Portrait of a River


by Nikolaj Larsen

A Cultureship project for the Thames festival in partnership with the Museum of London and the Film & Video Umbrella



“Portrait of a River” is an artwork by internationally renowned video artist Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen that weaves together fragments and traces of the people and the places that define the character of the Thames. Focusing on the stretch of river between the Pool of London and Sea Reach, the work consists of multiple self-contained vignettes that are played back in a random order.

“Portrait of a River” is a chance for viewers to engage with the tribes of the Thames, the waterman and lightermen families who know the river intimately and who have plied their trade along it for generations. The film evolved in stages, with part one opening at the Museum of London – Docklands, and the culmination of the project premiering at the Thames Festival on a large-scale outdoor screen on Riverside Walk. The work portrays the river as it transforms into the North Sea, bringing together for the first time all 60 chapters and linking the City of London to Sea Reach.

Larsen’s chapters depict places and communities living and working on the river and also explore the history of the Thames and its transformation from being a bustling industrial river to one today with greater emphasis on tourism and leisure. The chapters in ‘Portrait of a River’ have a duration of between 40 seconds and six minutes and are played in a random order generated by a computer. Each chapter conveys its own story that is told through beautiful cinematography (Jonas Mortensen), a carefully crafted sound track (Mikkel H. Eriksen), and video editing (Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen): Some clips are based on interviews, while others are recorded impressions of what the artist finds when he is working on location with his cameraman: An oil drum stuck on the southern riverbank by the monumental Dartford Bridge, the launch of a river boat from a dry dock in Gravesend, 8 military helicopters that follow the twists and turns of the Thames as they pass Tower Bridge and fly towards Isle of Dogs. Sailing Barge Master Tom Cook briefly sums up his version of the history of the Upper Pool of the Thames whilst pointing places out on a navigational chart and Captain John Potter talks about the tradition of Watermen working on the Thames. “Portrait of a River” is a visual document that portrays the River Thames as a living, breathing river that always was and still is transformed to adapt to the developmentof the surrounding world.