Kate Downie – Zero to Fifty: The Road Bridge Diaries

Publication: The Times.     
September 2014

Artist Kate Downie is no stranger to depicting large structures. In the past, she has worked on a visual record of the Forth Rail Bridge; in 2011 a project in China involved her in making images of the Yangtze River Bridge. Here, she turns her attention to the Forth Road Bridge in a series of drawings, prints, paintings – and a sound installation – celebrating the famous crossing’s first half-century.

Downie has worked from a small temporary studio situated under the bridge’s north tower. But her adventurous nature and enquiring spirit have meant that she has looked at the structure from all angles and viewpoints, including its highest point, and from below, by boat. Like most of us, Downie has traversed the bridge by car but she has also cycled and walked across it, as well as spending time below, looking and listening.

Some of the statistics surrounding the road bridge are mind-boggling. The span is more 2.5 km and, at its highest point, is 150 metres above the river. At the time of its construction it was the largest structure of its kind outside the United States.  The main supporting cables contain almost 50,000 kilometres  of high tensile wire, while the total weight of steel in the bridge is around 40,000 tonnes. In 2013, the bridge carried around 23 million vehicles.

Such statistics obscure many of the human elements around the bridge’s construction and use. Downie, in characteristic fashion has managed to capture both the technological and personal sides of this justifiably celebrated structure.  

Painting the Clarsach shows workers, suspended like flies, as they labour on the complex task of coating the vertical cables. A series of eight photographically-derived monoprints, entitled The Winter Commute, creates varying mood and atmosphere. As the sun sets,  traffic, dwarfed by the enormous edifice, is silhouetted against a series of changing skies.

Downie has used more traditional methods to create a commemorative limited edition etching. The Art of Crossing shows the enormous span of the road bridge, with the rail bridge in the background.  The view is that seen from the south shore of the river, to the west  of the existing bridges. It is from this point that the new, third crossing, already well underway, will span the Forth.

Manoeuvres with Concrete, a big, bold, exciting work in charcoal and pastel, captures the intense activity around the construction of one of the new towers. This is echoed by the smaller ink study, A View into the Future, which reveals the new road bridge as it grows daily, framed by the structure of the old.

Downie’s work owes a debt of gratitude to others, such as the Scottish artist Muirhead Bone, as well as Monet, Turner, Whistler and Edward Burra.  But her approach might be summed best up by the words of the American writer, Hart Crane, in his evocative poem To Brooklyn Bridge, published in 1933: “Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift/Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,/Beading thy path—condense eternity:/And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.”

Little Road Big Road
The Apprentice