Wednesday, 9 June 2010

What Was Lost

Although it is not immediately obvious (there are no signs for it and the exhibition is stuck up the back of the building in a room that is really a wide corridor that leads to the cafeteria - 'turn left past the Ladies', as the person at the information desk instructed me) a small number of the pictures of London buildings taken between 1875 and 1886 for the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London (SPROL) are on display at the Royal Academy.

The society first came into being when it was realised that a coaching inn called the Oxford Arms was about to be demolished. The pictures of the Oxford Arms in the RA's exhibition include a wonderful shot taken from the inn's courtyard, showing the upper floors and roof of the building, with the dome of St Paul's rising behind it. SPROL's Honorary Secretary, Alfred Marks, who seems to be considered something of a joke by the exhibition organisers, (they argue that he had a tendency to claim fairly tenuous links between buildings and well-known writers et cetera), described the Oxford Arms courtyard thus: 'Despite the confusion, the dirt, and the decay, he who stands in the yard of this ancient Inn may get an excellent idea of what it was like in the days of its prosperity.' This passage expresses pretty well SPROL's main motivation - if they could not halt progress and the demolition of old buildings, they could at least record what was there and try to capture something of the way the world felt in earlier times.

And, judging by this collection, they did their job well. The pictures chosen by the academy show a city whose scale is entirely different to the London we know today. Apart from St Paul's, the buildings are generally no more than three or four stories at the most and many have a ramshackle feel - this is a world before the time of machine precision. The streets and buildings seem often to have grown up higgledy piggledy and the impression the images create is of a city that was an endlessly intriguing maze, its fabric wood and wattle and daub, not glass and steel.

As often though it is in the details that the past really reveals itself. The quaint buildings are charming but we cannot see what went on inside them or discover how the people who lived there were different from us. It is here that the shopkeepers' signs and displays, captured by chance rather than deliberately, come into their own. The buildings - the focus of SPROL's interest - are often beautiful and intriguing, but they remain remote from our experience. The incidental advertising affixed to their exteriors allow insights into the lives led within their walls, helping provide Marks' 'excellent idea of what it was like.'

Very different, one would have to conclude. The advertisement for an Orphan Working School for Infants on the first floor of one building tells us that - as does (less distressingly) the sign for John Javens, manufacturer of grocers' canisters (grocers' what?). The lovely crammed shop window of an establishment called Mead and Deverell displays items related to Archery, Cricket, Rocking Horses and Perambulators (such an unlikely range of goods would never survive a modern day business plan). Next door, to the left, EC Wood appears to be thriving as a sales outlet for telescopes and opera glasses while, to the right, S Mordan and Sons provides Iron Doors (by appointment to the royal household no less). Now not only would the buildings that housed these enterprises be gone, there would be Boots and Top Shop and a fried chicken outlet in the shop spaces that had replaced them. No-one would be manufacturing anything much; it would all be coming in from China. But then again, no-one would be setting orphans to work in the upstairs office space either. They'd probably be doing it in China though, if they could find enough orphans.

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