Caught by the River

London Bridges on Film

3rd September 2019

London’s Bridges on Film is a collection of films from the BFI National Archive newly available to watch for free on the BFI Player. With the earliest film being from 1896, the collection represents over 100 years of life on the River Thames.

The Thames is London’s vital artery, the bridges the unifying branches connecting all points of the capital. The tidal ebb and flow of the river and its bridges has been a draw for filmmakers since the earliest years of the moving image, when Victorian pioneer RW Paul set up his camera on Blackfriars Bridge to record the movement of passers-by.

Following the Thames from its idyllic country setting in the West through the Central London landmarks, past the Pool of London, down to the Docklands and beyond, the river’s bridges are seen from multiple angles; underneath from the river itself, looking down from the bridge onto the river, shot from the riverbank, and head on from street level, against the flow of traffic of pedestrians, horse drawn vehicles, bikes, buses, trams, cars, lorries and skateboards. The collection charts the changing look of the Thames along the banks of the river, with a record of the built environment as well as the structure of the bridges themselves documenting demolition, reconstruction and redevelopment.

The release of the films coincides with the launch of Illuminated River, an ambitious new public art commission that will eventually see up to 15 bridges lit along the Thames. Taking his place alongside these filmmakers as well as a long line of artists who have been inspired by the Thames, Leo Villareal has harnessed the latest LED technology to ‘paint with light’ across the bridge structures, producing sequenced patterns that subtly unfold, using colours influenced by the palettes of Impressionist and English Romantic painters to reveal each bridge’s individual history and architectural features, into a unified vision. 

The first phase of Illuminated River has now launched with London, Cannon Street Railway, Southwark and Millennium bridges being lit up. The next phase of the project, due for completion in Autumn 2020, will include Waterloo Bridge, the home and physical roof of BFI Southbank, in a redevelopment of the BFI’s riverfront bar and restaurant. Once complete, the project will be the longest public art commission in the world at 2.5 miles in length, along 4.5 nautical miles of the River Thames and is expected to be seen by over 137 million people during its 10 year lifespan.

Additionally, a series of one-off talks is taking place at Tower Bridge across September-December to celebrate 125 years of history. This includes a talk by Illuminated River’s director Sarah Gaventa and project architect Chris Waite inside Tower Bridge, and an illustrated talk by British Film Institute curator Simon McCallum. More information and tickets are available here.