Documentary: A Picture of London (BBC)
I found this video on BBC iPlayer about different artist’s impressions of London.
It was interesting to watch something that showed different sides to the city; some showing beauty and wealth, others showing anarchy and poverty.
After the Great Fire of London, the new St. Paul’s Cathedral became a symbol of the rebirth of London – an age of classicism. In this film it is described as a “great phoenix, risen from the flames”. It was the first domed building to reach London and was inspired by the great buildings of Rome. I think that when looking at these historical buildings that are dotted all over London, you sometimes forget the history; you forget that that particular building was built for a particular purpose (that it may or may not serve now) and most buildings are there out of consequence of a major event.
As I have only been to London on very short trips, I have not seen most of the buildings that are mentioned in the film but I have seen and understand what the film says about 8 minutes in; “the city sheds it’s skin, while the bones stay the same”. I think that this is true of most historical cities. The old and the new are always mixed and this film portrays different aspects of this rich history well through pieces of film, photography and paintings.
Although Antonio Canaletto painted beautiful and elegant landscapes of London, they are incorrect. He moved elements of the city around to suit his compositions and they are more like the visions of dreams rather than reality, and were commissioned by Londoners who aimed for their city to be the new Venice.
Other artists were drew to the working trades of London. Covent Garden became the target of most of these artists, concentrating their efforts on the bustle of the market and the produce that it sold. Theatres, brothels and coffee houses surrounded the original Covent Garden.
William Hogarth rejected artifice and created a new picture of London. In a series of paintings from 1736 entitled Four Times of the Day, the artist showed paintings of the working class juxtaposed next to the higher wealthier classes. This series started in Covent Garden. Although some of these paintings were exaggerated in many ways, I feel that this gives us quite a clear idea of how Hogarth saw the city and it’s population divided; by fashion, manners, food and actions.
“I behold London human awful wonder of God” – William Blake, 1804
William Blake “prophecised a city where awfullness and wonder become the same thing”. Industrialisation transformed the look and feel of the city in both positive and negative ways. Panorama, 1806 was built as an illusionistic scene designed to “thrill and excite”. From this view, from above, the city looked beautiful, but at street level, there was an entirely different world.
Many artists over the last 200 years have tried to capture the vastness of London in one image. Stephen Walter depicted London as an island to reflect Great Britain itself being an island, and also London’s own self worth. To me, due to how cluttered and busy the image is, it shows both order and chaos. I think that this is a much truer view of the city than some of the older pieces of art are. It shows both the good and the bad whilst informing onlookers of the beauty and despair that goes on in everyday life. In the film itself, the artist is looking at his work with a magnifying glass as this is the only way you could read all of the typography. I think that this is interesting because it reflects how this BBC documentary film is looking at London under a microscope, studying it in great detail.
“A resemblance of sodome or the last day” – John Evelyn, 1666
Joseph Malore William Turner was in the crowd as the Houses of Parliament burnt down and sketchbook in-hand, he “feverously” sketched what was happening before him. Turner became obsessed with the event and in 1835 he painted Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, his most famous work. Again, as with the Great Fire of London, London now saw a change in its appearance and needed a new parliament home. This was to be a Gothic Revivalist design that would reflect the cities evergrowing dark atmosphere. I really like the way that this building is now seen as one of the most iconic in London, with the tower of Big Ben and the gothic architecture, but when it was first built it seemed almost out of place.
In comparison, Old Battersea Bridge by American painter J.M. Whistler, 1875 showed a much more peaceful side of London, with serene blues and softs outlines.
“Fog everywhere” – Charles Dickens, 1856
After the Industrial Revolution, the smoke produced by the new industry shrouded London in a veil of smog until the 1950s. This has become the stereotypical image of industrial London. For Claude Monet, the smoggy conditions made London beautiful, blurring the edges of the blocky buildings and merging the colours into a rainbow of shades. For Karl Marx, the smog made it hellish. He sought out to expose the poverty and injustice of the city. I think that these two contrasting views of London in the late 19th century give us, looking back, two completely different ideas about London at this time. On one hand, the poverty and dirtiness of London’s streets shown by Karl Marx’s images make it difficult to imagine what it could have been like all those years ago whilst depicting the brutal reality of what was going on at that point in history. Contrastingly, Claude Monet’s dream-like paintings of the river and the scenery give a much more peaceful outlook, looking at the smog and industry as a positive. These two contrasting ideas give the idea that this could be the case in many places even now. I feel that you could take two artists, and put them in an identical place and they would always see something different. Although I feel that Monet’s paintings may have idealised the greatness of the city, showing only the good, Marx’s photographs also seem very biased in a more negative way, showing only the bad. These negative connotations held by the fog and the state of London in general at that time, gave inspiration to the films of Alfred Hitchcock and all the things that are synonymous with Hitchcock were living within the London smog.
“Hell is a city much like London – a populous and smoky city” - Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819
The Fallen Angels Entering Pandemonium by John Martin, 1825, shows a London enbankment engulfed by the fires of Hell. It became fashionable in the 19th century for London to be depicted as a biblical city. In my opinion, this shows the wealth of different cultures that had influenced the art and produce of the city of London and shows how some people felt about the state that London was in.
As the 20th century started, the first moving images of London reveal a fast paced city, “chaotic and dramatic”. This newly mechanised city was now being depicted in a much different way as seen in Amongst the Nerves of the World by C.R.W. Nevison, 1930. This painting almost looks cubist in it’s style with the lines conjoining seperate areas, merging them and making it a very flat image. This adds to the clutter and business being portrayed and evokes a sense of overcrowding and pace.
In 1940, London burned once more with regular bombings from the Germans at the beginning of World War 2. Henry Moore drew people sheltering in tunnels from the bombings, capturing their desperation, exhaustion and anxiety with bold lines. Again, this gave the opportunity to rebuild many parts of London adding to it’s diverse range of structures. Throughout the history of London, there had always been plans to build tall towers that stood out in the skyline. In 1956, St. Paul’s Cathedral was still the tallest building in London. A change in law that got rid of the height restriction of proposed buildings changed the landscape and a few years later more concrete buildings, busy roads and council estates were built.
Bombings on 10th April 1992 meant that as well as several people losing their lives, some of the effected building needed to be demolished, and therefore, replaced. The Gherkin was completed in 2003 and is the latest image of everchanging London.
All of the Londoners that were talked to in this film talk about how proud they are to be from London and how positive they are about the mix of buildings and people that reside in the city.
Overall, watching this documentary, not only inspired me to want to visit London again but has taught me more about the history, as well as the art, of the city. I think that learning the history of places sometimes helps you to understand the meanings behind the art based on that place as it gives context to an image.