12 March 2010

Reflections on 'London 1870s and now'

Like the face of a loved one (not to say one's own), London changes constantly - but it's only when you look at an old photo that you realise how much.

Ainsley

The Gherkin and the Eye are now city-defining postcard-views for instance.

But you most notice them when they don't appear - in pictures which, to your surprise, were only taken a dozen years ago. Within a few years, perhaps we'll find London views without the Shard or the 'southern Trafalgar Square' of the redeveloped Elephant and Castle quaint, austere and old fashioned.

When I saw Henry Dixon's photos of London in the 1870s during the preparation for the Points of View exhibition, this effect came to mind.

What better way to illustrate the speed and character of London's constant self-reinvention that to compare his images with their equivalents today?

The process was straightforward, but posed some unexpected problems and yielded some curious insights. First was to select a couple of dozen pictures which would make an interesting comparison with today, with at least some recognisable element linking both.

That was tricky. Most of Dixon's photos were to record buildings soon to be demolished, and they bear no relation to today's facades. Redevelopment then (for example around the Aldwych) or subsequently (for example around the Barbican following contributions from the Luftwaffe) often obliterated the old street plan comprehensively. Even where a few historic features remain unchanged – St John's Gate in Clerkenwell, St Helen's Church – the immediate surroundings have often transformed radically and unrecognisably.

But we ended with about 20 promising images.

Next came the task of finding the locations of these images, and taking new shots from exactly the same spot, as far as possible. Clues to their location came from the caption information (rarely detailed), but mostly from study of the pictures themselves. A street sign in the corner of a photo and a period street map might locate one of Dixon's snapping locations; a characteristic shop noticeable in another photo, plus a bit of internet or book research, might fix another.

With the probable locations identified, through August I cycled round London with printouts of Dixon's work and a digital camera, walking back and forth and experimenting with the zoom to get the viewpoint with the closest match.

Sometimes this wasn't easy: at various points I had to sweet-talk my way past several security guards, roam the arts section of Barbican public library, and most memorably, the climb out on the second-floor balcony of a bank on Fleet St. Goodness knows how the passers-by found the sight of a man on a bank's window ledge during the biggest recession since 1929.

One surprise was trees. There seem many more than in Dixon's day, most of them situated with irritating effectiveness at blocking the view. Being a cyclist, of course I tried to sneak bikes in to a few pictures, St Helen's Church being the best example.

And my favourite? The George Inn, Southwark, London's only surviving half-example of a medieval galleried inn. Along with the New Inn on Holborn, it's a surprise example of something that's better now than in the 1870s, thanks to restoration. The George may not quite be as well-preserved as other medieval galleried inns – such as another New Inn, a delight in the centre of Gloucester – but it's one of the most pleasant and characterful gems in London.

And the beer, surely, tastes just as good as the one Dixon must have enjoyed his own hard days of photo-documentary spadework.

Rob Ainsley

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09 March 2010

London 1870s and now - 18: Great St Helen's, Bishopsgate

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This is the 18th and LAST in a series of posts comparing photos of London taken by Henry Dixon in the 1870s and 80s with the same view today.

Use our Google map to see where they were taken.

This is the church of St Helen's in Great St Helen's, a winding lane now at the centre of stupdendously vertical office-block redevelopment.

The top picture is Dixon's. A zoomable version of this image is on our Online Gallery. Writing about the photograph in 1880, Alfred Marks commented: "The view shows the south entrance of this most interesting church, and, on the left, a portion of a massive timber-built house. The inscription over the church door is Laus . Deo . St. Helena . Repd. 1633."

Below it is the same view as it appeared in August 2009. The church, reconstructed after damage from IRA bombs, is familiar, but the worshipper of the 1870s would be agape at the surroundings. Just to the right is the 180m 'Gherkin', while just to the left, at the time of the picture, was a huge building site on which another skyscraper was being built: the 288m Bishopsgate Tower, aka the Pinnacle. The photo below shows the front view of the church, dwarfed by the Gherkin.

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[RA]

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02 March 2010

Tate's Muybridge exhibition

Further to my previous post, I see that Tate (Britain)'s Muybridge exhibition opens on 8 September 2010.

More information on the Tate website

Muybridge, of course, features in our exhibition

[CW]

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London 1870s and now - 17: College Hill, the City

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This is the 17th in a series of posts comparing photos of London taken by Henry Dixon in the 1870s and 80s with the same view today.

Use our Google map to see where they were taken.

This is College Hill, in the area of narrow back-lanes just by Cannon St station in the City.

The top picture is Dixon's. A zoomable version of this image is on our Online Gallery. Writing about the photograph in 1880, Alfred Marks commented: "College Street (formerly Elbow Lane) and College Hill take their name from a foundation of Whittington, famous in City annals as having been four times Lord Mayor and thrice buried; still more famous in legend as the fortunate owner of a cat. The Church shown in the background...is St. Michael's, Paternoster Royal."

Below it is the same view as it appeared in August 2009, with St Michael's church unchanged. Innholder's Hall, on the left, is still intact and with the same decorated doorway.

[RA]

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01 March 2010

Points of View closes this week

A reminder to those who haven't yet seen it, or who intend to visit it again for that matter, that the Points of View exhibition in the British Library PACCAR gallery will close at 17.00 on Sunday 7 March.

You'll still be able to see the virtual exhibition of course: that will remain in our Online Gallery.

And this blog will run for a bit longer as we have a few more 'London 1870s and now' posts to put up. And you obviously love them! So keep coming back every Tuesday.

Finally, Michael Pritchard of British Photographic History reports that the Tate is planning an exhibition on Eadweard Muybridge. More details when we have them.

[CW]

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24 February 2010

Calling all flookers

Do you know about flook.it?

Flook is a 'location browser' that enables iPhone users to discover and share what they see around them.

Imagine you are standing by the British Library in Euston Road. You can use flook to find out what your fellow flookers have said about nearby attractions. Maybe good cheap eats, places to visits, forthcoming events, sites of infamous past events. These messages take the form of flook cards.

Cards have a full-screen photo and some text. The point is that they're geo-located - placed at a specific location for you to find when you're nearby. Over time, flook learns which cards people like most, and then shows them to you first.

Flook
As an experiment we've got together with flook.it to display the 'London 1870s and now' photos from this blog. Find out more on the flook.it website.

Please let us know what you think.

[CW]

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23 February 2010

London 1870s and now - 16: Queen Anne's Gate, Westminster

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This is the 16th in a series of posts comparing photos of London taken by Henry Dixon in the 1870s and 80s with the same view today.

Use our Google map to see where they were taken.

This is Queen Anne's Gate, in an exclusive residential area of Westminster between Parliament Square and St James's Park.

The top picture is Dixon's. A zoomable version of this image is on our Online Gallery. Writing about the photograph in 1880, Alfred Marks commented: "The photograph shows the statue of Queen Anne, and on the left a portion of the Square built in her reign, and named after her, Queen Square."

Below it is the same view as it appeared in August 2009. Apart from the hoardings and the parked cars, the square looks virtually identical to its appearance over 130 years ago.

[RA]

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16 February 2010

London 1870s and now - 15: Banqueting House, Whitehall

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This is the 15th in a series of posts comparing photos of London taken by Henry Dixon in the 1870s and 80s with the same view today.

Use our Google map to see where they were taken.

This is Banqueting House, Whitehall, perhaps the most striking building on the grand boulevard, now a visitor attraction and venue for events.

The top picture is Dixon's. A zoomable version of this image is on our Online Gallery. Writing about the photograph in 1880, Alfred Marks commented: "The Banqueting House was built from the designs of Inigo Jones in 1619-1622. The ceiling... is decorated with pictures painted by Rubens at Antwerp. (Sainsbury's Rubens, 183-186; 191-205.) In its early days Masques were performed at the Banqueting House; it is now used as a chapel, though it has never been consecrated. It was restored in 1831." He also noted that King Charles I "...was beheaded on a scaffold before the front shown in the view."

Below it is the same view as it appeared in February 2009. Apart from the a few flagpoles and yet another tree cluttering up the austere views of Dixon, the facade is identical to what the 1880 passer-by in an omnibus would have seen.

[RA]

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09 February 2010

London 1870s and now - 14: 185 Fleet St

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This is the 14th in a series of posts comparing photos of London taken by Henry Dixon in the 1870s and 80s with the same view today.

Use our Google map to see where they were taken.

It shows a section of Fleet St, on the north side, just between St Dunstan's Church to the left and Fetter Lane to the right.

The top picture is Dixon's. A zoomable version of this image is on our Online Gallery. Writing about the photograph in 1880, Alfred Marks commented: "Aubrey tells us that Michael Drayton, the poet, 'lived at the bay-window house, next to the East end of St. Dunstan's Ch. in Fleet-Street' (Lives II. 335). Tradition claims for the house shown in the middle of the photograph the honour of having been the residence of the author of Polyolbion. The Great Fire stopped, on the north side of Fleet Street, at Fetter Lane, sparing St. Dunstan's and the intervening block of houses. The house certainly dates from before the Fire, and it agrees with Aubrey's description."

Below it is the same view as it appeared in August 2009. Though there's a glancing similarity to the widths of the buildings, and the street numbers tally (the middle building is No. 185), they have all been rebuilt and bear little resemblance to their predecessors. Only a small visible part of St Dunstan's Church, in the top left, links the two images.

Henry Dixon must have taken his photograph from the first floor of No. 43, opposite. That is now occupied by the IT department of Hoare's Bank, which let us come up to take our picture from exactly the same spot, and bought us a cup of tea. Thanks to David and Pam for their assistance.

[RA]

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02 February 2010

London 1870s and now - 13: Lincoln's Inn

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This is the 13th in a series of posts comparing photos of London taken by Henry Dixon in the 1870s and 80s with the same view today.

Use our Google map to see where they were taken.

It shows the Old Square of Lincoln's Inn, just inside the west gate off Chancery Lane. One of the four Inns of Court - the training-grounds for Britain's legal profession - Lincoln's Inn is a tranquil and picturesque series of squares in the heart of the bustling centre, perhaps the nearest London has to Oxbridge's college quads.

The top picture is Dixon's. A zoomable version of this image is on our Online Gallery. Writing about the photograph in 1880, Alfred Marks drew our attention to "a tradition that Ben Jonson, fresh from his college at Cambridge, wrought as a bricklayer on the buildings of Lincoln's Inn, when having a trowel in one hand, and a book in his pocket."

Below it is the same view as it appeared in August 2009. As with surprisingly many of Dixon's photos, an abundant tree now blocks some of the view that the 1870s afforded. And as with unsurprisingly many of Dixon's photos, much has changed, even in such a timeless-feeling place as Lincoln's Inn: only the diamond pattern on the brickwork to the right, and the edge of the chapel on the left, give a fix between the two eras.

[RA]

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