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Valerie Irwin’s animated drawings capture the changing face of Ipswich Waterfront

PUBLISHED: 07:17 29 September 2018

Charcoal drawings by Suffolk artist Valerie Irwin of the construction of the new Ipswich Waterfront including the new Jerwood DanceHouse

Charcoal drawings by Suffolk artist Valerie Irwin of the construction of the new Ipswich Waterfront including the new Jerwood DanceHouse

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Artist Valerie Irwin spent five years recording the changing face of Ipswich Waterfront and now her energetic works have found a home at the Suffolk Record Office. Arts editor Andrew Clarke enjoyed a guided tour through the collection called Change In Charcoal

Artist Valerie Irwin's artwork showing the redevelopment work on Ipswich Waterfront.Artist Valerie Irwin's artwork showing the redevelopment work on Ipswich Waterfront.

For the best part of five years Suffolk artist Valerie Irwin had braved baking sun, pouring rain, biting winds and freezing temperatures as she recorded in charcoal, on large sheets of paper, the demolition and then the reconstruction of the Ipswich Waterfront.

From 2005 to 2009, she braved the elements, befriended the construction workers, and wrapped in a hi-viz jacket and topped off with her own hard hat, she set about capturing the transformation of the Ipswich Wet Dock from a semi-derelict industrial landscape into a 21st century residential and leisure-focused playground.

During the five years she spent on site she completed more than 4,000 drawings – some are highly detailed urban landscapes, while others are highly impressionistic, capturing the frantic activity of the demolition work and the more stately reconstruction.

Artist Valerie Irwin with some of her artwork showing the redevelopment work on Ipswich Waterfront. Photo Simon ParkerArtist Valerie Irwin with some of her artwork showing the redevelopment work on Ipswich Waterfront. Photo Simon Parker

Cranes, diggers, giant pile-drivers populated the landscape like huge steel dinosaurs. Looking through Valerie’s collection of framed drawings, you can see multiple images of the same machines in the same drawing, giving the finished still image an immediate sense of movement.

These still drawings have an amazing sense of energy. They are full of activity. Impressionistic lines give these still images the feel of full-blown animation.

These startling drawings, created on-the-spot, are an invaluable record of important change in the town and the entire collection, apart from a small selection which resides in the Ipswich Borough art collection, have now been accepted by the Suffolk Record Office as an important addition to the artistic and historical record of the town.

Charcoal drawings by Suffolk artist Valerie Irwin of the construction of the new Ipswich Waterfront including the Jerwood DanceHouseCharcoal drawings by Suffolk artist Valerie Irwin of the construction of the new Ipswich Waterfront including the Jerwood DanceHouse

Although, Valerie ranged across the whole of the Waterfront, The Cranfield’s site, the home of the flour mills from 1884 until the mid-1990s, was an area of special focus, particularly when the area was redeveloped into The Mill, which incorporates the Jerwood DanceHouse.

The invitation to chart the construction work came during a period of relative calm after the demolition process was complete. “The first stage of the work was over. They were waiting for the money to come through to start on the building work. There was nothing left for me to draw at that stage. It was just a rubble-strewn wasteland but I couldn’t leave it. I couldn’t go back to my studio. I still turned up everyday as if I was mourning the lost buildings.

“I was making drawings of the churches on the three traffic islands as well as recording the demolition of Cranfield’s beautiful garage and workshop which stood between Star Lane and Quay Street, and seemed to me to be completely overlooked and forgotten.

Charcoal drawings by Suffolk artist Valerie Irwin of the construction of the new Ipswich Waterfront including the new Jerwood DanceHouseCharcoal drawings by Suffolk artist Valerie Irwin of the construction of the new Ipswich Waterfront including the new Jerwood DanceHouse

“I was still spending all my time there, unable to leave, the site manager saw me and we got chatting and became friendly over time and he invited me onto the construction site to record the construction process in the same way that I had recorded the demolition.

“This meant that I was there for a further 16 months.”

Some of Valerie’s most detailed drawings follow the construction of the DanceHouse with its high ceilings and large pillars. She can also capture character with a few well placed lines and you can spot personalities popping up in various drawings as individual workmen become identifiable over time.

Charcoal drawings by Suffolk artist Valerie Irwin of the construction of the new Ipswich Waterfront including the Jerwood DanceHouseCharcoal drawings by Suffolk artist Valerie Irwin of the construction of the new Ipswich Waterfront including the Jerwood DanceHouse

Now that the drawings have been lodged with the Suffolk Record Office Valerie is launching a fund-raising campaign which will allow the drawings to be preserved in acid-free storage files and for a selection of the works to be digitised and made available online. She is also interested in recording an oral history of the project and of the site.

Bridget Hanley, collections manager at the Suffolk Record Office, said that the drawings captured important an important moment in the life of the town and was equally important to history researchers and students of art.

Details of how to contribute to the conservation and preservation of the Valerie Irwin collection, Change in Charcoal, can be found online at www.valerieirwinarchiveproject.com

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