A painting for London
Updated: Jan 20
I once blogged in favour of a flag for London, prompted by my travels in Europe where I found many cities proudly displaying a coat of arms, historic device or even modern logo that represents the entirety of the conurbation; despite having had a unified administration for a century or so, Greater London has nothing like that. In today’s climate, I suspect, such a thing would be unwelcome and perhaps even ridiculed, so instead let’s have a go at choosing something more calming in these troubled times – a painting to represent Britain’s capital.
You’d have to start with Canaletto, I think, as he arrived in London just as London, arguably, arrived in the world as a major player. Giovanni Antonio Canal would have felt at home since the Venetian would have been more than well aware of his own city’s heritage as a maritime force. He visited England repeatedly between 1746 and 1756 and during that time painted London: The Thames from Somerset House Terrace towards the City, one of the first truly heroic images of London. Actually it’s thought to have been produced back in Venice but this is nevertheless a superb depiction of the majesty and source of London’s wealth in the immediate pre-Industrial era, whether the grand 17th century town houses that lined the Strand and had private landing stairs down to the river or the Thames itself, St Paul’s dominating. This is one of a pair, the other looking upstream, but I prefer this view not least as it looks toward the City and, much further on, the estuary where the Romans arrived.
A century later and London was now the centre of a boundless Victorian empire, drawing people from around the world including artists like Whistler and Monet. Both painted notable pictures of what they found, but for me this period will always be summed up by John O’Connor and his sublime From Pentonville Road Looking West, London, Evening of 1884. O’Connor began his career as a scene painter for West End theatres and his sense of drama is obvious in this work, with its beautiful pink sky, warm red brick cliff of the Midland Grand Hotel and powerful sense of perspective. In fact the foreshortened viewpoint, as if through a telescopic lens, is one of the most effective elements – look how the eye is caught by the junk on roof of the building nearest to the us, moves across the roadand over the shop signs and only then sees the grand buildings beyond.
Fifty years later still and London in general and the Square Mile in particular was at its zenith, a vast financial machine whose component parts – banks, insurers and merchants – expressed their wealth through architecture. This dazzling watercolour was made by Cyril A. Farey, the best perspectivist Britain ever produced and an architect in his own right, and shows the new headquarters of the Midland Bank in Poultry. Built between 1924 and 1939 by the great Edwin Lutyens, this Neoclassical stone palace is actually a display of immense subtlety, with the façades, windows and other elements varying in heights, depths and widths as they rise. The realism of the street life and the wet pavements, both Farey trademarks, are wonderfully undermined by the stylised rays of light streaking through the sky behind the building, Imperial confidence rendered in paint.
Confidence of another kind came to London after the war, when it became the hub of a cultural revolution. New kinds of music, fashion, art and film emerged that seduced the world; changes in technology, too, altered the way we lived and the unstoppable increase in the number of cars transformed very fabric of the city. If you were looking to sum this period up, Westway Triptych by Oliver Bevan does a fine job. Capturing the dynamism of that time, even if it was painted in 1987, it depicts part of the elevated urban motorway that runs across west London for two and a half miles from White City to Marylebone Road, bridging as it does so Edgware Road, the principal north-south route into and out of the city which follows the ancient Roman road of Watling Street. Bevan’s work softens all that concrete, yes, with its warm colours and selective lightening of shadows, but Canaletto would recognise the effect if not the location.
In our own century London seems evasive. Its mood, its purpose, its impacts have repeatedly shifted and were shifting again even before the pandemic. Unsurprisingly its art reflects this diffuse state. There is still painting, but despite – or probably because of – today’s fractured, digitised landscape it is hard now for any artist’s output to achieve consensual recognition regardless of the medium employed. Which is why my last selection isn’t from an artist at all but from data expert Richard Milton, who was attempting to visualise some information on London Underground service levels when he came up with a chart that is rather beautiful. Abstract and not figurative, Richard dislikes it as not being fully representative of what he was trying to achieve, but then he wasn’t thinking of it as an image of, and for, London. I think it’s perfect.
So those are some suggestions; what do you think? Pop a comment in the box if you have a vote or an idea of your own.