Woolwich: How Thames-Side Print Studio offers creative services on the river

Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair stalwart is a hub for artists at all levels in south-east London

Visitors examine work at Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair

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The buzz and pomp of Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair in full swing is something to behold.

Display boards packed with vibrant work, gallerists, creatives and art enthusiasts all mix together under one roof.

There’s even a little smearing of ink and the smooth gearing of presses thrown in for good measure as new prints are made on-site. 

While the physical event at Woolwich Works‘ expansive Fireworks Factory venue closed on October 29, 2023, the online version of the fair remains live until November 5, 2023, before it goes into hibernation to get ready for next year’s iteration. 

Readers do not, however, need to wait 12 months before exploring print locally. In addition to showcasing work by big names such as David Hockney, Bridget Riley, Eileen Cooper and Gavin Turk, one of the event’s joys is the depth of its offering, which includes nearby businesses. 

Take Thames-Side Print Studio, for example.

Director, Carolyn Nicoll, and artist and technician,  J Yuen Ling Chiu, literally walked a collection of framed works along the path beside the river to hang on the organisation’s stand at the event.

But the studio is no simple gallery or dealer.

It’s located at the heart of a facility on the river close to the southern end of the Thames Barrier that provides space for hundreds of artists and makers.

Thames-Side Studios is the largest provider of its kind in the UK with a sculpture workshop, darkroom, galleries, cafes and an education space on-site.

For its part, the print studio is very much a working resource both for those artists or visiting creatives to make use of.

It offers a wealth of equipment including etching, litho and relief presses as well as digital printing, screen print beds, spaces for etching, aquatints and drying or finishing prints.

Technician and artist J Yuen Ling Chiu, of Thames-Side Print Studio

“We’re the local print studios to the fair and we’ve been open for nearly 13 years now,” said Ling.

“You can walk to us from Woolwich Works.

“We run short courses and offer various membership options – in some ways, the studio runs like a gym.

“People can dip in and out as they want to, or they can become regular users of the facilities.

“We also offer training for businesses, schools – so many different things.

“We’ve been exhibiting at the fair since it started and we were very happy to be at its eighth event this year.

“It’s a great way to showcase what our members have been doing.

“We have a huge and varied membership, with people who have just come out of school and are looking to be part of their first exhibition, to established artists with 40, 50 or 60 years of printmaking behind them.

“With people trying print for the first time, we can nudge them in the right direction. 

“We get to see what they’re doing every day behind the scenes and how their work is progressing.

“This means that the selection we’re able to show is different to other galleries.

“We have a very strong working relationship with all the artists and know exactly how every single work we have has been made, who has made it and where.”

Thames-Side Print Studio director Carolyn Nicoll

Having moved down from Glasgow, Carolyn established the print studio after her artist husband found space at the creative hub.

“I had experience of working in studios and galleries in Scotland before I moved to London,” she said.

“There were things happening in west and east London at the time, but nothing south-east.

“My husband was at Thames Side Studios and they wanted to set up a print facility, so it evolved from there.

“The fair at Woolwich is fantastic. It’s somewhere we can showcase the different processes and work of artists – what we have is really quite diverse.”

That also includes work by Ling – who in addition to working as a technician at the print studio – is also a short course tutor there and an artist in her own right.

One of her works on display is a print titled Dockyard Diary April, part of a series of progressive etchings inspired by plants found at the former Woolwich Dockyard, which she passes regularly on her walk to Thames-Side Print Studio from her home at Royal Arsenal Riverside.

“The dockyard was founded by Henry VIII in the 1500s but it lies abandoned today,” said Ling.

“There are two big dockyards, but they’ve been left to become overgrown.

“I walk past it every day, so I’ve started foraging the plant life from those abandoned places and turning it into a series of etchings.

“It’s an amazing place because this wild, derelict site now has wild poppies and there are baby birds there too.

Detail from Ling’s Dockyard Diary April

“Something which was a vision of empire – of British maritime strength – has been reclaimed by nature.

“I started it in January and then, each month, I forage a bit more plant-life and add it to the steel plate etching.

“Then I produce prints from it, but in very small numbers because the plate changes each month and I can never go backwards.

“I’m now onto the 10th iteration and the image is getting busier and busier.

“The whole work has been made using low toxicity materials and methods.

“For example, I do not use any white spirits, any turpentine or any harmful spirits – things that can damage your lungs.

“I use a coconut ester, which is much better for the environment. It’s etched in a solution of saline sulphate, so it doesn’t produce any vapours. 

“A sediment is created, which I neutralise and filter so no solid waste goes down the sink.

“I’m thinking about how nature has reclaimed the site, but also making work about that in as nature-friendly a way as possible. 

“This historic site is a little gem, a hidden pocket within walking distance of the fair and the studio and that makes it really special for me.” 

Perhaps, like Ling’s work, that’s part of the appeal of the fair itself.

Something that each year leaves a deeper, more complex impression on south-east London.

Find out more about Thames-Side Print Studio here

Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair continues online until November 5, 2023

Read more: Sign up for the Santa Stair Climb at One Canada Square

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Woolwich: How Woolwich Works is relishing the prospect of an uninterrupted season

Vast multi-arts complex at Royal Arsenal Riverside has venues for performance, rehearsals + recording

The exterior of Woolwich Works main building
The exterior of Woolwich Works main building – image Timothy Soar

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“Activity” is the word buzzing around the lips of James Heaton as we sit in Beanfeast – one of the magnificent exposed brick spaces that form part of the vast Woolwich Works complex.

For the CEO of the Woolwich Creative District Trust – set up to independently operate the site on a not-for-profit basis – it’s a welcome change, given the challenging stop-start conditions of two years of pandemic restrictions. 

Now though, even largely empty on a sunny Wednesday morning in April, there’s a life about the place – the vibration of possibility in its walls. 

That’s something James and his team intend to nurture and feed as the months roll by until its performance spaces, rehearsal studios, recording facilities, cafe, bar and offices are all humming with the industry and pulse of cultural creation. 

what is Woolwich Works?

James confessed at the start of our interview that, despite having been in post for nearly three years, he’s yet to find a rapid way of answering this question – testament, perhaps to the sheer scale of the project he’s steering.

“Woolwich Works is physically five buildings on the Royal Arsenal Riverside development in south-east London,” he said.

“They’re all former military buildings and are Grade II or Grade II* listed. The site overall is about 20 years into its redevelopment by Berkeley Homes.

“With Woolwich Works, Greenwich Council wanted to achieve a number of things.

“Fundamentally the beginning of this project was looking at these historic buildings and their situation and taking the view that it was important to preserve these spaces in public use for the benefit of everyone in the borough and beyond.

“A decision was made to develop the focus of these buildings as being around an arts and culture offer. Ultimately that’s how we’ve got to where we are.

Woolwich Creative District Trust CEO James Heaton
Woolwich Creative District Trust CEO James Heaton – image Jon Massey

“Three of the buildings, all joined together – The Cartridge Factory, The Laboratory and The Carriage Works – are home to phenomenal immersive theatre company Punchdrunk, which has just launched its first show at the site and is also resident at Woolwich Works.

“The spaces have been joined together and audiences walk into a whole world and navigate themselves around it. 

“Then, on the other side of No. 1 Street, there’s our main building, which has four wings around a central courtyard. That houses a number of venues, rehearsal studios, a recording studio and offices. We also have space in The Academy building next door.”

In addition to Punchdrunk, Woolwich Works is also home to the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO), the Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair, Protein Dance and Chineke!, an orchestra of predominantly black and ethnically diverse classical musicians.

Alongside the cafe, performances typically take place in either the 1,504sq m of the Fireworks Factory – a flexible auditorium that can be set up in any number of configurations – or Beanfeast, a smaller, narrower venue on the first floor with views over the Thames.

what’s the intention? 

“Woolwich Works is a multi-arts venue with lots of different spaces so we can present a varied performance programme,” said James.

“We have the resident companies and they will contribute to that as well as running various creative and community initiatives that offer opportunities to people living locally.

“These might be in schools or, for example, in our recording studio which will be the last thing to open here.

“We have world-class facilities and resident companies, but we’re also community focused, so if you’re someone who lives nearby and who wants to dip their toe into music, film or design, then we’ll facilitate that with formal training alongside mentoring, coaching and the chance to work with professionals. 

The Fireworks Factory at Woolwich Works in full swing
The Fireworks Factory at Woolwich Works in full swing – image Chris Morgan

“Underpinning everything we do is that we’re a catalyst for collaboration. The aim is to create an ecosystem and we’re already seeing people working together. Our role at the trust is partly to cultivate that. 

“The aim is that the professional, the community and the emerging all come together – whether through work experience, jobs, volunteering or performance opportunities –  to help build pathways and open up the arts to everybody. We want to bring those opportunities to people who may be under-represented or who think they can’t access them.”

what’s coming?

“The near future is rooted in the fact that we’re looking at a horizon where things are relatively stable,” said James.

“We’ve never had that before and, next month, the building starts to get really busy. Almost everything gets going in May and stays running.

“We have what was our festive cabaret – The Grotteaux – opening as a springtime show instead and that looks bonkers, fantastic and eclectic. 

“Our comedy, music and family programmes will continue throughout, and we’re really looking forward to the whole site being animated at the same time.

The main venue can be used in multiple ways
The main venue can be used in multiple ways – image Timothy Soar

“Then, in July, we’re launching what I’m hoping will become an annual festival here called Woolwich Words And Sounds.

“For that we’ll be programming the whole building with all sorts of different live music, comedy, literature and spoken word performances.

“We’ll have singer Alice Russell and also an amazing jazz saxophonist called Bob Mintzer who’ll be playing some of his big band repertoire with NYJO covering the last 40 years.

“Part of the thing that’s exciting about Woolwich Works is that its layout really lends itself to a festival model – there’s a big area of outdoor space and we want to have some food, drink, deckchairs and free music out there for people to listen to.”

open for business?

“The trust is a true not-for-profit, which means it has to sustain itself and look after the buildings through earned income,” said James.

“That means we do commercial hire for events – dinners, conferences, private celebrations and meetings – all the things you’d expect a big venue to cater for. 

“We’ve had a few weddings and, of course, we’d like a few more. But we’re also here for the creative community with lots of rehearsal space available.

“The sector as a whole needs these spaces and the aim is to be available to artistic companies that aren’t based here.

“The idea is that doing this will also contribute to the ecosystem because when we have companies in residence for four or five weeks, inevitably they will meet other, like-minded people in the cafe or around the building. 

“Creative people become more creative when they’re in touch with other artists.

“In the end, our success will be seen in the people who have progressed through Woolwich Works and who have gone on to do great things.

“It will be the stories of those people who found their opportunities here and were supported to find their life within the arts.”

Punchdrunk's The Burnt City is playing at Woolwich Works now
Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City is playing at Woolwich Works now


The Burnt City, Punchdrunk at Woolwich Works

Immersive theatre company Punchdrunk has opened its show at Woolwich Works, with tickets now booking into December.

The Burnt City transports audiences to the Trojan War with two distinct, detailed worlds to explore packed with mysterious characters to meet.

Troy is reimagined as a dense sci-fi city with an aesthetic inspired by Fritz Lang’s Mertropolis, while Greece is a wasteland filled with jaded soldiers and eerie memories of ancient gods.

Presented as a promenade performance, ticketholders are free to wander these environments at will, interacting with the characters over 100,000sq ft of space

The production is the company’s first show in London since 2014 and its most ambitious to date, reuniting the team behind Sleep No More including original cast members from that show.

Performances last up to three hours, with six arrival times at 10-minute intervals. 

Shows on Tuesdays-Fridays start at 6.30pm, Saturdays 1.30pm and 6.30pm and Sundays 4.30pm.

Tickets typically cost £66 with limited “rush tickets” available for £25 for every performance through Time Out.

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