The last 70 years of British history is under the spotlight at the Hayward Gallery, South Bank, in a new exhibition, History is Now:7 Artists Take on Britain. As the title suggests, seven UK-based artists – John Akomfrah, Simon Fujiwara, Roger Horns, Hannah Starkey, Richard Wentworth and Jane and Louise Wilson – are each looking at a particular period of cultural history spanning the years from 1945 to today. The artists have selected more than 250 objects from public and private collections and have displayed these along with photographs, newspapers, films, domestic items and artefacts. The exhibition, which runs until 26th April, is part of the Southbank Centre’s Changing Britain 1945-2015 Festival which runs until 9th May. For more, see www.southbankcentre.co.uk.

The use of Napoleon’s image in propaganda during the Napoleonic Wars is the subject of an exhibition which opened last week at the British Museum in Bloomsbury. Bonaparte and the British: prints and propaganda in the age of Napoleon looks at how propaganda was used on both sides of the channel and includes works by both British and French satirists. Among British artists whose work is featured is that of James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, Richard Newton and George Cruikshank and the exhibition also features a range of objects – mugs, banners and even Napoleon’s death mask – drawn from the museum’s collection. The exhibition, which runs until 16th August, is free and can be found in Room 91. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org.

DulwichCan you pick a copy? Visitors to the Dulwich Picture Gallery in the city’s south have the opportunity to test their skills with a new initiative which has seen a Chinese replica placed somewhere among the 270 Old Master paintings on display. Made in China: A Doug Fishbone Project explores the nature and importance of the concept of the original versus that of the copy and the role of art as commodity. People have three months – until 26th April – to visit the gallery and find the replica painting before submitting their answers via an iPad in the gallery (those who correctly identify it will be entered into a competition to win a custom print from the gallery’s collection signed by the American artist Doug Fishbone). The replica will be revealed on 28th April when it will hang side-by-side with the original. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk. PICTURE: © Stuart Leech/Dulwich Picture Gallery.

• The Talk: Isambard Kingdom Brunel – The man who built the world. Robert Pulse, director of The Brunel Museum, will give a free talk about the life and achievements of the great Victorian engineer Brunel at the John Harvard Library 211 Borough High Street on 17th February at 6.30pm. For more information, follow this link.

On Now: Fulham Palace through the Great War. This exhibition at the former home of the Bishop of London on the Thames River in west London tells the story of the palace during World War I and examines the lives of those connected with the palace who died in the conflict, such as William Burley, son of Bishop Winnington-Ingram’s chauffeur. It tells how the bishop – described as an “enthusiastic” recruiter – visited the frontline in 1915 and how, in 1918, the palace was occupied by a Red Cross hospital. Runs until 16th April. Entry is free. For more, see www.fulhampalace.org/visiting-whats-on/exhibitions/.

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It’s a rare chance to walk the historic Thames Tunnel between Wapping and Rotherhithe – the first tunnel ever dug under a navigable waterway. Transport for London and London Overground are offering the chance to purchase tickets to walk the tunnel – built by Marc Brunel, it’s now used by the London Overground – over the May Bank Holiday weekend on 24th to 26th May. Tickets, which cost £18 plus booking fee, go on sale today at 10am via the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden and are strictly limited (with no on the day admissions allowed). Proceeds from the day will go to the Railway Children’s Charity and the Brunel Museum. Also, worth noting is that the London Transport Museum is offering tours of its depot this Friday and Saturday. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.ltmuseum.co.uk.

MatisseThe paper cut-outs of Henri Matisse are the focus of a landmark exhibition which opened at Tate Modern last week. Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs features about 130 works created between 1937 and 1954 with many seen together for the first time. Highlights include maquettes featured in the 1947 book Jazz, The Snail and its sister work Memory of Oceania (both 1953) and the largest number of the Blue Nudes ever shown together. The display takes an in-depth look at the methods and materials Matisse used in the production of the cut-outs. Runs until 7th September (and keep an eye out for the accompanying film, Matisse: Live in cinemas). Admission charge applies. For more, see www.tate.org.uk. PICTURE: Henri Matisse, Icarus 1946, Maquette for plate VIII of the illustrated book Jazz 1947, Digital image: © Centre Pompidou, MNAMCCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet, Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014.

On Now: Spitting Image. This exhibition at the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury centres on the partnership of three dimensional artists Peter Fluck and Roger Law and their key role in the creation of what became known as Spitting Image. It features caricature drawings and photographs created for magazines in the 1970s and 1980s of the likes of Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Kate Moss, Saddam Hussein, Billy Connolly, Rupert Murdoch, Jo Brand and John Paul II as well as members of the Royal Family and politicians including Margaret Thatcher. Also present are some of the puppets used in the TV show which ran for 18 series between 1984 and 1996 – these include those of Thatcher, The Queen, Princess Diana and Mr Spock. Runs until 8th June (with selected late opening nights). Admission charge applies. For more, see www.cartoonmuseum.org.

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While the Greenwich foot tunnel may these days be more well-known due to the fact it is still open to pedestrians, London’s oldest under-Thames tunnel (also credited as the oldest underwater tunnel in the world) actually runs between Rotherhithe on the river’s southern bank and Wapping on the northern.

Thames_Tunnel-in-2010First opened in 1843, the Thames Tunnel (pictured left during a brief reopening to pedestrians in 2010) was the first major project of star Victorian engineer (and delightfully named) Isambard Kingdom Brunel (who, at the age of just 19 started work on the job with his father, a French engineer named Marc Isambard Brunel) and was known for a time as the eighth Wonder of the World.

It was constructed after demand grew for a way to transport goods across the crowded Port of London to the east of London Bridge. Given the height of the masts of larger ships, a bridge was deemed impracticable with the ramps required to take wheeled transport to the necessary height far too long (although this problem was overcome at the end of the 1800s by the use of new bascule technology in the construction of Tower Bridge).

Following several failed attempts to dig a tunnel under the Thames, Marc Brunel was given permission to build the new tunnel in the mid 1820s. The project relied on the use of a ‘tunnelling shield’, a then state-of-the-art technological solution to under river tunnelling which had only a few years earlier been patented by Marc Brunel and Thomas Cochrane, and Brunel initially thought the project would only take three years (it ended up taking as many as 18).

Construction by the newly formed Thames Tunnel Company, which had the support of none other than the Duke of Wellington, commenced in early 1825 at the Rotherhithe end. The shield enabled miners to dig out the tunnel while bricklayers came along behind them. While it significantly reduced the risk of a collapse (although several floods still did occur, taking the lives of six men – a fact which didn’t apparently much deter the sightseers who paid for the privilege of seeing the shield in operation), working conditions remained terrible with the men constantly showered with water from the river which was at that time the city’s main sewer. How many died indirectly as a result of working on the project is unknown.

Brunel-plaqueIndeed, such was the stress of the project that Marc Brunel, later knighted for his efforts in building the tunnel, himself suffered a stroke during its construction. Isambard Brunel, who took over as the project’s engineer when the resident engineer fell ill in 1826, himself came close to being killed when he had to flee the flooding tunnel.

After much delay (including seven years in which the unfinished tunnel was left untouched) and several more disasters, the tunnel was finally completed in November, 1841.

After being fitted out with lighting, spiral staircases and roads in the following years, it was finally opened to pedestrians only on 25th March, 1843. While it was originally envisaged that the primary purpose of the tunnel would be to transport goods under the river, this never occurred.

Still, it did capture the public’s attention and as many as 50,000 people walked through the tunnel on the opening day (among the initial visitors to the tunnel was Queen Victoria herself). Within 10 weeks of its opening, a million people (a figure equal to what was then half the population of London) had reportedly passed through it.

Despite the number of people initially using it, however, the tunnel was still not a financial success and over the ensuing years became noted as a gathering place for unsavoury types. In 1865 it was purchased by the East London Railway Company which subsequently incorporated the tunnel into its railway network with both the Wapping and Rotherhithe entrance shafts converted into stations. It later become part of the London Underground network – the  – and since 2010 has been part of the London Overground.

Both stations are still in use and you can get a good sense of what the tunnel was like by riding the overground between Rotherhithe and Wapping. The Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe – actually housed within a building originally used to house machinery for draining the tunnel – see plaque above – is also a great place to find out more about the project and Brunel. Visit www.brunel-museum.org.uk for details.

PICTURES: Top – Lars Plougmann (Wikipedia)/Other – David Adams

For more on the life of Brunel, see Steven Brindle’s Brunel: The Man Who Built the World.