Art Review: Relics of Old London @ Royal Academy

Dean Nicholas
By Dean Nicholas Last edited 104 months ago
Art Review: Relics of Old London @ Royal Academy

The Oxford Arms, 1880, by Alfred & John Bool
Victorian London lacked a Eugene Atget, a solitary figure with a singular vision stalking the fast-changing streets and photographing them in a voluminous archive. However, the city did have the next best thing: the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London was formed in response to the imminent destruction of the galleried Oxford Arms inn, and aimed to produce an annual photographic record of endangered buildings. A small but revealing show at the Royal Academy showcases some of the buildings they documented.

The Society's primary interest was in preserving an architectural record of buildings that they (often correctly) believed would soon be torn down. Hence, the photographs reveal much about the built environment of London as it hurtled toward the 20th century carrying several centuries' worth of building types: the monastic remnants around Clerkenwell that survived Henry VIII's machinations, for example, or Wren's imposing gateway to the City in its original place on the Strand. What the photographs don't offer is much in the way of the burgeoning capital's urban fabric. The masses are largely absent, partly because of the relative difficulty of achieving shutter speeds quick enough to capture movement, and partly because the Society's remit was typological in nature.

To illustrate the comparison between London then and now, the RA has hung modern prints above some of the photographs, allowing the viewer to pick apart the changes and, equally, marvel at how little has changed in some aspects. Wisely, they've only included contemporary views on a selection of photographs: the focus remains on the 19th century prints. The Museum of London's iPhone app pulls the same trick in an interactive fashion.

The Royal Academy's Architecture Programme Assistant, Owen Hopkins, will lead a walking tour based on this exhibition around Fleet Street, the Inns of Court, and Smithfield, on Saturday June 5th. Tickets cost £32, including refreshments.

Relics of Old London: Photography and the spirit of the city is on until June 22nd in the Architecture Space at the Royal Academy. Entrance is free.

Last Updated 04 June 2010