Accelerated ruins: the aesthetics of demolition

4 10 2013
Demolition of New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2012

Demolition of New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2012

When the BBC’s New Broadcasting House (1976) was demolished on Oxford Street in Manchester in October 2012, thousands of passers-by witnessed the violent death of a large building. Over the course of a few weeks, the building was transformed from ruin to rubble, and thence into just one more unimaginative (yet ubiquitous) Manchester car park. Demolition is perhaps the most commonplace form of what Marshall Berman has termed ‘urbicide’, that is, the deliberate destruction of the built environment of cities. And yet it’s certainly the most ignored: buildings come and go, their unmourned deaths usually heralded by long periods of decline, marked by the failure to find new uses for obviously defunct structures.

Demolition of New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2012

Demolition of New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2012

Deliberately contemplating buildings undergoing demolition is a transgressive form of looking. Seeing a building being killed is a discomforting, even shocking experience. Buildings – even long-empty ones – are essentially anthropomorphic structures, designed to be lived in and to be shared spaces of existence. Gaze at a building being demolished long enough and you begin to feel the pain of that death: its broken walls, gaping windows, and twisted metalwork eliciting a kind of bodily sympathy in the viewer. The violence of demolition also contrasts with the serenity of the ruin. Where, with the ruin, nature is allowed to re-establish her former claims to the building, producing (at least for a time) a peaceful sense of equilibrium, the building undergoing demolition is violently annihilated by the very tools that raised it up in the first place. No wonder that most demolitions are shielded from public view behind makeshift screens.

Demolition of Oldham Twist Mill (1883), September 2013.

Demolition of Oldham Twist Mill (1883), September 2013.

Representations of demolition are thus transgressive in that they both expose and forestall the violence of architectural annihilation. On the one hand, photographs articulate the half-demolished building as somehow still existent, even at the moment of its death – the architectural equivalent of a coroner’s report perhaps; on the other, the exposure of the building’s insides during demolition produce revelatory views of architecture – that is, glimpses of the otherwise invisible ‘soft’ interiors (perhaps most powerfully represented in Rachel Whiteread’s spectral sculpture House (1993)).

Rachel Whiteread, 'House' (1993)

Rachel Whiteread, ‘House’ (1993)

'Demolition of Hungerford Market', Illustrated London News, 27 December 1862, p. 705.

‘Demolition of Hungerford Market’, Illustrated London News, 27 December 1862, p. 705.

Demolition also suggests new kinds of urban aesthetics, given widespread expression in nineteenth-century London when modernisation produced unprecedented scenes of urban ruination. So, when the Hungerford Market near the Strand was demolished in 1862 to make way for the Charing Cross Railway Station (1864), the Illustrated London News found in the resulting scene of destruction a powerful new aesthetic of modernity: a vast, dark absence flanked by houses on the brink of destruction, and the shadow lines of staircases, ceilings and floors imprinted, like Whiteread’s House, on their remaining walls. For the Illustrated London News such destruction produced a great deal of visual interest, in effect a new form of urban picturesque; yet in representing such a scene at all, the newspaper also exposed the urbicide that is common to all forms of modernisation. Yet, as Lynda Nead has argued, the illustration is also a permanent representation of the archaeology of modernity, revealing that the latter is always haunted by the spectral presence of the past, no matter how quickly it tries to obliterate it with the promise of the new.





Rest in distinction: the allure of catacombs

2 05 2013
Catacombs, West Norwood Cemetery, London

Catacombs, West Norwood Cemetery, London

In an earlier post, I explored the origins of London’s catacombs and one group in particular: those at Kensal Green Cemetery. In November last year, as a favour for a talk I gave at West Norwood, I was guided around the catacombs in this South London Cemetery. Catacombs are underground structures, built of brick or stone in the form of a cellar, which house coffins in recesses in galleries. Altogether, ten cemeteries in nineteenth-century London were constructed with catacombs: those at West Norwood being installed in 1840.

1. Recesses in the West Norwood catacombs

1. Recesses in the West Norwood catacombs

2. Plaque denoting the owner of a recess in the West Norwood catacombs

2. Plaque denoting the owner of a recess in the West Norwood catacombs

The word ‘catacomb’ literally means ‘among the tombs’ and the latter clearly expresses why these spaces are so different from conventional burial sites. In a catacomb the dead are directly accessible: at West Norwood, coffins line the recesses along the brick tunnels (1), many now in an advanced state of decay. In former times, relatives of the deceased would visit these spaces and commune with their loved ones with a sense of intimacy not possible with a conventional grave. Catacombs are spaces where one can literally be among the dead, temporarily sealed off from the life above ground in a private and exclusive space. Yet, as with all cemeteries, there is also a community of the dead here; unless one is important enough to have an isolated mausoleum, places of rest are invariably shared. Certainly, catacombs are no place to be alone; when my guide took me into a tiny, pitch-dark recess filled with the tiny coffins of children, I felt a powerful sense of horror at being almost consumed by the dead, shuddering at the thought of such overwhelming losses.

3. Former grave-digger's spade, West Norwood catacombs

3. Former grave-digger’s spade, West Norwood catacombs

4. Catacombs under St Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna

4. Catacombs under St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna

Despite their communality, the catacombs at West Norwood, just like their counterparts in other London cemeteries, nevertheless express the desire for continued social distinction after death. Purchasing a catacomb was a sign of high social (and financial) standing, the signs of which are most clearly expressed in the plaques that mark the individual spaces (2), a forlorn grave-digger’s spade the only reminder of the social ‘other’ that always haunts such a desire for exclusivity (3). In even more exclusive catacombs, like those beneath St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna (4), this desire for social distinction generated both horror and absurdity. Once the burial site of nobles, in the eighteenth century these spaces became the general catacomb for all of Vienna’s residents. During the time of the Habsburg Empire, the catacombs were once again transformed into an exclusive space – a pristine stone-arched vault – while the rest of the bones were moved to an ignominious pit. Today, in these catacombs, the pickled organs of the former Habsburg rulers are preserved in copper urns, their mummified bodies preserved in two other sites in Vienna. It is as if this level of social distinction has literally torn apart the bodies, one burial site being inadequate to preserve the idea of an eternal kingdom.

5. Chambers in the St Paul's Catacombs near Mdina, Malta

5. Chambers in the St Paul’s Catacombs near Mdina, Malta

7. Christian wall painting, c.3rd century, St Paul's Catacombs, Malta

6. Christian wall painting, c.3rd century, St Paul’s Catacombs, Malta

Yet, in their early incarnations, catacombs were once spaces of inclusivity. The island of Malta is riddled with ancient underground spaces, including the St. Paul’s catacombs, outside the former Greek city of Melite (now Mdina). In a series of deep rectangular shafts flanked by chambers (5), one can still see the evidence of Christian, Pagan and Jewish burials. Originating in pre-Roman Phoenician culture, these spaces were taken over by the successive religious groups that lived side-by-side in Malta over the centuries. In these catacombs, Jewish mourners might perform ritualised acts of memorialisation next to Pagan rites of sacrifice, while a faded Christian wall painting displays the same act embodied in another form (6). Walking and crouching in these spaces, their womb-like enclosures and soft, warmly-lit walls (7) seem to speak of the possibility of social unity rather than heightened division, where together we can face the inevitable erasure of distinction that will come to us all.

7. St Paul's Catacombs

7. St Paul’s Catacombs





Imperial exotic: early iron buildings for export

18 01 2013

In Victorian Britain, iron buildings were being exported all over the world, from South America to Australia, demonstrating (and actualising on the ground) the country’s expanding imperial ambitions. The very first buildings for export were made from timber, an early example being a portable hospital sent to a penal colony in Australia in 1790. As the constructive potential of cast and wrought iron began to be developed in structures such as bridges, mills and warehouses, so timber was gradually substituted for iron in many buildings for export. By mid-century, the manufacture of prefabricated iron buildings for the colonies had become a commercial enterprise, with houses, churches, hospitals, warehouses and factories exported in large numbers by specialised iron founders like Samuel Hemming, Edward T. Bellhouse, Richard Walker, John Porter and Charles D. Young.

1. 'Iron palace of King Eyambo', Illustrated London News, 1843

1. ‘Iron palace of King Eyambo’, Illustrated London News, 1843

The majority of these early prefabricated iron buildings were utilitarian in design, such as William Laycock’s iron palace for King Eyambo in British West Africa (1), which was erected in 1843 and opened for public exhibition in Liverpool before being exported. Widely reported in both local and national newspapers, this building exemplified a utilitarian ‘rational style’ in iron, although its metal plates and panels of were here mounted over a wooden skeleton. The Illustrated London News celebrated the iron palace as a rare example of the principles of construction dictating style, the reverse being the ‘prevailing view‘ in most early Victorian buildings.

2. The Brompton Boilers as depicted in the Illustrated London News, 1857.

2. The Brompton Boilers as depicted in the Illustrated London News, 1857.

However, this appreciation of unadorned utilitarianism in iron construction was short-lived, particularly after the construction of the so-called ‘Brompton Boilers’ in 1856 (2), which were actually temporary buildings for the South Kensington Museum, designed and manufactured in Scotland by Charles D. Young. Consisting of a long rectangular iron covered by three elliptical roofs clad in corrugated iron, the building was vilified in the building press. In a reversal of the earlier celebratory imperial rhetoric connected with iron buildings like this, The Builder argued that ‘no New Zealander savage would erect such a structure so utterly and indefensibly ugly’. The central problem for The Builder and others was the context of this building: despite being intended as a temporary structure, it was nevertheless expected, as a public building, to symbolise, through ornament, the architectural values of high culture (particularly as it would house a national collection of ornamental art). Thus, its blank walls were ‘offensive’ to The Builder because they symbolised nothing, its arched roofs breaking the rules of architectural decorum by resembling ‘three huge boilers placed side by side’ rather than any recognisable civic building. As if responding to the harsh criticism of his handiwork, the manufacturer Charles D. Young explained in the introduction to his 1856 catalogue that founders like himself were now seeking input from architects in the design of prefabricated buildings to provide ‘greater scope for the display of architectural effect’.

3. Iron bathing kiosk for the Viceroy of Egypt, The Builder, 1860

3. Iron bathing kiosk for the Viceroy of Egypt, The Builder, 1860

One of the first publicly exhibited prefabricated buildings to demonstrate this shift was a bathing kiosk for the Viceroy of Egypt (3), designed by the engineer Robert Stephenson and manufactured by the London founder Henry D. Grissell, and erected on the Isle of Dogs in the summer 1858 (but still there in early 1860, its eventual fate unknown). Consisting of a series of ‘comforts and luxuries peculiar to Imperial Oriental life, including baths and divans’, the structure was based on a Greek cross plan with a lofty central dome surrounded by four smaller domes, the whole structure standing on a vast circular platform 120-feet in diameter that was supported over the water by a grid of 60 cast-iron columns. Its ornamentation was described as both ‘Oriental’ and ‘Saracenic’, the exterior elements made up of cast-iron filigree panels picked out with colour, the interior comprising painted glass in the domes, encaustic tiles in the walls and a ‘richly-ornamented chain’ from which the baths were suspended. As The Building News recognised, the kiosk was an effective advertisement for both designer and founder, its cast-iron ornament being ‘amongst the best samples we have seen’. In addition, its Saracenic style articulated what was perceived to be an enlightened imperial relationship between Britain and Egypt. If the kiosk demonstrated ‘the enlightened liberality and cultivated taste’ of the Viceroy of Egypt, it was also, for a time at least, an exotic vision of the orient in the heart of London. As described by The Illustrated London News, ‘if we conceive the brilliancy of an Eastern sun, and the clearness of an Eastern atmosphere, we may imagine the effect of this kiosk glittering with its reflection in the waters of the most classical river in the world’.

4. Iron kiosk for export to Bombay, The Builder, 1866

4. Iron kiosk for export to Bombay, The Builder, 1866

5. Interior of the iron kiosk for export to Bombay, The Builder, 1866.

5. Interior of the iron kiosk for export to Bombay, The Builder, 1866.

In the autumn of 1866 another ornamental cast-iron kiosk was erected and displayed in London, this time on the site of the former International Exhibition in South Kensington, in preparation for export to Bombay (4 & 5). Just like its Egyptian predecessor, this kiosk failed to reach its destination, remaining in London until at least until the summer of 1869, apparently a victim of the 1866 international financial crisis. A result of the collaboration between the architect Owen Jones, the engineers Roland Mason Ordish and William Henry Le Feuvre, and the ironfounder Andrew Handyside, the kiosk consisted of an open cast-iron structure with a 10-foot grid of columns joined by ogee-shaped arches and surmounted by a diagonal lattice roof comprised of dozens of arabesque panels. The ornamentation was created by an all-encompassing structural approach only possible with cast iron, with the more utilitarian elements (the bolts in the roof structure and wrought-iron structural girders) ingeniously hidden so as not to compromise the ‘light appearance of the structure’. This subjugation of structure to ornament demonstrates just how much the design of prefabricated iron buildings had changed since the 1840s, this particular example not only being ‘one of the most elaborate examples of ornamental iron work ever seen’ but also serving as an effective advertisement for Handyside’s work and the company’s aesthetic ambitions. Yet, as the illustration in The Builder showed (5), this kind of elaborate orientalist ornamentation was also tailored to its intended geographic and climactic context – an imagined exotic, tropical site in India – and used by an equally exotic Indian aristocracy indulging in luxurious leisure. In this way, this kiosk was not only exporting an exemplar piece of English structural and ornamental ironwork, but a vision of how England imagined the exotic otherworld that it laid claim to.





Dream spaces: railway stations and the beyond

1 11 2012

The curving roof of York station’s train shed

From their beginning, railway stations were often perceived as having a dream-like quality. For some – particularly early travellers - the station was like a nightmare, particularly when seen at night, when the sight of steam locomotives seemed to emblematize the destructive or apocalyptic energies the railway seemed to have unleashed. Margaret Oliphant’s novel The House on the Moor (1861) was probably the first to actually use the word ‘phantasmagoria’ in relation to the railways, which she applied in describing the shifting spectacle created by a steam locomotive rushing through a country station at night. In later years, large iron train sheds became phantasmagoric for a number of reasons: for The Builder, ‘London Bridge recalls a nightmare or troublesome dream’ because of the ‘menacing girders’ of its enormous viaduct, ‘its impossible approaches, tortuous bridges, fearsome alley-ways, and cavernous entries’; while, for Filson Young, the light-filled train shed at Liverpool Street was counterbalanced by its ‘dark catacombs’ – hidden spaces that were full of the discarded remnants of hurried travel – ‘strange shadows, gigantic and discarded toys’ – where ‘you feel you have wandered into another age’.

Tunnel under the viaduct at London Bridge station

These nightmarish transformations of railway stations were generated by a long-standing anxiety about the loss of individual consciousness in the face of the railways, which transformed previously autonomous individuals into ‘atoms, pulsing, coalescing and dispersing across the network’, or ‘living parcels’ as John Ruskin had originally put it in 1848. In addition, Walter Benjamin has argued that the prevalence of dream imagery in relation to iron structures like railway stations was not merely a metaphorical transposition, but a material one, where collective dream imagery was actually inscribed in the spaces themselves.In this sense, the perception of iron train sheds as nightmarish temples, their wrought-iron arches as the vaults of caves, or their girders as menacing objects, transformed their presumed ‘solid’ materiality into one that dissolved the boundaries between the real and the imagined, creating new ornamental configurations of material, structure and atmosphere.

Caverns near Liverpool Street station

If some found the obliteration of individual consciousness perceived in railway stations as nightmarish, others embraced it as a stimulating dreams of a different sort that hinged on the individual’s linking with, what Henry James termed, a ‘larger way of looking at life’. Here, nighttime views of railway stations produced not nightmares but an ecstatic connection to a greater whole. So, George A. Wade, in his 1900 article on ‘famous railway stations’, described the ‘brilliant illumination’ of York’s train shed at night, which he viewed from the medieval walls of the city, watching ‘the grand curve of the rails through the station, with the northern expresses dashing towards Scotland’; while Paddington’s train shed became magical for The English Illustrated Magazine when seen at night, where the ‘innumerable coloured lights’ blurred the hard outlines of the iron structure, everything dissolving ‘in motion [and] rush, swish, and darkness’.

William Powell Frith, ‘The Railway Station’ (1862)

St Pancras Station, The Builder, 1916

Finally, when The Builder published its account of London’s railway stations in 1916, it also included a lithograph showing an up-to-date view of St Pancras’s vast train shed. If the article drew attention to the softening of the ‘utilitarian … ugliness‘ of London’s termini by ‘the machinations of soot, fog, gas coal, and company’, the illustration pictured something of this softening in its rendering of the vast iron-and-glass roof, one that does indeed make it appear to be dematerialised by the clouds of steam rising from the engines below. Updating William Powell Frith’s mid-Victorian panorama of Paddington station (1862), this lithograph simultaneously magnifies the train shed, which here fills almost the entire image, and softens its utilitarian aesthetic so that it appears to dissolve into the sky beyond the vast pointed arch. And unlike Frith’s carefully differentiated crowd, the travellers in this image are truly a ‘mass’ – that is, the crowd that had become synonymous of urban modernity, and rendered here as an almost solid undifferentiated block of black ink. In short, this image creates a new aesthetic out of St Pancras’s utilitarian iron, in effect a dematerialized ‘mass’ ornament that emerges out of the dissolution of conventional perceptions of iron’s material solidity.





Paddington station: function & fantasy

21 09 2012

William Powell Frith, ‘The Railway Station’, 1862 (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Paddington station (1852-54) became an iconic symbol of the Victorian railway largely on account of its prominent place in William Powell Frith’s vast canvas The Railway Station (1862), which became one of the most popular paintings of its time when exhibited in 1862. Alongside Frith’s representation of a crowd of passengers waiting to board a train is Paddington’s train shed itself, elevated from an ugly product of industrialization to occupy centre stage in high art, filling almost the entire upper half of the canvas. The oblique viewpoint chosen by Frith, looking diagonally across the train shed, serves to open up the space of the station and to reveal its architectural detail – the painting still probably being the best record of Paddington’s appearance when newly built. Frith himself didn’t paint this part of the canvas, employing another artist, William Scott (1840-1903) – a specialist in architectural subjects – to painstakingly render Paddington’s iron-and-glass interior.

This division of labour gives the painting a curiously disjointed appearance, the mass of figures in the bottom half seemingly severed from the upper half by the hard line of Paddington’s longitudinal iron girders, which, due to the oblique perspective, seem to bisect the canvas. In addition, the repetitive ironwork of the train shed, in effect a mass of identical units, contrasts sharply with Frith’s careful composition of the crowd beneath it, which, although at first sight seem to be an undifferentiated mass, is nevertheless ordered in discrete compositional groups and balanced by a strong sense of order. Perhaps, in juxtaposing Paddington’s ironwork with the human drama of the crowd, Frith was attempting to humanize the station’s mass-produced ironwork and its association with mechanical uniformity and the railway’s brutal reordering of the natural rhythms of human life.

Wrought-iron arabesques in Paddington’s glazed end-screens.

Indeed, it may have been the reassuring effect of Frith’s painting that led to Paddington’s elevated status in the expanding pantheon of metropolitan termini. Barely commented on in the building press when first opened in 1854, The Building News, in an 1868 article on London’s terminal stations, thought that the arrangement of Paddington’s interior ‘gives it intricacy and picturesqueness, and conveys an idea of something approaching comfort.’ This acceptance of Paddington’s radical new aesthetic may have also been a product of the station’s having become, in the intervening years since its opening, an accepted part of everyday urban experience. Indeed, writing only a month after the station opened on 29 May 1854, The Leisure Hour already regarded it, along with London’s other new termini, ‘as much a matter-of-fact affair as a cup of tea’. Yet, in the same article it also pointed to an entirely different kind of perception of the station. Imagining ‘a respectable mandarin of Peking’ (still using pre-industrial methods of transport) suddenly being dropped down into Paddington’s interior, the newspaper wondered at the phantasmagoric effect it would have on him: ‘How he would stare at the flaming gas-lights, at the glittering roof, with its light cross-work of iron bamboo! How the sudden appearance of the monster engine, with its goggle eyes of fire, would bewilder the brains of the chinaman!’ If, for this first-time visitor, Paddington was ‘a dream conjured up by the fumes of opium’, even for the natives who had got used to it the foreigner’s experience was still a mirror of their own when they had first encountered the railways, which after all represented ‘a dream once, and that not very long ago’.

Cast-iron tracery on Paddington’s arched wrought-iron roof ribs.

Moreover, as The Leisure Hour went onto state, no matter how much a part of everyday experience, railway stations like Paddington still had the capacity to invoke a dream-like state if viewed in the right way. By breaking from the rush of travel and stopping to contemplate, one might notice ‘the pleasant sunlight shimmering softly through the arching roof … and the glistening rails winding onwards for miles, and converging to a point in the far perspective’. Just as in Frith’s painting the eye is led out from right to left across the canvas and out of the station to the limitless country beyond, so any onlooker in Paddington’s train shed, in the right frame of mind, might once again experience the original dream of the railway.

Looking down the central span of Paddington’s train shed in 2011.





Mass ornament: Parisian love padlocks

3 08 2012

Love padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché in Paris

On the extraordinary cast-iron extravaganza that is the Pont Alexander III in Paris are a group of padlocks attached to the legs of an ornamental crab. At the time I saw them, I thought they were isolated tokens of eternal love offered by daring tourists – small padlocks inscribed with hearts and the names of the enamoured couples. Only the next day, approaching the Pont de l’Archevêché, just south of Notre Dame, did I realise the full significance of these love padlocks. From a distance, the bridge sparkled and gleamed in the bright sunlight; only closer did I see that its simple lattice railing was covered in a multitude of padlocks, completely obscuring the structure behind. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of multi-coloured padlocks hung down in great bouquets of metal, many with coloured ribbons attached, overlooking that great emblem of Parisian romance, the cathedral of Notre Dame. Only a scattering of locks adorned the other side of the bridge, facing an altogether lesser symbolically-charged urban landscape.

Love padlocks on the Pont Alexander III in Paris

Only later that day did I discover that these Parisian love padlocks are part of a world-wide phenomenon, with the first appearing in cities in the early 2000s and now adorning a diverse range of urban structures, including Tower Bridge in London, Liverpool’s Albert Dock, the Hohenzollem Bridge in Cologne, the Ponte Milvio in Rome, the Butcher Bride in Ljubljana, and the ‘Mother-in-law’ bridge in Odessa. In all cases, lovers fix their locks to a fence, gate, bridge or similar public monument and, in an action symbolising their everlasting love, throw away the key. Despite periodic clampdowns by municipal authorities – many of Paris’s padlocks were removed in 2010 – there seems to be an unstoppable momentum behind these tokens of eternal passion.

Individual padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché

The unity of the mass on the Pont de l’Archevêché

It’s difficult to explain the sheer extent of this phenomenon; according to one source, the affixing of love padlocks in Rome can be attributed to the practice first being depicted in the novel I Want You (2006) by the Italian author Frederico Moccia; while those in Serbia can even be traced back before the Second World War. Whatever the explanation, the proliferation of these love padlocks clearly points to a growing need to express, in a concrete, public and collective form, the deepest desires of couples in their individual unions. I would argue that love padlocks create a form of mass urban ornament, at once highly subjective but also cooperative, forming an ornamental whole out of a multitude of basic components. So, on the Pont de l’Archevêché, the seeming chaos of the individual padlocks resolve themselves into a pattern when viewed from a distance;  some have even been spray-painted in different colours – presumably by a third party – to create a further sense of aesthetic unity.

Spray-painted padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché

The notion of these love padlocks as a mass ornament can be related to the work of the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer. Writing about Berlin in the 1920s, Kracauer argued that urban ornament can be seen as evidence of a counter-current to the rationalising and ordering tendencies of the modern metropolis, dominated by planners and other controlling forces. For Kracauer, ornament provides access to a different kind of city, one that gives free reign to the subjective world of the individual – a ‘field where civilisation’s process of repression has met resistance’. In this sense, personalised ornamental expressions in everyday life – making doodles, fashioning hairstyles, even cooking – are important signs of the individual’s contribution to the whole; they represent the ‘will to art’, implying the possibility of new relationships to space and city. I would argue that love padlocks are a significant contemporary instance of this ‘will to art’. They inscribe on the modern city – with its abstract circulations, regulated movements and absence of historical memory – a subjective piece of history, representing both a concrete  moment, a subjective memory and a utopian form of time, that is, in the everlasting and the eternal love that has been promised.





The language of the walls: Victorian posters

13 07 2012

1. Orlando Parry, ‘A London street scene’, 1834, watercolour

In 1855, James Dawson Burn’s book The Language of the Walls argued that reading posters could be revelatory: the mass of announcements on London’s walls display the roots of a new kind of language, that which underpinned the developing commodity culture of Victorian Britain. In the same way, Orlando Parry, the painter of A London Street Scene (1), shows posters as a new visual extravaganza to be admired. Here, St Paul’s Cathedral is literally shut out by this modern spectacle, the cornucopia of typefaces offering their own fascinating insight into the life of the city. Although the cliched cast of London social characters that fill the lower half of the painting ignore the bill-sticker pasting up his latest offering, Parry has clearly paid microscopic attention to the details of these curious objects – their typefaces accurately reflecting what would have been available to printers in the mid-1830s.

2. ‘The billstickers’ exhibition’, Punch, 29 May 1847, p. 226

Throughout the Victorian period, Punch featured many cartoons showing wall posters in London. Yet, unlike Parry, it mocked the supposed value of the spectacle they generated. In 1847, Punch drew attention to the daily ‘Bill-stickers’ exhibitions’ that could be seen almost anywhere in the city (2). With St Paul’s again obliterated by a makeshift wall of gigantic posters, Punch shows a respectable group of visitors come to see this impromptu exhibition. Here, everything is exaggerated, dictated by competition, and leading to an illegible mass of words and images. Such a spectacle reflected the quackery and puffery of advertisers, one that needed to be better regulated and controlled.

3. ‘The result of careless bill-posting’, Punch, 5 November 1898, p. 115

Yet, the accretions of posters on walls might also lead to the formation of new unintentional meanings. So ‘the result of careless bill-posting’ (3) in 1898 was an accidental joke – the bemused onlookers wondering if they really should try this strange specimen of exotic animal in their baths. Although Punch is probably only interested in the comic potential of such accidental juxtapositions, this image also hints at other concerns. As the cartoon graphically demonstrates, reading posters was not like reading books or newspapers – one had to be able to negotiate these random juxtapositions, to be able to read in a different way. This was a peculiarly modern form of perception, being able to decipher the new visual language of the commodity, one that was dictated by free competition. The result  - a kind of visual pandemonium – might confuse or delight in equal measure; despite their commercial basis, its very freedom that governs the arrangement of these posters might lead to new and unexpected meanings if we had the right perceptive tools to decipher them.

4. ‘Picturesque London – or, sky-signs of the times’, Punch, 6 September 1890, p. 119

In 1890, Punch pictured what it saw as the logical development of the city poster – a skyward development of advertising where the ‘swinging signs of ogre Trade’ invade ‘the smoke-veiled vaults of heaven’ (4). Here, gigantic letters float freely or on balloons, obscuring St Paul’s or even the sun, while outsized binoculars, gloves, hats, umbrellas and bottles soar to ‘monstrous heights’ above the city. With savage mockery, Punch uses this vision of future ‘sky-horrors’ to castigate the laissez-faire attitude towards posters and hoardings – a warning of what may result if advertisers are left unchecked. Yet, this is also a strangely prescient image – a kind of Heath-Robinson version of the skyward spectacle of Blade Runner (1982) or an anticipation of the sign-as-architecture that came to define the cityscape of Las Vegas. And was it this image that inspired Frank Gehry to commission Claes Oldenburg  and Coosje van Bruggen to build part of the Chiat/Day Building (1985-1991) as an enormous pair of binoculars – an iconic herald of the dissolution of modernism into a melting-pot of styles?





Advertising the underground: London’s first Thames Tunnel

23 06 2012

1. Fair in the Thames Tunnel, 1855, as depicted by The Illustrated London News

The Thames Tunnel was the one of the first attempts to exploit underground space in a major urban centre. Running from Wapping to Rotherhithe in the East End, it was begun in 1825 by the engineer Marc Brunel but only completed, after many setbacks, in 1843. In its early days, the Tunnel was a fashionable space for promenading by both Londoners and tourists alike, and was the site of numerous popular entertainments throughout the 1850s and 1860s.

2. The Thames Tunnel after its conversion to a railway tunnel in 1865

3. One half of the Thames Tunnel today – part of the London Underground network.

The Tunnel gradually lost its sense of glamour and was eventually sold to the East London Railway in 1865 (2), and, to this day, Transport for London uses the tunnel as part of its network of trains (3).

4. Thames Tunnel watchpaper, c.1840s (Rickards Collection, University of Reading)

Tunnel souvenirs, like these commemorative watch papers (4 & 5), introduced a new iconography of underground space to London’s populace, reproduced on a wide variety of other goods such as cups, plates, snuffboxes, posters and guidebooks. Typical representations of the Tunnel were of the construction process, shown above (4). Here a split-level view depicts a scene on the river rendered in perspective, beneath which an outsized cross-sectional view of the twin shafts shows the tunnel being built by the miners, rendered in blue and red. Below (5) is a perspective view of the inside of the tunnel, its arches seemingly receding infinitely, their scale emphasised by the diminutive visitors. In the borders of both watchpapers are Tunnel statistics: above (4), explanatory text as to the location of the image; below (5), information on the cost of the project and the materials employed in its construction. These combination views of underground space – on the one hand, technological, on the other picturesque – would become commonplace as London developed its subterranean infrastructure of sewers, railways and subways from the 1860s onwards.

5. Thames Tunnel watchpaper, c.1840s (Rickards Collection, University of Reading)

Watchpapers were small printed round paper inserts placed in pocket watches to protect their inner workings from rust. They were also employed by watchmakers as product labels, that is, as a way of advertising their wares. The use of this medium for advertising the Thames Tunnel demonstrates how the popular appeal of a particular sight might displace conventional forms of advertising. Although not an organised advertising campaign as we understand it today, the marketing of the Thames Tunnel nevertheless represents an early example of ‘total’ advertising, one that organises itself around a particular spectacle in the city rather than an individual commodity.





Representing the nation: the Thames Embankment lamps

22 05 2012

1. Dolphin lamps on the Albert Embankment, London

The dolphin lamps lining the Thames embankments (1) in London have arguably become just as iconic symbols of the city as its more high-profile monuments, such as Big Ben, St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey. But how do commonplace objects like lamps gain such symbolic resonance?

Built in stages between 1862 and 1874 by the Metropolitan Board of Works, the Thames Embankment transformed London’s riverscape by reclaiming marshy land next to the river and constructing wide carriage- and foot-ways and a high granite retaining wall, stretching over three miles in total. After they had considered the question of lighting the embankment, the Board of Works took the unusual step of displaying proposed designs for lamp standards on the Victoria Embankment in March 1870, in order to gauge public opinion before selecting a final model; and the lamps were widely illustrated in the building and metropolitan press (2 & 3).

2. The Coalbrookdale lamps as seen in the Illustrated London News, 1870.

Central to the responses to the lamps was how they would be affected by mass repetition in cast iron; after all, many hundreds would be required to fill the three miles of the new riverfront. The Illustrated London News clearly favoured the lamp manufactured by the Coalbrookdale Company: an ornamental fantasia consisting of an altar-like support, surmounted by cornucopias, overflowing with ‘their gifts of plenty’, and the central lamp pillar entwined with the figures of two boys, exchanging a burning torch (2). This newspaper, and others, was impressed by this lavish ornamentation, the cornucopias symbolising the ‘rewards of British commercial industry, as displayed on the banks of the Thames’; the trident and caduceus in the adjacent panels, ‘the mercantile spirit and maritime enterprise of the nation’; the two boys symbolising the ‘energy of the nation’, one that was clearly derived from its industrial prowess.

3. Vuillamy’s dolphin lamp (left) and Bazalgette’s tripod (right) in the Illustrated London News, 1870.

In the event, the Coalbrookdale lamp was rejected in favour of the other two designs: a dolphin lamp designed by George Vulliamy, architect to the Board of Works; and a rather more restrained design by the engineer Joseph Bazalgette, comprising a base of bent lion’s legs and paws (3). As commentators argued, the aesthetic impact of both of these designs would benefit from repetition, as opposed to the Coalbrookdale example; in large numbers, Vulliamy’s dolphin lamps would create an ‘admirable effect’ from a distance (1); while Bazalgette’s tripod, because it was ‘well drawn, modelled and finished’,  ‘will certainly bear repetition better than either of the others’ (4). In addition, both of these designs were modelled on established precedents: Vulliamy’s entwined pairs of dolphins were adapted from the Fontana del Nettuno (1822-23) in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome; while Bazalgette’s came from the more general model of the classical tripod, usually employed in antique vases and candelabras.

4. Bazalgette’s lamps on the Chelsea Embankment.

When the Victoria Embankment was opened in 1868 it was celebrated in the press as directly comparable – even superior – to the engineering feats of ancient Rome and also as superior to similar developments in contemporary Paris, itself being remodelled and promoted as a new kind of imperial city. Thus, the new lamps on the embankments, modelled on Roman precedents but with their visual impact enhanced by insistent repetition, were perceived as enhancing London’s status as the preeminent imperial city ‘to which no other European capital presents a rival’.

5. One of Vulliamy’s Sphinx benches, installed on the Victoria Embankment in 1874.

The symbolic potency of Vulliamy’s lamps was significantly enhanced by the addition of further cast-iron street furniture in the late 1870s, to mark the opening of Cleopatra’s Needle, an Egyptian obelisk installed on the Victoria Embankment in 1878 after its tortuous four-year voyage from Egypt. In 1874, anticipating the arrival of the obelisk, Vulliamy designed benches that featured sphinx and camel-shaped armrests (5 & 6). This collection of street furniture extended the historicist concept of the obelisk, enhancing both its spatial reach and its overtly patriotic and imperial associations; the obelisk and its associated benches in effect reappropriated Napoleon’s imperial ambitions to Britain, with London’s new monument also vying for visual supremacy with an existing obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Moreover, the older dolphin lamps also gained an enhanced status through the new Egyptian ornaments; their own imperial associations with Rome were now conjoined with those of Egypt and the implied succession of Britain over France as the pre-eminent imperial nation.

6. Camel bench on the Victoria Embankment, installed in 1874.

Not all critics were impressed by this overinflation of significance of the lamps: Percy Fitzgerald, writing in the Magazine of Art in 1880, argued that the lamps on the embankment were ‘too trifling in character to need such massive bases’ and, in a telling comparison, condemned Vulliamy’s ‘attenuated’ lamp posts in contrast to those found in Paris, which he regarded as ‘elegant’ objects. In Fitzgerald’s view, the magnification of the significance of the embankment lamps through their constructional forms did not match up with their aesthetic or symbolic ambition: in short, they were not worthy representations of the preeminent world city. The fact that they have since become iconic symbols of London suggests that this critic was misplaced in his opinions.





Curiosities of the Victorian census

25 04 2012

'Filling up the census paper', Punch, April 1851, p. 152.

From the introduction of the modern census in 1841, the census anecdote or ‘curiosity’ became a regular feature of newspaper columns. With the 1851 census came a plethora of ‘amusing’ returns: an Anglesey householder including all his animals on his census paper; a rural householder near Belfast writing under the column ‘Deaf and Dumb’, ‘Husband, not deaf, wish he was’; while a householder in Great Bowden in Derbyshire wrote ‘married, and sorry for it!’ in the column on marital status.

'Case of census-conscience', Punch, 15 April 1871, p. 147.

The 1871 census brought stories of the death of a young woman in Liverpool while filling out her census paper, and the case of a householder in rural Devon who was fined £1 for refusing to fill out his schedule because ‘he knew neither his own name nor his place of birth.’ Coverage of the 1891 census included more stories of householders refusing to complete their returns and widespread coverage of the sad story of Lord James Douglas forced to appear before the West London Police court after his children filled out the census paper while he was ill in bed, describing his wife as a ‘cross sweep’ and a ‘lunatic,’ and his son as a ‘shoeblack.’ The public ridicule he suffered seems to have contributed to his tragic death by suicide on 5 May 1891.

'Humours of the census', 11 April 1891, p. 479

If newspapers found amusement or pathos in the census returns, others found opportunities for social satire, especially on the question of women stating – or rather misstating – their ages. This problem had been of serious concern to the General Register Office, the organisers of the census after 1841. In 1851, they suggested that women over 20 depressed their ages because they ‘choose, foolishly, to represent themselves as younger than they really are,’ a point reiterated by them even as late as 1901.

'The census', Punch, 20 April 1861, p. 162

From 1841 onwards, satirical publications seized on this subject to make polite social comedy. If The Satirist set the scene in 1841, arguing that the ‘vague’ question on age in the census schedule was in response to women not wanting to state their exact age, then Punch, founded in that year, took up the subject in almost every subsequent census. Its 1861 cartoon ‘The Census’, shown above, is typical of its coverage, showing a middle-class family of two with their census-night visitor grouped around a table, on which the elderly head of the household is filling in the census paper. Asking his equally elderly spinster visitor, Miss Primrose, what he should write for her age, she states ‘The same as dear Flora. Twenty last birthday!’ Such gentle satire could descend into outright farce: in the same year, the Adelphi theatre in London staged its own take on the census, titled The Census: a Farce in One Act, in which the census schedule took centre stage, around which a variety of social embarrassments were played out in quick succession.








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