And furthermore ...

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Friday, 22 August 2014

LONDON BELONGS TO ME


Judge’s postcards of London
 “I naturally gravitated to London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.” 
Arthur Conan Doyle: A Study in Scarlet


In 1908, Fred Judge travelled up to London to make his first postcard views of the city. Three years earlier, Baedeker’s had published the fourteenth edition of London and its Environs. Ever since the first edition dedicated to London had come out in 1878, the Baedeker’s guide was considered the most thorough guide to the city. Typical city guides listed the main sights and provided some background to them. Baedeker’s went further, providing essential information regarding entry points, hotels and restaurants, bus and train timetables and recommended shops, including bookbinders, engravers and gunsmiths. It was the first modern guidebook and because the tourist market at that time belonged to the relatively wealthy it assumed that money was no object. Its readers wouldn’t be interested in discovering that little restaurant tucked away in an alley behind Covent Garden or a small hotel that offered surprisingly good value. The East End was left out; only a madman would risk wandering through the slums, and there wasn’t much to look at in the first place. Still, the 1905 Baedeker’s guide tells you things about the city historians tend to overlook. Though English food had a poor reputation internationally, the standard offered in London was much higher than that of local French or Italian restaurants. They tended to get things wrong, no doubt because essential ingredients like herbs and sauces were hard to come by. The guide also has a separate listing for oyster bars, a distinctly though not uniquely American fashion. Among bookshops, Hatchards still exists at the same address (187 Piccadilly). Foyles doesn’t get a mention, possibly because it was only two years old and Baedeker’s liked places with established reputations. It also lists a couple of still active legal publishers, Kelly’s and Reeves & Turner, which tells us what kind of tourists were expected to buy the guidebooks. Among recommended photographers are Mendelsohn at 14 Pembridge Crescent, Elliot & Fry at 55 Baker St, Ellis and Walery, two doors down at 51 Baker St, Mayall & Co at 126 Piccadilly and the London Stereograph Co at 106 Regent St and 54 Cheapside.

 You sometimes read that postcards belonged to the very middle classes, a rung or two down the social ladder from the ideal Baedeker’s readers. This isn’t quite true; there are well known collections in archives that once belonged to prominent lawyers and surgeons. Also, from a commercial point of view, Baedeker’s would have failed if it saw itself as only belonging to the privileged classes. When it came to the listings of prices for restaurants, a teacher or clerk from Edinburgh who had saved up enough money for a few days in London could rely on the book as well, noting which places fell within his or her budget and what buses were best to catch, since a hansom cab from the British Museum to Charing Cross cost 1 shilling and sixpence whereas a bus cost about a penny. Irrespective of income, there were also sights every tourist had to witness. Anybody coming to London for the first time would want to gaze upon the broad panorama of the Thames with Tower Bridge in the distance. Baedeker outlined a route, photographers like Judge provided the evidence. For a lot of visitors, a scene like this would have encapsulated their image of the river but they could hardly hope to record it so perfectly with their little Kodak. 


 What’s interesting is when Judge presents a scene at odds with the Baedeker view. The latter is neat, well organized and makes no effort to capture the physical life of the city. The publishers no doubt thought that last bit wasn’t part of their job, and besides, how could they? Theirs was a guidebook, not a collection of poetry. Baedeker’s ideal tourist visited the sites in a sensible order, heading to the British Museum in the morning (the guide book comes with a plan of two floors) then the National Gallery to contemplate selected masterpieces before, time permitting, making Saint Paul’s in the late afternoon. In Baedeker’s world, the elements that would slow the most conscientious tourist - crowds, traffic jams and bad weather - don’t exist. In the 1930s Judge would describe how when he first came to London he liked to sit on the top of the open double-decker buses and photograph the streets. In this scene of Fleet Street we have a view of St Paul’s – as emblematic of London as Tower Bridge – and something every tourist would have experienced; a crowded street jammed with buses and pedestrians. If Baedeker never warned them, the journey nevertheless is the point of reaching a destination. Good tourists would have found scenes like this endlessly fascinating, even if it meant their itinerary was thrown out of kilter. The ‘real’ London was discovered on noisy, vibrant streets, not in quiet meditation on some Italian painting in a gallery.



Speaking of St Paul’s, and quietude, Judge’s scenes of the cathedral interior are among his very best work. When he took this, (undated but certainly before 1914) photographing church interiors required skill and a sophisticated camera. Tourists carrying nothing better than a Box Brownie and some enthusiasm were guaranteed to be disappointed by their efforts. They depended upon professionals to record not just the evidence but the experience of visiting the cathedral. Designed by Christopher Wren, the final resting place for Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, John Donne, J. M. W. Turner and Wren himself, it isn’t an exaggeration to call it the spiritual centre of the empire. Any commercial photograph of the interior had to possess the correct gravitas and impart a proper sense of majesty. Compare this image to the work of the best known photographer of church interiors at the time, Frederick Evans, and its remarkable to think that back in the 1910s, photographs of this standard were being published as postcards.


 Still in St Paul’s, and a view of the tomb of Lord Leighton, a name that meant nothing to me though it turns out he was one of Britain’s most respected artists between the 1850s and the 1880s. Most of his work looks to be typically academic: sentimental scenes drawn from classical literature and mythology, a lot of naked women with alabaster complexions; eroticism for people who had never experienced the real thing. But he was also what you might call an ideal Victorian, being a soldier as well as an artist and a stout defender of the empire. Judge had studied at Wakefield Art School in the 1880s so would have known of Leighton and his work. He may have photographed the memorial out of respect but just as likely he was struck by the atmosphere created by the light. The effect is sombre without being gloomy, the light evenly diffused from the ceiling. Unless people were specifically looking for Leighton’s memorial, the image works just as well as a typical monument found in the crypt. Judge isn’t telling us that we need to know whose it is. According to Baedeker’s, the crypt was one of the highlights of a cathedral tour. This was an era when Thomas Carlyle’s theory of the Great Man in History still held sway and for visitors Saint Paul’s crypt was the pantheon of British history. 


 In 1855 the Comte de Montizon, alias Juan Carlos Maria Isidro de Borb√≥n alias Charles Monfort, claimant to the thrones of Spain and France, took one of the most famous English photographs of the 19th century, of the newly installed hippo at the London Zoo. It has attracted some overheated analysis, some declaring that the Count’s decision to include spectators was a dramatic revelation and a moment when the whole idea of photography took a sudden shift. The Count probably thought it was a logical place to stand. For Baedeker and Judge, a visit to the London Zoo was not to be missed. Opened in 1828, it is the world’s oldest public zoo and in the 1910s was home to the largest collection of exotic animals any city had. Though according to the guidebook “the unpleasant odour (of the monkey house) is judiciously disguised by numerous plants and flowers”, it was guaranteed to have a crowd passing through. Four years after the Count took his photo, Charles Darwin made monkeys fashionable. Like the other houses at the zoo, the building was as much an attraction as the animals. It looked like a small version of the Crystal Palace. The interior of the reptile house could have made a satisfactory lobby in a French pretender’s chateau. When Baedeker’s published their guide, the polar bears lived in a basic cage between the camels and the aviary, their water provided from a narrow drain. In 1913, not long before Judge took this photo, the Mappin Terraces were built. Featuring an artificial cliff, a ledge and a pool, they were innovative in attempting to recreate the physical environment the animals inhabited in their natural state. When the Baedeker’s was published, visitors were still expected to feed bananas and peanuts to the monkeys, poke the lions with long sticks to make them roar and generally behave like, well, animals. When Judge took this photo, the male polar bear was called Sam, the Female, Barbara. Her death in 1923 made the papers. I’m not sure how you tell who is who.


 According to Baedeker’s, Holborn got its name from Hole Bourne, a tributary of the River Fleet, which still runs underground. It was also part of the route that prisoners walked from Newgate Prison to their execution at Tyburn, near Marble Arch. The most salient detail for tourists however was that the row of Tudor buildings  at the right of this photo, known collectively as Staple Inn, were among the only buildings in central London to survive the Great Fire in 1666. They had been built in 1585, the year the ill fated colony at Roanoke was established, or not, and the eighteenth year of Mary Queen of Scots’ imprisonment. If Judge was thinking of either the Stuart queen or a group of lost colonists, or for that matter some bedraggled prisoners being marched down the street, he hasn’t shown it. Instead we have what looks like a Rover 6 parked on a nearly deserted street. The number plate beginning with MX indicates it was registered in South East London. Roneo at the top and on the facade of the building in the middle ground refers to an early mimeograph machine. I think Judge was impressed by the nearly empty street, presumably around dawn, and thought that if it moved him it would similarly affect his customers. Using Google Maps, you can position yourself pretty much where Judge took this photo and discover that apart from the Staple Inn and the Holborn Bars at the left, little else remains. Near where the second light post stands there is now a monument to the Royal London Fusiliers who fought in World War 1. 


 The Royal Exchange and the building beside it are still standing though the one at the rear has been replaced by a glass and concrete office block that no doubt appals Prince Charles. But enough of him. Much more interesting are the details in this scene. A few London bobbies here, including one just by the ‘ch’ in the caption, who looks like he’s just spotted some rum goings on in the side street. The men wearing boaters might be clerks. The man in the top hat crossing the street at the left has no doubt just left his stockbroker well pleased at the morning’s results. Speaking of social history, the mix of horse drawn omnibuses and automobiles reminds us that the 1910s were a decade of profound change, more so than the preceding one. The way history is often presented, Victoria drops dead, her drunken glutton of a son assumes the kingship and everything changes, like a sunrise. Not quite; technology didn’t give a toss who was regent and this scene would have existed had she lived a few years more. For me, the advertisements for Horlick’s malted milk, Nestles milk and Dewar’s scotch are among the most vivid details in this scene. When Judge took this he was probably thinking he’d captured the Exchange with some of the hustle and bustle outside. It wouldn’t have occurred to him that one hundred years later we’d be drawn to the tiny, peripheral details. 


 Finally, a view that reminds us why everyone with a Baedeker’s in their pocket needed postcards, and why a sensitive observer like Judge would be in demand. Technically speaking, the idea of using the mast of the barge to frame St Paul’s was hardly new, though we can see how carefully Judge composed the shot so the tips of the mast and the spire balance each other. It is a seemingly everyday scene but what Judge has also done is take the essential elements of the Thames, the river traffic and the skyline, to present a view that defines the city. What is more, it is a scene that many tourists would have passed without stopping to contemplate. Only when they got home would they remember the barges lining the banks and the cathedral in the background. For us, St Paul’s gives the image substance and interest but it is the barges, the evidence of a lost way of life on the river, that matter. Today some old relics are moored to the banks but most river traffic belongs to ferries and RIBs, the inflatable boats that travel at high speed up and down the river, giving customers an experience that is as over priced and viscerally disappointing as a Bulgarian strip club. Ask Mr Judge; the only way to appreciate London through the Thames is to walk slowly, observing the details of the skyline, not its organic shape. It must be said that Judge rarely examined the social energy of London, that most of what he reveals is already taken for granted, but in its few, sparse elements this is an image of a city at work.

LONDON BELONGS TO ME