By Lucy Davies
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.
Hanging in Julia Fullerton-Batten’s wardrobe at home in Chiswick, west London, are a pair of waders. Not the thigh-high 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.’