A fitting tribute to the history of 250 City Road

March 8, 2023

250 City Road – curiosity unlocks the placemaking solution

An area steeped in history

The site of 250 City Road was once part of the Regent’s Canal which, at its peak, formed one of London’s most significant commercial centres.

The Basin Head previously extended beneath City Road, forming a bridge, and terminated within the site. The basin was filled and covered in the 1950s, so the current ground level for 250 City Road site is almost 3.5 metres below the height of City Road itself.

Regent’s Canal played a key role as industrial Britain reached its economic peak. In its heyday, it attracted many skilled and unskilled labourers and was teeming with activity. The barges provided an essential lifeline to and from the city; many families lived and worked there, whilst children played and often swam in the canal.

An enduring tribute to canal life

A visit to the nearby London Canal Museum by Hunter Executive Chairman, Jake Hughes, provided the inspiration for an integral part of the placemaking at 250 City Road.

Housed in a former ice warehouse, the museum provides insights into the lives of the workers, the cargoes, horses and how canals work.

He brought back to Hunter a plethora of photos and stories that formed the brief for renowned British figurative sculptor, Ian Rank-Broadley, to interpret.

The brief was to create three stunning, highly visible sculptures, depicting familiar scenes from the waterway and celebrating the workers who made such a lasting contribution to London’s enduring prosperity. The sculptures also function as a guide to visitors through the regenerated neighbourhood.

Rank-Broadley said of the 250 City Road project, “It is my intention as the sculptor to portray the working lives of these people with dignity and create a lasting tribute that acknowledges the contribution they made. Bronze will last a thousand years or more, and so will the memory of the canals.”

A meticulous approach in a time-honoured tradition

For each of the life-sized statues, Rank-Broadley followed a traditional technique for sculpture making, which goes back thousands of years to early Greek sculpture. It’s a highly skilled art form in its own right, which allowed him to capture the real essence of the human figure and create stunning works of public art that show people as they really were.

The whole process began with a ‘maquette’ – a small model made in a clay material, perfect for experimenting with shapes and positions. Once the design was right, he created an ‘armature’ – a physical skeleton in metal onto which the modelling clay was applied.

With the full-size piece finished and approved, the moulding began, involving a ‘negative’ or reverse sculpture covered in several coats of silicon rubber to pick up every detail. Once the initial rubber coats had set, a thicker ‘thixotropic’ coat was applied, consisting of stiffer rubber. Layers of fibreglass were made to encase the silicon rubber and provide a stiff jacket to the mould.

After encasing each piece, the rubber was removed in sections and the clay broken down to be recycled. The artwork was then ready for the foundry, where a wax cast was taken from the mould, invested with ceramic shell and placed in a kiln for the wax to be burnt out. In place of the wax, molten bronze was poured.

Once the bronze had cooled, the ceramic shell was broken away to reveal the new casting which was metal worked to refine the surface. Finally, the bare metal was patinated using heat and chemicals.

Honesty and effort encapsulated in bronze

The first sculpture, ‘Canal Workers’, rises some 1.7 metres high and is an eye-catching installation that draw onlookers into the expansive central plaza.

Alongside the canal-like waterway at the centre of the plaza, at 1.8 metres high, ‘Barge Woman’ reflects the inimitable heritage of the site.

Sitting within the landscaped gardens, the third piece, the ‘Working Horse and Canal Worker’ completes the historical reference.

Sculptures to live long in the memory

Each sculpture has its own arrangement within the gardens of 250 City Road. Some are subtle reminders of times past, while others stand tall above the heads of visitors. These countless men and women would otherwise be forgotten, yet through each of these stunning sculptures, their memory will live on.

All in all, an afternoon well spent in the museum!

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