Peter Aspden on the art of living in London

From riots to famous faces, the pains and pleasures of the city have captivated artists for centuries

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The image of London as a buzzing cultural metropolis is no mere invention of an overexcited tourist board — it has a long and proud tradition. In the earliest known oil painting of the city, by an anonymous Dutch master of the early 17th century, four buildings in the foreground are shown flying huge flags. They are the great Tudor theatres of Southwark — the Swan, the Hope, the Rose and the Globe — and the flags denote they all had performances on that busy day.

The Curds and Whey Seller, Cheapside © Courtesy of Museum of London

Here was a city full of self-confidence and cultural importance. Illustrations of London were much in demand among the classes that were able to afford the city’s fineries. The most prominent of the artists who drew them was Wenceslaus Hollar, whose meticulous views chronicled London’s growing stature. In his “Long View of London from Bankside” of 1647, a panoramic sprawl shows the old St Paul’s Cathedral standing high above an energetic, if not the most beautiful, city.

But that view changed for ever just a couple of decades later, following the Great Fire of 1666 Hollar himself responded with a new version of his now-famous panorama “after the sad calamitie and destruction by fire”. Another unknown Dutch artist painted a dramatic tableau of the disaster, and images of the fire spread with journalistic speed throughout Europe, a contemporary apocalypse to rival historical accounts of the eruption of Vesuvius.

A painting of the Great Fire of London in the style of the Dutch School © Courtesy of Museum of London

London bounced back. But there was a more uncertain air around the city, which artists were keen to explore. A work by an anonymous artist from the 1730s shows an old woman selling curd and whey from a wooden bucket to young chimney sweeps on Cheapside. The contrast between the milky nutrients and the boys’ soot-blackened faces shows “an almost dystopian view of the realities of London life”, says Alex Werner, the Museum of London’s head of history collections.

George Elgar Hicks, ‘The General Post Office, One Minute to Six’ (1860) © Courtesy of Museum of London

The city remained a vital centre of intellectual activity: look at Samuel Percy’s wax diorama (1785-1800) of a gathering at the Turk’s Head tavern in Soho, showing, among others, Samuel Johnson and Joshua Reynolds in lively debate. But social critics were all too aware that there was a dark side to the freneticism. The scabrous satire of William Hogarth was never more wounding than in his 1751 prints “Gin Lane” and “Beer Street”, polemical works that sought to contrast the perils of gin addiction with the wholesome qualities of a worthy pint of ale. Hogarth did not hold back in showing scenes of moral depravity: infanticide, madness, suicide.

“I know no one who had a less pastoral imagination than Hogarth,” said critic and philosopher William Hazlitt, lauding the artist’s cruel visions of urban breakdown.

John Bartlett’s ‘History Painting’ (1994) shows the 1990 poll tax riots © John Bartlett/Courtesy Museum of London

By the beginning of the 18th century London was Europe’s largest city, a fact its more prosperous citizens were keen to celebrate. A Microcosm of London, published in three volumes between 1808 and 1810, was unashamedly aimed at the luxury market. The set, adorned with Thomas Rowlandson and Auguste Pugin’s celebratory illustrations, cost a whopping 15 guineas.

The advent of photography forced artists to look at their subjects on a more intimate scale, and results were not always pretty. Henry Mayhew’s pioneering series of interviews with London’s poor included drawings that were based on photographs: a mudlark sifts his way throughout the city’s sewers looking for stray coins. Dickensian London also showed early signs of multiculturalism: John Thomson’s images of street life in his journalistic surveys included one of a Hindu seller of religious tracts.

In the meantime, London’s burgeoning population took a fancy to viewing itself in action. When William Powell Frith’s “The Railway Station” of 1862 was displayed in a tiny gallery next to the Haymarket Theatre, more than 1,000 people a day queued up to spend one shilling each to see the depiction of commuters at Paddington station. The painting, full of bustle and vivid detail, was displayed in a red-gold frame and surrounded by chocolate-coloured cloth. Its success was also a masterpiece of marketing: the public was invited to buy black-and-white reproductions in advance of the exhibition. The London Review was less rather enthusiastic about the work. “Really a poor affair,” it complained.

A steel engraving of 'The Railway Station' (1862), by Robert Powell Frith © Courtsey of Museum of London
Samuel Percy’s diorama of the Turk’s Head, Soho (1785-1800), with Samuel Johnson top left and Joshua Reynolds, third left © Courtesy of Museum of London

Railways were a source of fascination in 19th-century London; the delivery of mail was another. In “The General Post Office, One Minute to Six” by George Elgar Hicks (1860), the artist shows crowds rushing for the last post. The pace of life, the deadlines imposed by urban living, are no cause for concern, however: the Post Office, one of the reliable administrative centres at the heart of a huge empire, will take care of things.

For those who did find the relentless imperatives of London living too much to bear in the early years of the 20th century, there was respite: the suburbs. No one strove harder than London Transport to assure its new public that there was a calm, pastoral universe in which to escape the pressures of the inner city, just minutes way. Its posters to persuade us of that have subsequently become graphic design classics, including Edward McKnight Kauffer’s trippy depiction “Flowers of the Riverside” (1920) and Kate Burrell’s verdant Hampstead scene, released a decade later.

Modern London’s artists have continued to hover between the extremes of the city’s life, from its cosmopolitan vitality to its seemingly inevitable social problems. John Bartlett’s “History Painting” of 1994 portrays a violent moment in the poll tax riots at the start of the decade, but the artist has eschewed social realism and painted his scene in the manner of a Renaissance master. London’s multicultural make-up is widely celebrated — but not without reservations. Dominican-born Tam Joseph brings exuberance to his troubling version of the Notting Hill Carnival, “Spirit of the Carnival” (1983), in which a masquerader defies a circle of police riot shields that surround him. A more unequivocally positive image of London’s diversity are the dresses worn by the placard bearers at the 2012 Olympic Games’ opening ceremony, festooned with a random selection of Londoners’ faces.

David Hepher, ‘Camberwell Nocturne’ (1984) © David Hepher/Courtesy Museum of London

Can artists find lyricism in the metropolitan fervour of today’s London? David Hepher’s 1984 “Camberwell Nocturne” shows day and night scenes of a tower block, contrasting the menacing aspects of the daylight hours with the peace of night-time, when the block is improbably transformed, in the artist’s words, into a “mass of coloured lights against a velvet sky”.

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