Book Review: London Hidden Interiors By Philip Davies

180 of London’s most impressive interiors are described and photographed in this monumental new book from English Heritage’s Philip Davies. The selection covers a wide range of building types, including stately homes, chapels, pubs, museums, corner shops…even toilets.

Around a month ago, we expressed incredulity at the size of Great Houses of London. That tome weighed a beefy 2.5kg and was the most lavishly illustrated book about London we’d ever seen. A few weeks later, and our poor arms are suffering once again under the strain of London Hidden Interiors. This book clocks in at almost 3kg, runs to 450 pages and includes…get this…1,700 colour photographs. It’s collosal.

Great Houses may have been first of these two similar books to market but, impressive though it was, this new volume drives it into the potting shed. Hidden Interiors is not only bigger, brighter and wrist-bendingly heavier, it’s also written to near perfection, with just the right amount of description and anecdote. If you’d like to know where to see cigars from the Great Exhibition of 1851, a stained glass window showing the discovery of the structure of DNA, or a building visited by Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and Gorbachev, look no further. To give a sample of the scope, the ultra-modern Blizzard Building in Whitechapel is immediately followed by the ramshackle splendour of Wilton’s Music Hall, and then back to the present day with Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre.

Philip Davies is more than qualified to tell the story of these manifold spaces, with 40 years experience in building conservation. He’s made his own mark on many of the historic locations detailed in this book, such as St Pancras Hotel where “the blood red walls and fleur de lys decoration were restored at the insistence of the author”. Time and again, we’re reminded how many of the older buildings were almost knocked down in the gung-ho, conservation-shy 1960s. It’s a warning from history of which we must be eternally vigilant.

So, is there anything amiss in this tome of wonders? Well, there are a few nigglesome nitpicks that hardcore London trivialists will gnash their teeth at. Both the Criterion bar and St Bart’s are given as the first meeting place of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson (the latter is correct). And don’t get us started on “St Stephen’s Tower”. But the author acquits himself with plenty of welcome mythbusting, such as the persistent urban legends about prison cells beneath the Viaduct Tavern and the unsupported claims of Prince Henry’s Room on Fleet Street.

Otherwise, and having savoured all 450 pages of this splendid leviathan, we can only wax lyrical. If you’re looking for an inspirational Christmas gift for the London lover in your life, and you’d also sneakily like to see them build some extra upper-body strength, this is the tome to buy.

London Hidden Interiors is out now from Atlantic Publishing and English Heritage. Buy here.

Puzzle: We’ve left the captions off the photos. Can you guess which buildings they’re taken from?

Read more London book reviews.

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  • Valentine

    I think the third photo is one of the chapels in Westminster Cathedral. The fourth possibly Drapers Hall?

  • Mark R

    The 5th one looks like the Algerian Coffee Store on Old Compton Street. Had a Saturday job there for a while back in the 80s.

  • Jackie Spreckley

    Is the first one the swimming pool at the Royal Automobile Club?

  • Glyn1

    “Londonist” is sexist. Women are excluded from photo number 4.
    Anyway, although not confident I think that photo number 3 is Leighton House in Kensington. Photo number 6 may be the various acts of Parliament held in the Houses of Parliament, but again that’s a guess.

  • bogan

    haven’t a clue, but my guess is reform club, midland bank building on cheapside, brompton oratory, wesley museum, algerian coffee, national archives kew.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Katerinalot Katerina Lo

    This is annoying can you just label the photos please.

    • MattFromLondonist

      Hee hee. Well, here are the answers (I’ll leave them off the captions in case people come across this later and still want to play.)

      1. The RAC, Pall Mall
      2. Midland Bank on Poultry
      3. Middlesex Hospital chapel
      4. The men’s toilets in Wesley’s Chapel
      5. Algerian Coffee Stores
      6. Victoria Tower, Houses of Parliament

      It was a very tricky selection, so well done to everyone who got one or more right.