Elizabeth McKellar Landscapes of London: the city, the country and the suburbs, 1660-1840
Yale University Press, 2013
xvi + 260 pages; 24 colour + 120 b/w illus. £45.00 RRP
According to the author, a respected architectural historian, ‘This book is about cities, where they begin and where they end.’ Except that it isn’t. To a degree it is about the extent of one city – London – and its expansion over the long (in this case very long) eighteenth-century, but it is both more and less than that. The clue is in the title, where landscape is used in its broader sense to include literary descriptions as well as images produced by brush, pen and graver. It is less in the sense that a book of this size cannot hope to be comprehensive and the author has had to be very selective in her approach.
The plan adopted is to examine, first, the ‘paper’ landscapes of London – maps, pictures and books – and here we run into a problem. The starting date of 1660 is rather later than one might have expected if a comprehensive review of London’s images had been intended and is also somewhat contradicted by the content. The first bird’s-eye view of London was produced in the 1540s by the Flemish artist Anton van den Wyngaerde (1525-1571), who also made many drawings of cities on the Continent. The earliest surviving map of London is that published in Braun and Hogenburg’s Civitates Orbis Terrarum of 1572, which is itself believed to have been based on the c.1558 ‘Copperplate Map’ of London, now lost apart from three of its eight plates (two of which are in London and one in Germany). In fact the author does mention the Braun and Hogenburg map (without examining its genesis), but not Wyngaerde’s prospect. She does refer in passing to an ‘Agas’ view of c.1561 (not c.1535 as stated), but this attribution is now generally regarded as spurious and it was almost certainly also based on the Copperplate Map. One of Wenceslaus Hollar’s prospects of London before the Great Fire is illustrated, but not his important post-conflagration maps, and the first map to be described in any detail is Philip Lea’s c.1690 version of a Robert Morden map of 20 miles around London. From that date on the most important maps are described with commentaries that reflect the author’s not inconsiderable scholarship.
Similar criticisms can be raised in connection with the chapters on writing and pictures. Several of the better known early histories of, and guides to, London are mentioned, including John Strype’s 1720 edition of John Stow’s Survey of London, together with some that are not so well known, such as Colsoni’s Le Guide de Londres. What is not made clear is that it was only with the 1720 edition of the Survey that books about London came to be lavishly illustrated, long after David Loggan’s Oxonia Illustrata had provided the same service for Oxford. Individual prints, or small sets, had appeared far earlier. The opening of the first Royal Exchange building was celebrated by the publication of two engravings by Frans Hogenburg in 1569, William Kip’s engravings of the triumphal arches erected for the accession of James I were published in 1607 and Loggan engraved those erected for the coronation of Charles II in 1662. Engravings of Westminster Abbey had appeared in the first volume of William Dugdale’s Monasticon Anglicanum in 1655 and in 1658 he published an illustrated work on old St Paul’s Cathedral. Some of the early print-sellers are mentioned, but their important surviving seventeenth-century catalogues are not and Alexander Globe’s seminal work on one of these dealers, Peter Stent, is ignored entirely. The 1670s project of the engineer and eccentric Henry Winstanley to have all the noble houses of England engraved is mentioned, but it was not quite as abject a failure as the author implies (the Earl of Danby’s impressive residence at Wimbledon was one of those engraved).
The second part of the book is more rewarding, focusing on landscapes of pleasure and mobility (both 1660-1790), selectivity (1770-1840) and transition (1790-1840). Here it would be hard to quibble with the author’s choice of subject matter. For example, the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall and Cremorne are well known, but those of Marylebone and St Pancras Wells to which we are introduced are much less so. The wholesale development of the West End has been dealt with elsewhere, but here we are given the opportunity of looking more closely at remoter areas such as Hampstead and Highgate. The evolution of the plans for the development of what became Regents Park make fascinating reading and the choice of accompanying illustrations is well made.
There is a vast and still growing literature on the history of London, so the question is, does Landscapes of London represent an important addition? A few years ago, an eccentric American friend came to London on a two year business secondment and determined that to occupy his time at weekends he would ‘do the Knowledge’, in other words learn London’s street names and optimal routes to the level required to obtain a black cab license. The twist was that he would do this not on the traditional moped with clipboard mounted on the handlebars, but on foot. The result was that he is now more familiar with London than most Londoners, albeit from a somewhat limited horizontal perspective. Would he have had a better appreciation of its vistas and architectural history had he carried with him Elizabeth McKellar’s book? Probably, but I suspect it would not have been his first choice from the London bookshelf after the obligatory A to Z. For those with a particular interest in the suburbs, descriptions of which occupy a large part of this work, Nick Barratt’s recently published Greater London would be an obvious alternative. These observations aside, it would be hard to believe that the majority of readers with an interest in London would not find something new and engaging in this book.
As would be expected of a Yale University Press publication, Landscapes of London is sumptuously produced – and priced accordingly.