Old man river

From an Ed­war­dian swim­ming sen­sa­tion to the women who built Water­loo Bridge, fine-art pho­tog­ra­pher Ju­lia Fuller­ton-bat­ten is recre­at­ing some of the most dra­matic episodes of the Thames’ past. By Lucy Davies

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

Fine-art pho­tog­ra­pher Ju­lia Fuller­ton-bat­ten shares the chal­lenges and tribu­la­tions in­volved in cre­at­ing her lat­est se­ries, a cel­e­bra­tion of the Thames’ rich past, with Lucy Davies

HANG­ING IN Ju­lia Fuller­ton-bat­ten’s wardrobe at home in Chiswick, west London, are a pair of waders. Not the thigh­high type: more those that craggy, sea­soned fish­er­men wear, reach­ing all the way up to the chest. She’s donned them of­ten over the last three years, in the ser­vice of her lat­est pho­tog­ra­phy se­ries, which ex­plores the his­tory of the River Thames.

For a lot longer than that, Fuller­ton-bat­ten has been walk­ing its banks and fore­shore, hav­ing fallen for its silty charms in Ox­ford af­ter mov­ing there from Ger­many with her fa­ther when she was 16.

Since she took the first pic­ture for her on­go­ing se­ries Old Fa­ther Thames, Fuller­ton-bat­ten, now 48, has raked the en­tire length of the river – 215 miles from its source in the Cotswolds to its marshy mouth near Sheer­ness and Southend – for 18 images, so far, recre­at­ing ‘true but ex­tra­or­di­nary sto­ries’.

The time in 1814, for in­stance, when, dur­ing a frost fair, an ele­phant was led across the frozen river along­side Black­fri­ars Bridge. Or the vaude­ville ac­tress who swam from Put­ney to Black­wall (a dis­tance of 17 miles) in 1905, wear­ing a bathing suit she had im­pro­vised from a pair of tights and a men’s swim­suit

(it was that, more than her ath­letic feat, which grabbed the head­lines and two years later she was ar­rested for wear­ing it in Bos­ton, on grounds of in­de­cency).

Each piece is elab­o­rately staged. De­tails are vi­tal: in her recre­ation of John Everett Mil­lais’ paint­ing of Ophe­lia, for in­stance (Mil­lais used a trib­u­tary of the Thames for the back­ground of the pic­ture), Fuller­ton-bat­ten matched the position of ev­ery sin­gle painted flower.

While ob­tain­ing a per­mit to pho­to­graph on the river can be a tricky busi­ness (‘I think they might be shocked when they see the fi­nal images,’ she ad­mits, adding, ‘I told a few white lies to un­der­play the scale of it’), her chief ad­ver­sary is the tide, which makes ev­ery shoot a race against time.

There have been a few try­ing mo­ments – as at the river meets the sea off the coast of Kent, for ex­am­ple, where she was stag­ing the story of a cap­tain of the Royal En­gi­neers sta­tioned at an off­shore gun tower, who in 1867 had to carry his dead daugh­ter across the 650-yard stretch of sand that ap­pears at low tide, in or­der to bury her on dry land. ‘We had to lug huge wag­ons of kit nearly a mile out to sea,’ says Fuller­ton-bat­ten. ‘It was so far away that if I asked for a cup of tea, by the time it reached me it was stone cold.’

Lat­eral think­ing has been key (her sons’ school hall once played host to sev­eral tons of sand). But by far the most com­pli­cated setup was the build­ing of Water­loo Bridge, some­times known as the Ladies’ Bridge be­cause it was com­pleted dur­ing the Sec­ond World War by women. ‘Find­ing a bridge that looked like Water­loo, find­ing the props – I had no idea about weld­ing ma­chines and which was the right gas cylin­der. I also learned the hard way that it was bet­ter to buy shoes on ebay – the hire com­pa­nies don’t much like you re­turn­ing them muddy and wet.’

Left The Ladies’ Bridge Cel­e­brat­ing the es­ti­mated 25,000 fe­male con­struc­tion work­ers who helped build Water­loo Bridge in 1944

Be­low The Grain Tower Cap­tain EFS Lloyd of the Royal En­gi­neers car­ries the body of his daugh­ter Marie Eugenia across the cause­way at low tide for burial

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