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Views of London in 10 Artworks

Views of London in 10 Artworks

Picture of Gaby Schwartz
Updated: 23 March 2016
What image springs first into your mind when you think of London? A 21st century urban skyline featuring iconic landmarks? Or a sweeping view of grassy parks and heaths? There is no one image of London and that is thanks to the endless diversity showcase within the city, serving as the source and inspiration for a spectacular variety of artworks over the centuries. We take a look at 10 artworks that embody London. William Hogarth | ‘Gin Lane’ and ‘Beer Street’ (1751)
This iconic pair of prints was originally designed by satirist and moralist William Hogarth as a form of propaganda in support of the 1751 Gin Act, passed by a Great British Parliament growing increasingly concerned about alcohol-induced antisocial behaviour. These scenes depict a London both of a different time and showing two very different realities. Yet, these hyperbolic satires still somehow seem to capture something timeless about Londoners throughout history – the seemingly unending devotion to alcohol, with all the antisocial raucousness that it brings.

Claude Monet | Houses of Parliament Series (1899-1905)

No view of London could be further away from the hustle and bustle of Hogarth’s streets than the extended series of oil paintings produced by Claude Monet. Monet began to paint these luminous views across the Thames to the Houses of Parliament in different weather conditions and at different times of day during his stay at the Savoy Hotel, something that continued well into his return to his French studio at Giverny. Clearly, something about the classically Gothic style of the Palace of Westminster set against the natural beauty of a grand body of water bore, for Monet, the potential for endless changing impressions, The artist painted over 30 works depicting the exact same view on the exact same size canvas, generating a spectacular variety of colours and effects.

Spencer Gore | Houghton Place (1912)

London may not be the first city than springs to mind when thinking of the birthplaces of important artistic movements. In the years before the First World War however, it was indeed London that provided the home and inspiration for the Camden Town Group, a community of artists seeking accurately to reflect modern urban life, often through street scenes and domestic interiors. These paintings, such as Spencer Gore’s ‘Houghton Place’, are often small-scale, simple, even quiet, focusing on somewhat unexpected details such as a nearly empty intersection in a residential location.

 

Nigel Henderson | Photograph of an unidentified boy playing hopscotch on Chisenhale Road, London (c.1949–c.1956)

Cameras and capital cities have always been somewhat of a tourist cliché – we all want a snapshot of ourselves posing with our loved ones by that historic landmark. The camera however, can serve as a tool for bold and experimental art, as in the case of Independent Group member Nigel Henderson. His captivating series of 1940s and 1950s photographs taken in the Bethnal Green area are simultaneously intimate and anonymous, as cropped and close up they scrupulously document the lives of East London adults and children, shopping, working and playing.

 

Arthur Segal | City of London (1927)

Another unusual and highly personal perspective on the city streets can be found in Arthur Segal’s experimentally geometric ‘City of London’. The canvas is divided up into rectangular segments whose shadowy edges create an almost cube-like structure. Buildings, streets and vehicles are fragmented so that the viewer must work to piece together a familiar set of columns here, a domed roof there. Underlying this visual experiment are Segal’s interesting artistic and political beliefs regarding conventional use of perspective in the composition of paintings – the result is a particularly modern depiction of a traditional scene.

 

L.S. Lowry | Piccadilly Circus (1960)

Lowry is most famous for his scenes of industrial life in the North, but here the painter’s distinctive matchstick figures are relocated to the bustling locale of Piccadilly Circus. The incredible thing about this painting, dating from 1960, is how precisely, even timelessly, it seems to evoke the strange and paradoxical isolation of central London crowds. The fountain of Eros at the centre of the painting may have since been slightly relocated, but the massive billboards, hulking big red buses and hordes of single-minded Londoners striding along head down make this image instantly recognizable.

 

John Constable | Hampstead Heath (c.1825-1830)

There is a very different and equally essential side to London that viewers can observe, captured by some of our culture’s greatest artists, including Romantic landscape painter John Constable. London has the unique gift of a surprisingly high number of open green spaces dotted across the concrete expanse, such as Hampstead Heath. Constable, who owned both a studio in central London and a property overlooking the Heath, frequently turned to this pastoral haven, depicting it in a breathtaking array of stormy and sunlit weather in his fittingly Romantic style.

 

Richard Hamilton | Swingeing London (1967)

Shift gears once more and speed into the world of 1960s London glamour with pioneer of British pop-art Richard Hamilton and his punning depiction of ‘Swingeing London’. In this series of pieces, Hamilton reworks a photograph taken from a newspaper of Mick Jagger and art dealer Robert Fraser in handcuffs, following their arrest on drug charges, hands held up in futile defense against the flashing camera lens. The whole era of the ‘Swinging 60s’ – glitz, glamour, celebrity mania and a fraught tension between increasingly liberal social norms and a conservative moral authority – is captured in this work, which nonetheless feels continuingly relevant.

 

Rachel Whiteread | Demolished (1996)

Edging further into the contemporary, Turner Prize winning Londoner, Rachel Whiteread, provides a fascinating perspective on representing the city in her series of 12 photographs entitled ‘Demolished’. Four sets of photographs of three demolition sites in Hackney chart the gradual demolition of tower blocks, homes lost by some of London’s poorest residents in the city’s relentless development and expansion, between October 1993 and June 1995. Here, the viewer finds captured (or, rather, lost) a different history of London to the traditional view, one which is ever-changing and still being written today.

 

Halley Docherty | 2014

Throughout this list, old versus new views of London have stood side by side, seeking to provide an insight into a city with a rich history and even more vibrant present. Artist Halley Docherty (aka Shyside) however, has taken a more literal approach to the merging of past and present, with her fascinating collages of 18th and 19th century depictions of London superimposed onto Google Street View screenshots. The effect is witty and strange, as, for instance, Canaletto’s opulent View of the Grand Walk in Vauxhall is set against a single yellow line, a row of concrete bollards and a gloomy grey sky.

 

By Gaby Schwarz