch was used to suspend a wicker scold’s bridle.

People completing an arts activity at a table.
Photograph of a woven mask and tarot cards on a wooden platform.

Visitors explored the spaces and joined guided tours. Many had their own stories to share. We learned that in the 1980s the site’s Windmill Base was filled with smoke for Thames Water workers to train to deal with accidents in confined spaces. We heard rumours that New River Head had a secret military use in the 1940s. We were frequently reminded of the enormous public affection for our founder Quentin Blake.

“I was fascinated by the exhibition and fell in love with the space. Everything was so well staged including the creative feedback task: all the helpers gave a lovely warm welcome as well as providing helpful background information.”

“I live close by the New River, and often walk along its banks. It's a wonderful green corridor. The engineering skills used to construct the New River always hold me in awe of humanity's ancient knowledge. It is a story that should be more widely known.”

“Everything was new and unexpected.”

We are especially grateful to all those who told us what they would like to experience at the new Centre when it opens in 2024. Your creative contributions are back at our office: a reminder that a wide-ranging and surprising exhibitions programme, spaces to draw, a welcoming smile and a good cup of coffee are all important ingredients for a great day out.

A group of three individuals standing in front of a board of illustrations.
Close-up photograph of a series of illustrations made with stickers.

From 2024 we want to unlock the gates to New River Head every day, with galleries that show surprising illustration from all over the world and a studio for people of all ages to create illustration, along with accessible pathways, beautiful gardens, WiFi and great coffee. Planning permission was confirmed in February and Tim Ronalds Architects are finalising the designs.

We’re almost half-way to our campaign target of £12mn and every penny counts. Find out more about our plans and join in.

Centre in Progress was part of Open House Festival and London Design Festival. Residency installations were supported by generous support from the Barbara and Philip Denny Trust.

Find out more about Laura Copsey and Philip Crewe’s residency.

Find out more about Sharpay Chenyuè Yuán’s residency

See New River Head in the documentary Quentin Blake: The Drawing of My Life on BBC iPlayer.