The outer limits of the River Thames is explored in Estuary, a new art exhibition which opened at the Museum of London Docklands on Friday 17 May 2013, as part of the museum’s 10th anniversary.

In the largest contemporary art exhibition to be held in the grade-one listed Georgian warehouse, next to Canary Wharf, Estuary contains the work of twelve artists, each of whom have been inspired by the Thames Estuary. The free exhibition brings together new and existing pieces of photography, painting, printmaking and film from the last thirty years. Estuary is supported by public funding from Arts Council England and with the official media partner, Londonist.

A new film by the Danish artist Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen entitled Portrait of a River (2013) has been commissioned in collaboration with the Film and Video Umbrella, which proceeds downriver, weaving together fragments and traces of the people and the places that define the character of the Estuary. Conceived as a work in several parts, it will add new 'chapters' over the course of the exhibition.

Christiane Baumgartner’s Medway (2013) is also a new installation for Estuary. The nine prints by the German artist-printmaker combine traditional printmaking techniques with own photographs of ships half sunken in the mud at the River Medway.

Each artist in Estuary is independently displayed; yet there are recurring themes throughout. Giving the Estuary a sense of place is explored in film, for example by John Smith in Horizon (Five Pounds a Belgian) (2012) (commissioned by Turner Contemporary, Margate), which captures the changing view out to sea from Margate over several months. Andrew Kötting’s Jaunt (1995) and William Raban’s Thames Film (1986), both depict two very different Thames journeys, the latter retracing Thomas Pennant's 1787 Journey from London to Dover.

William Raban added, “I am delighted that a 2013 version of Thames Film will be shown in the Museum of London Docklands Estuary exhibition. The appearance of the river has changed dramatically in the intervening twenty-seven years but essentially the power of the river remains timeless and will always be a rich source of inspiration for artists."

Other artists also use the river to meditate on London’s history. Stephen Turner’s remarkable Seafort Project (2005) is the result of his thirty-six day residence alone on a derelict tower of the Shivering Sands Seafort. The Maunsell forts were a series of military platforms built in the Estuary to provide defence against Luftwaffe squadrons during World War Two.

Historically, the Estuary also served as a playground for Londoners escaping the city, and Simon Robert reflects a contemporary view of pleasure-seeking with his Southend (2011) photograph of the popular seaside resort from his Pierdom series. Michael Andrews’ two paintings, Thames Painting: The Estuary (1994-95) and Study for The Estuary (1994), also capture the mood of the river, based on material gathered during trips to Canvey Island, combined with 19th century photographs of the river.

Estuary opens against the backdrop of an ambivalent relationship between London and the Estuary. The Estuary threatens to swamp the city with powerful tidal surges and rising sea levels but is itself threatened by the capital’s transport and energy generating proposals. The ecological theme appears in Gayle Chong Kwan’s The Golden Tide (2013), a photo series of refuse found in the Estuary which began as a social media project on Instagram, and in the paintings by Jock McFadyen - Purfleet: from Dracula’s Garden (2001) and Dagenham (2006). Peter Marshall’s Thames Gateway (2000-04) also presents the urban landscape surrounding the Estuary.

51º 29'.9" North - 0º11' East, Rainham Barges (1985), a film by the Bow Gamelan Ensemble, will also be screened, which includes the percussion group performing a bold experimental composition in the midst of rising tide waters at Rainham marshes.

Meanwhile as artists explore the relationship between London and the Estuary, a mini exhibition, Estuary Airport, presents the historical debates around the use of Estuary as an airport location.