The Big City: Magnificent London Panoramas At Guildhall Art Gallery

Small exhibition, big pictures. ★★★★☆

By M@ Last edited 13 months ago

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The Big City: Magnificent London Panoramas At Guildhall Art Gallery Small exhibition, big pictures. 4
A panorama of London painted in the 1960s
Imagine this, like, 100 times bigger. David R Thomas's 1968 panorama is a true highlight. © Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London Corporation; Image © David Thomas

"Truly immersive,"says the publicity. It's a phrase best reserved for swimming pools, yet the cliche finds its way into at least half of all press releases, in my experience. With The Big City at Guildhall Art Gallery, we might just have found an exhibition worthy of the description.

This is a show of big, big canvases, all with a London theme. It's a motley banquet of skyline panoramas, urban close-ups, bustling street scenes and... actual banquets. These window-sized windows onto London life pack into just three small rooms, but leave a big impression.

Every canvas is worthy of close scrutiny, but three in particular stood out for me. The first is the oldest: a panorama from Greenwich's One Tree Hill. It was painted just a decade after the Great Fire, and shows the distant and newly minted City skyline that would have looked as radical at the time as the wall of Canary Wharf towers now appear to us from that same vantage point. Meanwhile, the foreground shows the rubble of the old Palace of Placentia, birthplace of Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I, in the process of demolition. What an incredible moment-in-time to capture.

A view from greenwich hill in the 1670s with an orange sky and sunset
The view from Greenwich a few years after the Great Fire. The painting, attributed to Jan Vorsterman, shows the City details beautifully when seen in the gallery. © Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London Corporation

The same could be said of David R Thomas's 1968 panorama from the top of the Shell Centre (top image). This was a time of radical changes to the London skyline, with the first wave of skyscrapers under construction in the distance. Low down on this mesmeric canvas, beside Waterloo Bridge, we can see a cleared away site awaiting construction of the National Theatre.

The third painting that grabbed me was a much more down-to-earth location: the pedestrian crossing outside Barbican underground station. It's a junction I know very well, and to stand before Oliver Bevan's immense study of this seemingly mundane spot was indeed an immersive experience. I wanted to step out, to step into the painting and continue my journey into the unseen station. Seeing it onscreen, here, below, just doesn't do it justice.

A painting of some people crossing at a road, seen from just above
Walk (1995) by Oliver Bevan. © Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London; Image © Oliver Bevan

The rest of the exhibition — drawn from the gallery's collection, but with many unfamiliar works from storage — is excellent, too. The towering vertical works of David Hepher, which might be described as intimate portraits of tower blocks — rightly occupy centre stage.

We have a few too many paintings of royal gatherings and ceremonial goings-on for some tastes (OK, my taste). Perhaps a couple more historic panoramas would have slotted in nicely. But each has its own points of interest (look out for the mice in the Cuneo paintings, and the accidentally imperious Princess Elizabeth in the royal procession).

A grimy concrete tower block painting
One of David Hepher's towering tower-block paintings. They are so richly textured you'll want to run your hands down them. Do not. © Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London Corporation; Image © David Hepher

Overall, this is a paradoxically small yet thoroughly satisfying exhibition for anyone interested in London's streetscapes and skylines. And, yes, it is "truly immersive".

The Big City is at Guildhall Art Gallery from 10 February until 23 April 2023. Entry is on a pay-what-you-can basis.

Last Updated 24 February 2023

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