In a former life in the 1990s I used to work for English Heritage as one of its select and overly academic team of ‘monograph’ editors. We published the formal reports on nationally funded excavations and headline-making building-related stories. My four colleagues were the proper archaeologists, so I was the stand-in for architecture. I like architecture, because it’s in the blood: my uncle ran his own practice in Oxford and my great-great uncle was an architectural draughtsman, and a fine West Country watercolourist in the early 20th century (Arthur Fare, if you’re interested). However, as a shiny new PhD graduate in English I knew nothing about architecture in my new job, so I tended to keep my mouth shut and my pen scribbling at meetings. Instead, I mopped up words. Spandrels. Pilasters. Mansard. Plan form. Glazing bars. Apsidal. Piers. Chimneypiece (obviously superior to ‘mantelpiece’). Polite façade. Neo-Baroque. Closet wing. This makes me very boring on outings to old churches and stately homes, because I rarely know what I’m muttering about, but I simply love the shapes and structure of a building and the naming of its parts.
Philp Davies’ magnificent and seriously weighty tome of London County Council photographs, Lost London 1970-1945, is the kind of book I used to edit for EH. (I only spotted one howler: Percy Bysshe Shelley didn’t marry Mary Wollstonecraft, but her daughter, Mary Godwin. The church they married in is featured, but they’re not in the index.) Lost London is a treasure-house of the past: more than 500 photographs taken around 1900, and at various times in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, just before the old buildings of London were to be pulled down, or, during the Second World War, were tottering in ruins after the Blitz. The City churches where Oliver Cromwell was married and Samuel Richardson was buried are revealed as beams and shattered stonework pillars. These photographs were rediscovered and curated after almost a century by Vijay Mehta and Steve Hurst of EH London Region (all praise!), and have been lovingly arranged and captioned by Davies into this tremendous picture book for London architecture aficionados.
It’s also a book for literary types. These photos show you buildings and streets that Thackeray would have known, churches that Trollope would have worshipped in, shops and hotels frequented by George Eliot, louche clubland retreats known by Henry James and Oscar Wilde, and the late Victorian and Edwardian streets written about and sauntered along by Jack London, Amber Reeves, Arthur Conan Doyle, H G Wells, Arthur Ransome, Somerset Maugham, Lily Langtry and Vesta Tilley. Dickens crops up seven times in the index, because there are photographs of seven places that he visited or used in his novels. The great mansions partied in by the Bright Young Things in the 1920s are seen in their dingy, derelict splendour just before their disintegration after bombing. The last section in the book, on the photographs taken in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, shows you the streets lived and walked in by Dorothy L Sayers, Michael Arlen and Noel Coward. The East End, North London and Holborn streets that Margery Allingham elaborated on in her Campion novels are all here (probably). This book simply oozes literary history, and is hopelessly poignant because nearly all of the buildings featured are gone. A scant few remain ‘in private hands’, but so many of the famous are gone forever. Did you know that the Pantheon, a tremendous late 18th-century public ballroom, what Walpole called ‘a winter Ranelagh’, immortalised for a twentieth-century generation by Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, now stands on the site of Marks & Spencer on Oxford Street? (the Tottenham Court Road end) There’s a photograph of its interior here, because it survived until 1937.
However, most photographs are of the tenements and slums of the very poor, because these were the buildings most likely to be pulled down for massive road developments or new streets. The photographers occasionally had to disguise their photographing by setting up the camera inside a covered cart, and then have one man attend to the wheel axle while the photographer got on with his job under cover, for fear of an opportunist rush by street urchins or larger people with thievery on their minds. In the areas where the natives were tolerant or even friendly, the camera has captured solemn and curious groups of Victorian and Edwardian Londoners, mostly all hatted, but many of them not shoed.
The architectural vocabulary is strong in this book, and I was gasping for a glossary long before the end, my residual understanding of spandrels being inadequate. I also question the rather inhuman irascibility of Davies’s comments, like ‘tragically cleared for uninspiring public housing in the 1960s’ and ‘finally demolished for public housing in 1958, one of London’s most grievous architectural losses’. In the latter case, the aesthetic value of the original mid-Victorian Columbia Market is absolutely a matter of personal taste, but to complain about the loss of its numerous, pointless gables and faux-Gothic architecture when they were replaced by much-needed homes for the ever-increasing London population seems too ivory tower for my taste. Buildings are to be lived and worked in, after all, not admired as empty white elephants from a distance.
Despite those fiddling complaints, I browsed happily upon this immense book for a week. It is a wonder, and a fabulous repository of human history, caught on camera. Each page is a beautiful photo album with detailed, earnest captions, but the photographs are the things that hold your eye, searching for the details you’ve been told about (spandrels!), and wondering who the people are, clustered in the doorways or around the cart.
Philip Davies, Lost London 1870-1945 (London: TransAtlantic Press and English Heritage, 2009), ISBN 978 0 9557949 8 8, £39;99, but I got mine for £20 at the Watts Gallery gift centre, Compton, Surrey.