Relics of London Past


Images such as this one of the entrance to the now lost Christ’s Hospital, taken by the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London c.1879, transform many of London’s spaces into monumental relics, abstracted of people and petrified under soot-soaked chiaroscuro. They are at once impenetrable and unrestricted; we cannot inhabit or circulate their lost spaces, but the images are classless, interrogated under the pseudo-scientific lens of the project’s executors.

Of the photographers commissioned by the Society, William Strudwick, A & J Bool, and Henry Dixon and Son, it was Dixon who concerned himself most with the interiors of buildings, understanding that any record of London’s architecture would be incomplete without some preservation of its lived, domestic spaces. Accompanying many of the photographs are details of the signified building’s history, or exclamations of its architectural and artistic importance. The staircase of No.10, Austin Friars, is especially melancholic, its penned notes by the secretary of the Society, Alfred Marks, describing “a painted ceiling, the only one, perhaps, yet left in a City house.” Tantalisingly caught at the top-left corner, this last specimen of a painted Queen Anne ceiling is nevertheless hidden by the gloom of the negative’s near-focus. We are admitted to the guts of London’s houses (barley-twist balusters pattern the photograph like ripples in the developing fluid), yet we are barred from anything more than the barest of their visual facts; their spaces yet lie out of reach.

Austin House

Alongside domestic views, historic monuments from the Tudor and Stuart eras formed the focus of the Dixons’ efforts, including the tomb of the founder of Charterhouse, which had been sculpted from alabaster in 1615; “The boys already in their seats, with smug fresh faces and shining white collars; the old black-gowned pensioners are on their benches; the Chapel is lighted, and the Founder’s tomb, with its grotesque carvings and monster heraldries, sparkles and shines with the most wonderful shadows and lights. There he lies, Fundator Noster, in his ruff and gown, awaiting the great Examination Day.” [William Thackeray, The Newcomes, 1855]. By the time the Society’s photograph was taken, these ‘shadows and lights’ had worn down to a dulled mass from a distant past, hulked inconveniently in the corner of the chapel.

chartehouse tomb

Where Thackeray writes of a living throng still occupying the space of the Charterhouse chapel, the image presented by the Society includes enough of the building’s romanesque stone arch to suggest an ecclesiastical context while simultaneously removing all traces of the chapel’s moveables, and thus its capacity for a human congregation, save for the single carved pew-end tucked at the bottom of the frame. Columns border the sides of the photograph, separating the space of the tomb from the author’s own [and by extension, that of the viewer] within the nave. The tomb’s elision from any notion of ongoing use may indeed have been a response to a waning congregation by the end of the nineteenth century, but it is kept at a further remove by a sharp and densely aligned row of Stuart railings, erected both to preserve the carvings, and suggest another, intangible realm, which could be occupied only by the deceased. This iron barrier serves as a metaphor of the photographic project itself, suggesting a presence beyond the plate while removing any sense of the subjects’ viability in the ever changing metropolis.

The scale of time within the image is one laden with constant pressure, perpetually threatening the eroding stasis of the monument;

“…They would not think to lie so long. 
Such faithfulness in effigy 
Was just a detail friends would see: 
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace 
Thrown off in helping to prolong 
The Latin names around the base. 

They would not guess how early in 
Their supine stationary voyage 
The air would change to soundless damage, 
Turn the old tenantry away; 
How soon succeeding eyes begin 
To look, not read. Rigidly they 

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths 
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light 
Each summer thronged the grass. A bright 
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same 
Bone-littered ground. And up the paths 
The endless altered people came, 

Washing at their identity. 
Now, helpless in the hollow of 
An unarmorial age, a trough 
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins 
Above their scrap of history, 
Only an attitude remains: 

Time has transfigured them into 
Untruth. The stone fidelity 
They hardly meant has come to be 
Their final blazon…”                Excerpt from Philip Larkin, An Arundel Tomb, 1964

The Society’s approach to the project seems scattergun and at times tautological, shaped more by what buildings they knew of personally, and to those they could gain entry, than by any strict taxonomic record of the city’s streets, houses, and precincts. It is perhaps exactly this that sets them apart from their contemporaries, C.A Mathew for instance, who captured the noise of a populous street and the hubbub of industry, with nothing of their impending loss. The truly scientific, it would seem, such as Eadweard Muybridge over in America, who was mapping the gridded conurbation of San Francisco in his vast panoramas around the same time, miss the point just as much. The warmth of the Society’s one-offs, their idiosyncratic method of urban portraiture, catches the viewer off guard, sentimentally, but with a debilitating recognition of the shock of the future, which bears down upon each frame, and cracks the nostalgia from within.

Though precious sections of the London cityscape recorded by the Society’s photographers have been preserved (for example, see for a concise comparison of past and present images), most are now destroyed, which is hardly surprising considering the continuous devastations to the city’s fragile history that have been effected by war and human progress. As Benjamin’s Angel of History is blown to a point of catastrophe, London’s lifeblood has been perpetually battered by the winds of change, and the city’s population forgets its closest ancestors in an instant. As Harold Clunn wrote in his 1947 guide to London’s perpetual re-birth London Marches On, ‘one must face the fact that the unwieldy town houses of our grandfathers … are doomed.’

Image copyright Bishopsgate Institute.




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