The River Thames has long attracted artists, and today many of them have made their home on Eel Pie Island in Twickenham. This narrow island, also known as Twickenham Ait, is only accessible by boat or footbridge and is not usually open to the public. However, twice each year the artists of the island hold an open studios weekend where members of the public can visit the island and purchase the work of the artists who have studios there.
The artists’ studios are mostly based in boathouses or old boats – Eel Pie Island still has a functioning boatyard and many boats cluster on its shores.
Eel Pie Island has long been a stopping-off point for those travelling along the Thames, and it is thought that its name derives from the food served to visitors. In the 1920s and 1930s, the 19th Century Eel Pie Island Hotel, which faced the Surrey bank of the Thames, was home to a dance hall. The sprung dance floor made it a very popular tea dance venue.
After the Second World War, the hotel was in a dilapidated state, and in the 1950s became home to a jazz club, hosting many of the top artists of the day. Arthur Chisnall, a shop manager and social researcher from Kingston, helped to organise jazz nights for young people and in 2006 said that “my job was to create a world for people and I created that world” (source). Those attending concerts at the hotel were issued with “Eelpisland” passports and the jazz club was especially popular with local art students.
In the 1960s the focus of the hotel’s music scene shifted to the emerging rhythm and blues movement, and provided a platform for up-and-coming bands such as the Yardbirds, the Who and the Tridents with Jeff Beck. The Rolling Stones had a residency there in 1963. The venue had a reputation for decadence, with one regular recalling that “if you wanted a bit of crumpet, this was where you came.” (source) However, by 1967 the hotel was in such a ruinous state that its owner was ordered by police to carry out £200,000 worth of repairs and as this money could not be found, it was forced to close.
In 1969 the hotel building became a hippie commune, enjoying a brief revival as Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden. However, with the threat of demolition looming, the hotel was burned down in a mysterious fire in 1971 and its colourful history as a music venue came to an end. Its legacy lives on through the Eel Pie Club, which is based in the upstairs of the Cabbage Patch Pub in Twickenham and aims to keep the spirit of the 1960s rhythm and blues music scene alive.
Today, Eel Pie Island is home to around 120 people, with the site of the hotel now occupied by private housing. Another damaging fire swept through the island in 1996. The artists’ studios are clustered around the boatyard in a mixture of old boats, ramshackle huts and modern buildings. The boatyard itself is still operational, and when I visited there was a boat in the slips being repaired.
The artists’ studios are a wonderfully eclectic group of rooms and buildings, with many quirky decorations that seem very fitting for a community of artists. When I visited, there was a huge variety of artwork on show, from paintings to ceramics to jewellery. Many of the artists’ work is inspired by Eel Pie Island and the Thames, such as Wendy Mackenzie’s paintings of Richmond and Hammersmith bridges, pictured below.
The colourful buildings and decorations give the island a creative, almost psychedelic quality which seems in keeping with its Eel Pie Island Hotel days. Many of the private houses are also colourful and eccentric, entirely at odds with the genteel streets of Twickenham only a stone’s throw away. It’s a charming place to visit, and it feels as though you are stepping into another world.
You can find out more about the work of the artists based on Eel Pie Island, and dates of future open studio days, can be found on the Eel Pie Island Artists website. For some wonderful pictures and memories of the Eel Pie Island Hotel, visit www.eelpie.org.