Royal swan uppers now wear scarlet jackets, but they still pilot traditional rowing skiffs. The 2018 swan upping will begin July 16. (Julia Fullerton-Batten)
“Ophelia,” part of the series Old Father Thames by Julia Fullerton-Batten. (Julia Fullerton-Batten)
“The Grain Tower,” part of the series Old Father Thames by Julia Fullerton-Batten. (Julia Fullerton-Batten)

An Artistic Reimagining of London’s Past in ‘Old River Thames’

Tally ho! Photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten English looks at when swan lovers come to their census

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Meandering more than 200 miles through southern England, the River Thames has been the setting for history both momentous and quirky. Take, for example, swan upping. “It’s a purely British thing,” explains the London-based photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten, who reimagined the centuries-old practice as part of her series Old Father Thames. In medieval England, swans were valuable articles of trade. By law, the beautiful birds belonged to the crown—all except those marked by other official swan owners during the annual swan upping (or census). The custom still takes place each July, although now only to count the fowl and check their health. For her cinematic composite image, Fullerton-Batten consulted with a retired swan upper, recreated 1950s-era uniforms, gathered authentic tools—and hired a trained swan, which was more likely to behave. “The whole thing looks a little surreal,” she says, “so it was important that it felt believable.”

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Michigan-based freelance journalist writing about cities, science, the environment, art and education. A longtime Smithsonian contributor, her work also appears in CityLab and the Boston Globe.

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