For centuries, London has been much more than a national capital, and is indeed one of the great ‘world cities’, drawing interest and expectation, and visitors and immigrants, from across the globe. Its variety and vitality have also long appealed to artists, and have yielded an almost endless supply of views and vistas.
The images selected for this exhibition demonstrate the infinite fascination that London holds, and showcase the great ability of British artists to communicate it. Regency topographers record lost landmarks in charming detail. Late nineteenth century landscapists capture the centre of an Empire at the height of its power. Early twentieth-century draughtsmen and etchers chart its enhancement and modernisation. And our contemporaries observe it with fresh pairs of eyes, and portray it with dexterous hands.
Through the centre of the city flows the River Thames, once its major transport artery, and still its focus, creating a sense of light-reflecting continuity, from Richmond in the west to Wapping in the east, and on towards the estuary. It provides the setting for a wide range of activities, from quiet habitation, in houseboats and embankment-side dwellings, to national governance, at Westminster.
Another life-enhancing focus is offered by the chain of Royal Parks that runs through the central London boroughs, from Kensington Gardens in the northwest to St James’s Park in the southeast. However, they are only the most prominent of many much-loved green spaces that punctuate the city from Hampstead Heath to Greenwich Park, and so ensure that the most resolute townies keep in touch with nature.
Elsewhere, each district asserts its individual character, and marries old and new in its own way. In Kensington and Chelsea, the spectres of Bohemian artists rub shoulders with smart shoppers. Around Piccadilly, galleries and theatres, restaurants and clubs, afford myriad opportunities for entertainment and leisure. The courts and yards of the Temple ring with the tread of solicitors and barristers, as they have since the Middle Ages. And on the ancient foundations of the City of London, Wren’s elegant churches stand their ground alongside cloud-capped mercantile towers. As Wordsworth contemplated in a sonnet dedicated to London: ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair;/Dull would he be of soul who could pass by/A sight so touching in its majesty’. Much of that majesty is evidenced by the images included here.