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Drawing the stories of Billingsgate Fish Market

MA Visual Communication student Pat Wingshan Wong is presenting a pop-up exhibition of 70 observational drawings and performances that celebrate the community of Billingsgate Fish Market. Taking place in Piggy’s Cafe in Billingsgate Market from 26 June until 10 July, Barter Outlet is the culmination of the project Barter Archive, which Pat developed during her time at the RCA.

Currently located in Canary Wharf, Billingsgate Fish Market will move to Dagenham Dock along with Smithfield Meat Market and New Spitalfields as part of a new development opening in 2027. This is the second relocation for Billingsgate, which moved from its original location by the River Thames in the City of London in 1982. 

This history of displacement initially drew Pat to studying the market and its community. An illustrator originally from Hong Kong, Pat is interested in urban development, the emotional significance of architectural spaces and their relationship to personal memory. She works closely with communities to create illustrations portraying their stories, such as her books The Scenery of Old Shops (2016) and Once Upon a Time in Tai Kwun (2018).

a photograph of Pat Wingshan Wong sketching in Billingsgate fish market
Pat Wingshan Wong drawing in Billingsgate Market, Pat Wingshan Wong
For Barter Archive, Pat spent two years regularly visiting Billingsgate Market during its early morning opening hours. Initially, she just observed the market on her visits. Drawing quietly from the sidelines she noticed that it felt very human in comparison to the nearby skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. It was noisy, busy and full of banter. She wanted to find a way to record this atmosphere and preserve the community’s memories, stories and attitudes towards the changing location of the market.

a colour pencil drawing of a fishmonger's stall at Billingsgate market being traded for a significant object or memory
Drawing being exchanged as part of Barter Archive, Pat Wingshan Wong
The process of exchange and bartering that happens at the market was an important element to incorporate into the project. Pat decided to exchange her drawings for objects and stories from the community, keeping a blue carbon copy of each drawing to enter into the archive. 

The items she borrowed range from the fishmongers’ boots and caps, to their porter badges and certificates. They have been carefully scanned and photographed for the online archive along with the fishmongers’ memories, which are recorded in video interviews and transcribed conversations. Rather than being institutionally focused, the archive was built from the ground up, with the participation and involvement of the community. 

photograph of porter badge and licence from Billingsgate fish market, next to a hat covered in pin badges
Bobby's porter badge with licence and hat, from Barter Archive, Pat Wingshan Wong
Pat’s drawings will be displayed in the exhibition along with performances and events devised in collaboration with the fishmongers. These activities include The Oyster Olympics, short films, performances by the fishmongers and a surprise guest appearance of Sammy the Seal. Visitors are also invited to exchange their memories of the market with the sketches on display. 

For those unable to visit the market in person Pat is hosting Barter Roadshow, a virtual tour of the exhibition from 10.30 am on Saturday 26 June, with contributions from fishmonger Michael Eglin, Richard Martin, Daskalopoulos Director of Education & Public Programmes at Whitechapel Gallery and Jessie Brennan, RCA Visiting Lecturer.

colour pencil drawing of a man sat in a cafe
Terry, the Iceman, from Barter Archive, Pat Wingshan Wong
What started as a personal project expanded to include the help and expertise of others from the RCA community. Photography for the project is by Jimmi Wing Ka Ho (MA Photography student), Vivien Chan (MA History of Design, 2017) is the editor of the publication and website, Mia Frostner (MA Visual Communication, 2007) and Robert Sollis (MA Visual Communication, 2007) from design studio Europa are the visual designers, Max Kohler (MA Visual Communication, 2020) is the website designer, and Kachi Chan (IED) is the creative technologist who managed the 3D scan data. The exhibition was curated by Sandra Lam.

colour pencil drawing of a fishmonger at Billingsgate market holding a lobster
Polydor, from Barter Archive, Pat Wingshan Wong
The project is supported by Arts Council England and Tower Hamlets Council Arts, Parks and Events Team. Its research and development was funded by the Varley Memorial Award 2020, an annual award for RCA Visual Communication students to support the realisation of a practice-based research project. The exhibition coincides with the launch of a fundraising campaign for a publication that will act as a record of the archive for all those involved in its creation.

RCA student Pat Wingshan Wong poses with a fishmonger at Billingsgate fish market, both giving the camera a thumbs up
Pat Wingshan Wong with Mark Andrew Wilkinson, Pat Wingshan Wong

poster for the Barter Outlet exhibition
Barter Outlet poster, Pat Wingshan Wong
Barter Outlet: Piggy’s Cafe, Billingsgate Fish Market, London, E14 5ST
Outlet Open House 6.30–9 am 26 June 2021
Outlet Trading Hours  7–10 am 26 June–10 July 2021 

Event highlight: Barter Roadshow
10.30 am – 12 pm on Saturday 26 June 2021
Email registration: [email protected]

For more information visit and their Instagram @Barter_Archive