A tale of two cities
Pat Hardy welcomes a detailed study of how London’s evolution into a modern city was portrayed by 19th-century artists
Pat Hardy, Friday, 1st June 2012
City of Gold and Mud: Painting Victorian London Nancy Rose Marshall
Yale University Press, £45 ISBN 9780300174465
According to Charles Dickens in Master Humphrey’s Clock, his periodical of 1840–41, London was a place which held together ‘a thousand worlds’, containing within its limits all possible opposite extremes and contradictions. Indeed, Victorian London represented a construct of all that was new but also all that was grounded in history. By 1850 it was the largest and most advanced industrial city in the world, with an ever-growing population of around two million people. Workers poured into it from the rest of Britain, while goods from the colonies and Britain’s natural resources fuelled the economic boom. Such extreme and rapidly created wealth ensured that the landscape of London was altered by large building programmes and the presence of not only a new tier of self-made rich but also an under-class of poor, visible on the muddy streets and populating the fetid slums. It is this multifaceted London – how it was visualised and particularly how it was painted in the 19th century – that forms the parameters and content of City of Gold and Mud.
The process of analysing the visual response to such developments was begun in Victorian Artists and the City (1979), edited by Ira B. Nadel and F.S. Schwarzbach, and since then attention has focused particularly on imagery of the poor, the typology of the crowd and the mapping of the city, with the Thames receiving separate and sometimes disjointed treatment. But there has been little sustained analysis, as a discrete group, of the multitudinous oil paintings of London generated during this period to great popular reception, possibly because they are scattered among many collections and have been subsumed into accounts of leading artists or artistic movements. There has been little sense of the evolution of the city from Regency equipoise to imperial grandeur, nor a detailed chronology of how London was viewed by the large number of artists living there, many of whom were visiting from overseas or from elsewhere in Britain.
City of Gold and Mud seeks to change that, weaving together three interrelated themes: the shifting perception of the treatment of time, past and present; the awareness of the critical problem of a rapidly increasing underclass of poor and deprived people; and changing notions of class and race related to the expansion of empire. Explored afresh are such works as the large narrative paintings of William Powell Frith and George Elgar Hicks, the social realist works of Luke Fildes, Hubert von Herkomer and Frank Holl as well as the hyperrealist oils of William Logsdail and James Tissot, together with a smattering of comparative engravings and photographs. The book has nine chapters but the strict application and discussion of these three themes, while occasionally teetering on the repetitive, keeps the analysis on track. It represents a clear shift from the discussion of London as a topographical entity to London as a setting for scenes of humour, pathos and tragedy in which the viewpoint is highlighted as key to the response.
Beginning with panoramas and bird’s-eye views, the author progresses to an analysis of large narrative paintings, from their apparent objective transparency during the mid-19th century to their fragmentation in subsequent decades. John O’Connor’s From Pentonville Road Looking West, London, Evening (1884; Fig. 1), for example, represents this later, uncomfortable fusion of highly aestheticised urban life with elements of banal realism. An elevated perspective looks across London’s rooftops to the Gothic spires of St Pancras station and the Midland Grand Hotel, with the bustle of street activity included beneath. References to Ford Madox Brown’s Work (1852–65) are made in the advertising boards and the policeman, while a deferential nod is given to the detail of mid-century Frith and Hicks narratives. However, a different mood pervades the work: the standardisation of time highlighted by the Great Clock of St Pancras, new technology and engineering, class hierarchy and status, social discipline, consumerism and advertising all feature in this painting, presenting a view of London that is beautiful and ethereal, a vision of progress, yet also rooted in the materiality of everyday life. There is a lack of order, a sense that society is rushing forward to achieve progress –the city can no longer be viewed as one entity but has disintegrated into different forms.
The impact of this fragmentation of London on the inhabitants was visualised by Tissot as a disconnection in social relations. In his London Visitors (1874; Fig. 2), set beside St Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square, a couple consult a guide book as they stand, alienated from each other, the architecture and the environment. Transferring his experience of observing metropolitan life in Paris to London, Tissot plays on the doubling and repetition of urban tourism, on the disconcerting lack of orientation of these fashionable figures in a foreign city. This oblique, unsettling type of composition was expanded and developed in works demonstrating civic rituals such as the historical pageants that were adapted to meet the prevailing imperial aspirations and expectations. William Logsdail’s The Ninth of November (1890; Fig. 3) presents the geographical specificity of the Bank of England as the backdrop for the annual Lord Mayor’s Parade, but none of these factors work to create a reassuring image. Instead, the vivid colours of the costumes create a carnival theatricality at odds with the disconnected expression of the footmen, the grey overcast weather and the dense anonymity of the crowd. Those figures that are detailed in the crowd are fenced in by the police and seem to have been highlighted more as stock characters than to serve coherent narrative function.
By highlighting the depth of paintings produced during this period and showing how they mark a distinct break with the past and forge new ways of seeing, this beautifully illustrated book opens out new areas of research and deserves to be widely consulted in all commentaries on the presentation of 19th-century London and narrative art.
Pat Hardy is Curator of Paintings, Prints and Drawings at the Museum of London.
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