Last edited 26 Nov 2023

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

London: the Great Transformation 1860-1920

London the Great Transformation 1860 to 1920.jpg

London: the Great Transformation 1860–1920, Atlantic Publishing, 480 pages, over 800 black-and-white illustrations, hardback, 2022.

This book is the fourth of Philip Davies’s explorations of London through historic photographs. In this volume the author draws on a wide range of archive material, particularly on photographs in the Historic England archives and at Bishopsgate Institute.

In a foreword, Dan Cruikshank notes that it is often the most obscure that is lost. The book shines a light on less-known but changed corners of London. The large number of timber-framed and weatherboarded houses in areas like Clerkenwell and Stepney, and in then-outlying villages like Hornsey, come as a surprise. Equally unexpected is the foreground in 1867 of wharves and industrial buildings between Lambeth Bridge and the Palace of Westminster and the abbey: a place that is an important element in the nation’s image of itself. True to its title, the book illustrates a great transformation from a London that would be recognisable to Charles Dickens to a city still familiar in the mid-20th century.

In his author’s introduction, Davies traces the depiction of London before photography and the subsequent history of photography in the capital. The book includes the earliest-known photograph of London: a view of Whitehall taken in 1839. Photography provided a record of the buildings and streets of London, and those form the core of the book, including work by photographers such as Bedford Lemere and Co. To take one example from hundreds, photographs of Edward Blore’s east front to Buckingham Palace in 1890, refaced in 1913, show that some changes were beneficial.

Some photographers had a deliberate social reforming purpose. Practitioners like John Thomson and the American author Jack London went into the poorer boroughs of the city to depict the lives of the people living there. Pictures of shops and people at work show a lively street life and a visually busy scene. Others depict the more abject face of urban poverty in a way which is uncomfortable to look at. Perhaps there is also a niggling worry that, for all the social reforming motives of the photographers, the pictures seem a little bit voyeuristic.

A photograph by Nora Smyth of a street in Bow in 1914 is one of the more harrowing images of poverty. Even there a boy poses as if in mid-air, with one foot on a window cill and the other in a cavity in the brickwork lining the alley, displaying something of the cockiness and confidence of Londoners that often shines through. In another photograph, a group of much better clothed and shod lads in Poplar in 1928 sit on a doorstep grinning at the camera.

Beyond the rich architectural record and the poignant images of thousands of people who were once flesh and blood, fixed by the camera shutter, the fascination of the book is in the particularity of the moment. Groups of people pose for the photographer in Tower Hamlets in 1912 while in the background a newsagent’s placard gives the news of the sinking of the Titanic. In Shoreditch in 1910 two police officers attending a school strike against corporal punishment question a photographer who nervously holds his camera behind his back: a scene captured by a second photographer.

When the postman handed me this book, he warned that ‘it’s got some weight’. This is true in every sense. The hundreds of photographs are both informative and haunting. This is a generous collection with a rich visual texture helped by cleaning and restoration of the plates. There are many forms of conservation. This book is the result of years of research and editing. The introduction and commentary inform the reader about the history of photography as well as about London’s and the nation’s history. London: the Great Transformation is itself a significant conservation achievement.

This article originally appeared as ‘Particular moments’ in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Context 176, published in June 2023. It was written by Michael Taylor, editorial co-ordinator for Context.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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