Anne James dips her toe in the water to report on an exhibition about our much-loved river

Some years ago the photo-grapher Jil Orpen made an exhibition about the tidal Thames which was shown at St Paul’s School in London, adjacent to the river’s banks. In this exhibition she returns to the Thames, as the river and its people hold a great fascination for her, this time exploring the 140-mile non-tidal stretch that runs from its source at Thames Head in Gloucester-shire to Teddington Lock in Middlesex. She does this via a series of 26 portraits of people who have strong connections to that stretch of the river and through her portraiture she seeks to express the significance of the river to each.

The exhibition was commiss-ioned by Amanda Jewell, curator of the Sewell Gallery, Radley College, in part because of the intrinsic strength and interest of the photographic project itself and in part as a celebration of the college’s strong rowing tradition and the part the Thames has played in that; a tradition that was given additional emphasis by the remarkable old Radleain Paul Bircher, who opened the exhib-ition. After he and his fellow oarsmen rowed spectacularly well at the Henley Royal Regatta in 1948, they were selected as the British squad for the Olympics of that year, winning silver.

There are two portraits of Katherine Grainger CBE, Britain’s most successful female rower, with three Olympic silvers and four World Championship wins already under her belt, she took gold at the London Olympics and is aiming to do the same at Rio 2016. She is seen here in a relaxed and understated pose in the Folly on Temple Island at Henley.

There are portraits too of Tom Aggar, Paralympic gold medallist, and of Isabella Jewell and Alice Rostant. These GCSE students live at each end of this stretch of Thames and thanks to rowing both have found self- confidence and a passion that is their coxless pair.

Another celebrated oar, Christopher Drury, is seen here in his wonderful doeskin uniform with, on his arm, the emblem of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, who presented him with the prestigious outfit. His courtly presence carries a Venetian like grandeur as he poses in front of a portrait of himself painted by Feliks Toploski (the father of rowing coach Dan).

Peter Cadbury, on the upper Thames near Kelmscott, is seen in his preferred form of transport, the punt. For as he explains, you can approach wildlife so quietly that it does not know you are there, providing the opportunity to observe it at very close quarters. He recognises the privilege this affords and worries about how the right balance of preserving the river and potential developments can be best managed, rightly asserting that ‘deep pockets must not determine the river’s future’.

Preservation was in the forefront of Bob Ring’s mind. Two portraits of him are included, under the name by which he is better known: Crayfish Bob. He decided in 2000 that he would do all he could to stop the invasion of the Thames by American signal crayfish, an invasion that has almost wiped out the native crayfish and is threatening other species.

He is seen here actually standing in the Thames with a veritable grand daddy of a crayfish. He has rightly won a Sustainable Green Trader Award and has founded the National Institute of Crayfish Trappers.

The Oxford Times:
Famous trapper: Crayfish Bob

The Thames has been, and will remain, a working river , as demonstrated by Corry Starling, miller. He and his wife have bought Mapledurham Mill, a mill that is recorded in the Domesday Book. And they have brought it back into production. His portrait demonstrates both the bare, quite beautiful simplicity of the mill’s interior and his own confidence and determination to work with his river and his mill.

In a portrait of Five Swimmers, their wetsuits glisten as they pose on the bank surrounded by the pinks of thistle flowers and Himalayan Balsam.

A real no-nonsense group, they let the water do some of the work for them as they swim downstream from Lechlade to Tadpole Bridge. The 11-mile stretch takes them two days and affords them the opportunity to observe otters and kingfishers at close quarters.

All the photographs are Giclee prints on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag 308 paper. All are for sale. The exhibition comes highly recommended, recording as it beautifully does the wonderful river that traverses our county and some of the remarkable people who live with, make use of, and love and respect it.

People of the Thames: A Photographic Journey
Sewell Centre Gallery, Radley College
10am-4pm, until May 15