Wandering around the heart of Clerkenwell in central London, you may well glimpse an intriguing complex of buildings hiding in plain sight between Roseberry Avenue and Amwell Street.
This is New River Head, dating all the way back to 1609, which embarked on a new chapter in its history when House of Illustration acquired it in 2019, ready to transform it in to our new home, the Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration, and open it up to the public for the first time ever.
To mark Heritage Treasures Day, a celebration of the extraordinary landmarks and artefacts that make up our heritage, our new Director, Lindsey Glen, outlines the storied past and exciting future of this particular Heritage Treasure.
In 2019, House of Illustration became the custodian of New River Head, a complex of 18th and 19th century buildings in Clerkenwell, London. Over the next two years, we will renovate the site and open it up to the public as the Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration: a place to explore and enjoy illustration and to discover the extraordinary heritage of this fascinating part of London.
The history of New River Head dates back to 1609, when work began on a channel to transport clean drinking water from the springs of Hertfordshire to the city of London, aiming to radically improve the health of city-dwellers.
At the heart of the site is the distinctive late-18th century Engine House which, with its adjacent Boiler House and Coal Store, housed the latest innovations in steam technology and was a magnet for curious visitors. Even older than this is a beautiful original windmill base.With the application of electricity on the site in the 1950s, the engines were removed, ponds covered over and the iconic chimney was demolished.
The local area has had a longstanding connection with the imagination of the illustrator. Clerkenwell was a centre of printing in London and nearby Cruikshank Street is named after the caricaturist and illustrator of Charles Dickens’ novels.
Now, after decades lying derelict, the new Quentin Blake Centre will see New River Head renovated and reopened as galleries, learning spaces, landscaped gardens, a café and shop: a cultural and architectural landmark of local, national and international significance.
Two new gallery spaces and a shop will showcase diverse contemporary practice and, while London will remain our home, we will continue expanding our touring and learning activities so that more people around the UK and overseas can explore illustration.
The site will also become home to Quentin Blake’s archive of over 40,000 artworks, from the lively illustrations for his first book, A Drink of Water, to his most recent fantastical landscapes, Moonlight Travellers, and a third gallery will showcase works from this extraordinary collection.
We want to bring Sir Quentin’s unique sense of imagination and playfulness to New River Head, while encouraging people of all ages to visit and reimagine this important but forgotten place.
Turning a derelict heritage site into a landmark space for visitors is not without its challenges. An architectural competition at the start of 2019 led to the appointment of Tim Ronalds Architects, whose previous projects include Wilton’s Music Hall and Hackney Empire – opening up important heritage buildings while keeping their history visible.
We recently submitted our application for Planning Permission and hope to hear the outcome in late spring. In the meantime, we will be expanding our community activities, empowering people to explore and illustrate their local heritage and contribute to its future.
Our founder Quentin Blake has provided a springboard for the project by generously helping us acquire the site and donating original artworks for our recent 200 Drawings fundraising auction. We’re also grateful to The Architectural Heritage Fund for financing our early planning phase.
Next, we will begin a major fundraising campaign, looking to individuals and grant-makers who share our passion for opening up illustration and heritage, so that we can bring New River Head to life as the Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration.
If you’d like to get involved, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.