The most famous of London’s many bridges celebrates its 120th birthday this year. Horace Jones’s masterwork was opened by the Prince of Wales on 30 June 1894, nine years after the Act of Parliament was passed to bring it into being.

To mark the occasion, the Guildhall Art Gallery has just launched an exhibition of representations of Tower Bridge down the years. Like Sir Charles Barry and others before him, Jones didn’t live to see the completion of his most prestigious project. He is remembered here at the entrance to the show with his most famous portrait along with that of his engineer, John Wolf Barry, son of Sir Charles himself.

Tower Bridge, Guildhall Art Gallery

Charles Pears (1873-1958), Blitz. Our London Docks, 1940, oil on canvas. Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London.

After this, the bridge itself is the only star. There are many dozens of depictions spanning over a century. They include water colours, oils, pencil drawings, and photographs. Most notable of the latter are an amazing survival from the early 1890s of the bridge being built and we are reminded that for all appearances, this is a steel bridge with cladding. There are also fine engineering plans of the towers, along with ephemera relating Tower Bridge’s earliest days: invitations and programmes for the opening and even for the laying of the foundation stone. Incredibly elaborate items where Union flags abound. This was, after all, to be the new front door of  the capital of the world’s greatest power at its mightiest.

But by far the biggest element of the show are the paintings. They are in a multitude of media, taken from every viewpoint: the pool of London; Wapping; Rotherhithe; and at least one from the bridge itself. The London skyline, an evocative addition to any landscape features varyingly. But there is another star of the show: it is, of course, the Thames. And with the Thames come boats and boatmen. All subject matter that is a gift to the painter: if you think about it, nothing possibly can go wrong for any artist. There was only one picture I thought was not particularly good, but even it looked delightful thanks to a quite nice tugboat centre stage: it was very much the exception.

So an exhibition featuring images of the most photogenic (and yes, there are old photos too) bridge in the world is hardly going to struggle. But they still have to be sourced, chosen and displayed in a coherent way, and variety here is key. Moody here, frivolous there; the highly detailed rubs shoulders with the broad brush approach. The arranging is broadly chronological without being slavishly so.  The gallery and curator have got this all completely right and the result is delightful. You’d be mad not to go: entrance is free.

120 Years of Tower Bridge (1894-2014) runs from 31 May – 30 June, so not particularly long.

Tower Bridge, Guildhall Art Gallery

William Lionel Wyllie (1851-1931), The Opening Ceremony of the Tower Bridge, 1894-5, oil on canvas.
Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London.

Tower Bridge. Guildhall Art Gallery.

Frank William Brangwyn ARA (1867ÔÇô1956), The Tower Bridge, about 1905, oil on canvas.
Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London.

Tower Bridge, Guildhall Art Gallery

James Page-Roberts (b. 1925), Self-Portrait with Tower Bridge, 1965, oil on canvas. Copyright The Artist.

Tower Bridge, Guildhall Art Gallery.

Judith Evans and Arthur Watson (b. 1949, b. 1946), The Spirit of London, 1981, oil on canvas.
Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London.

Tower Bridge, Guildhall Art Gallery

Mentor Chico (b. 1963), Forever Imagical Tower Bridge 2014, 2014, oil on canvas, copyright The Artist

Review: Eleanor Marx: A Life by Rachel Holmes

A guest post by London Historians Member, Jane Young.

Eleanor Marx A Life Rachel HolmesThe first biography of Eleanor Marx (1855 – 1898) to be written in almost four decades, the 1972 -1976 two volume biography from Yvonne Knapp is a tough act to follow and Rachel Holmes has managed it with a flourish.

Significantly more intricate than a singular rendition of the life of one person, this substantial volume is an adeptly researched piece of social history. Covering poverty in the mid nineteenth century, the plight of European immigrants, infant mortality, working class politics, bohemian society

Charting the progress of Eleanor Marx from right back to before her parents Jenny and Karl had even met; you are invited into the various and numerous homes of the Marx household. There you meet a ramshackle extended family in all its minutiae detail becoming familiar with everything from the furniture they sat on; the clothes they wore; the frequent visitors and the meals they ate. Filled with a wealth of anecdotes taken from journals and letters, this book builds an enchanting picture of a dynasty whose consistently limited housekeeping budget prioritises books, paper and ink as essentials.

Within these pages the radical might of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels become softened as the character of their inextricably linked lifelong relationship, a bond which ultimately fashioned the destiny of Eleanor herself is explained.

Well known dignitaries within the circle of social reform: William Morris; Annie Besant; Clementina Black; Clara Collett; Israel Zangwill; George Bernard Shaw; Elizabeth Garrett Anderson; Beatrice Webb enter stage left.

All human life is here, in an immensely readable well referenced format though Rachel Holmes successfully steers a course away from sentimentality through tragedy compounded by dark family secret. The feisty little girl who at the age of ten lists ‘Champagne’ as her idea of happiness and grows up to make her mark on history is revealed in the most engaging but down to earth narrative: encompassing the commonplace everyday details of friendships; failed relationships; bereavement; domesticity and the eternal problem of finding affordable accommodation in London.

So much wider than a biography, moreover a graphic journey through Victorian London, Paris and Manchester. For all who have an interest in nineteenth century social reform, this account of a family that immediately endear themselves to the reader as ‘The Tussies’ is to be highly recommended.


Eleanor Marx: A Life (525pp) by Rachel Holmes, 2014, is published by Bloomsbury with a cover price of £25, but is available for less.


Review: Lady Bette and the Murder of Mister Thynn by N.A. Pickford.

lady bette and the murder of my thynnIn an age when women – no matter how high born – had few rights, wealthy heiresses found themselves sometimes to be both bargaining counters of their guardians and targets for kidnappers after rich pickings. Lady Bette was one such, but so much more than that: she was a Percy and the heiress to the Northumberland estates: the very top echelon of the English aristocracy. Think Syon House in Brentford and Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, both still with us. Add to this the magnificent Northumberland House near Charing Cross – lost to the railways and urban expansion of the late 19C; and Petworth House and it’s clear that in the late Seventeenth Century, the Percys of Northumberland were an ancient and noble family of the first rank. They still are today.

So when Bette’s father, the 11 Duke of Northumberland died in 1670 when she was just three, and her elder brother himself having died two years previously, little Bette became the heiress to vast estates. She instantly became a pawn in a marriage game played by two deadly rivals: her mother and her grandmother, the formidable Dowager Lady Howard.

Having already lost her childhood husband from her initial arranged marriage (they appeared to be a fondly devoted young couple), Bette – still in her early teens – was fixed up with Thomas Thynn, an unpleasant character who rubbed shoulders with the emerging Whig faction surrounding the Duke of Monmouth – desperate chancers as history would later prove.

These years of scheming and intrigue – skillfully woven by the author in the narrative – culminate in the event of the title: a drive-by assassination of Thynn in his coach at the cross-roads of Pall Mall and Haymarket. The killers were a group of down-at-heel desperadoes in the pay of the mysterious Count Konigsmark and his right hand man, Christopher Vratz, fortune hunters and mercenaries to a man.

London at this time was a haven for resting military types from the Continent, common soldiers now impoverished habitues of the capital’s less salubrious inns and ale houses. They were easy recruits for this mission.

Apart from Bette herself, no one comes out of this story with any credit. Honour there is none. Everybody, high and low alike, is on the make. My favourite – and likely yours will be too – is Ralph Montagu, sometime ambassador to Paris and step-father of Bette, whose strategic womanising and scheming are utterly shameless, leading ultimately to his disgrace at Court. A morality tale within a tale.

N.A. Pickford weaves complex threads together with great skill and tells this amazing story with panache and style. His research is clearly both deep and wide-ranging  and he manages his sources masterfully. Any history lover will enjoy this pacy true story, but if you’re particularly into the scheming, the intrigues, the power-broking of the Restoration elite, you will adore this book.



The footnotes, references and index are excellent: all you would want.

Lady Bette and the Murder of Mister Thynn (309pp) is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson with a cover price of £20 although it is available for less.


trinity house

Trinitas in Unitate.

Many happy returns to Trinity House which was granted its Royal Charter this day in 1514 by Henry VIII, early in his reign when he was yet young, handsome and worthy.  Trinity House is the charity which takes care of all of our lighthouses and coastal buoys, ensuring the safety of thousands of mariners down the ages.

As with many ancient organisations, Trinity House has a religious foundation and a wonderfully convoluted name: The Master, Wardens, and Assistants of the Guild, Fraternity, or Brotherhood of the most glorious and undivided Trinity, and of St. Clement in the Parish of Deptford-Strond in the County of Kent. Deptford, of course, was in times gone by London’s major centre of ship building and maritime marine. The initial function, according to the Charter, was “so that they might regulate the pilotage of ships in the King’s streams”.

As a fraternity, the top of the organisation comprises 31 Elder Brethren, led by a Master. Today’s Master is HRH The Princess Royal, the latest in a long line of senior royals who have held the position. Former non-Royal Masters have included Samuel Pepys (as you’d expect), The Duke of Wellington and William Pitt the Younger.

The Trinity House HQ is in Trinity Square, overlooking the Tower of London and the Tower Hill Memorial which commemorates all merchant seamen and fishermen lost in the two world wars. All Hallows by the Tower, which also remembers seafarers, is close by. The late-Georgian building by Samuel Wyatt dates from 1796. It has a magnificent staircase, beautifully-appointed rooms and is festooned with portraits, ships models, silverware and other seafaring objects.

Trinity House

Trinity House, London

Trinity House, London

Trinity House, London

Trinity House, London

Trinity House, London

Last Saturday as part of the 500th anniversary celebrations, Trinity House was open to the public, a rare occurrence. These photos are from our visit, all by LH Member Fiona Pretorius. It will next be accessible one day on Open House weekend this September and booking will be necessary, so look out for that.


Further Reading.

Our Trinity House photos on Flickr.
Trinity House History.
Trinity House History Blog.
Trinity House home page.
Trinity House FAQs.
Trinity House on Wikipedia.

This museum was re-opened in March after a substantial revamp. Last Friday we were privileged to have a private tour led by curator Jennifer Adam. The whole business was fascinating with a massive array of artifacts to Mammon. We only had an hour before the doors were opened to the public, so I’ll definitely go back for a more substantial look, I’d suggest it needs a good several hours. Here’s a piece of trivia. When the currency was decimalised in 1971, the ten bob note was to be continued as a 50p note, but the idea was scotched at the last minute. And whose head was going to appear on it? Sir Walter Raleigh.

bank of england museum

One of our group, LH Member Chris West, writes:
Our visit to the Bank of England Museum on Friday was fascinating. We were straight away talking about the beautiful floor mosaics and then Jenifer Adam introduced herself to us as our host – we saw the structure of the building in model form, which showed the complexity of the various extensions and the way expense was not spared to reflect the national importance of this world famous financial hub. We were expertly shepherded from room to room, seeing beautifully presented displays from early history, displays from the vaults (no you are not allowed to view the gold down below), a clever hands on ‘ship’ designed to involve youngsters, bank notes ancient to modern (we all remembered the ten shilling note) and a sprinkle of the famous people who just popped in to exchange their money, including Handel! It’s always a delight to listen to such a passionately interested, devoted expert, and Jennifer Adam  did us proud- so much to see (I nearly forgot that we were all able to pick up the gold bar, which today was worth £360000+ (but you wouldn’t get far with it- it’s encased except for room to slide your hand in) so I’ll have to go back again as soon as I can.

bank of england museum

Charters from the 17C establishing not only the Bank, but the National Debt.

bank of england museum

Lottery tickets, early bank notes and a book listing customer authorities.

old lady of threadneedle street gilray

The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, first coined by the cartoonist James Gillray in 1797. The bank being ravished by William Pitt the Younger.

bank of england museum

Where you have Gillray you must have Cruickshank. Satirical banknote, protesting the hundreds of executions of forgers.

Pitt the Younger. There is much statuary throughout the bank and the museum, notably of William III who was on the throne when the bank was founded in 1694.

Pitt the Younger. There is much statuary throughout the bank and the museum, notably of William III who was on the throne when the bank was founded in 1694.

The Bank of England Museum is open from 10 am to 5 pm Monday to Friday. Entrance is free.

London Historians frequently organises behind the scenes group visits which are mostly for Members only.

Exhibition: C.A.Mathew: Photographs of Spitalfields a Century Ago.

An on-the-tin title there. On Saturday 20th April 1912, Essex photographer C.A. Mathew unloaded his equipment at Liverpool Street Station and spent time taking pictures of the street scenes in Spitalfields. Nobody knows why or how many images he captured. But 21 of them have survived as prints in the Bishopsgate Institute. Some of them are in quite good nick; others somewhat less so. Recently they have been carefully scanned at ultra high resolution and digitally restored by local photographer Jeremy Freedman. The substantially enlarged versions on display are the basis of this remarkable exhibition.

The detail is so fine that you can clearly read text in shop windows and on advertising posters and the adverts on omnibuses. The cobbled streets strewn with horse manure. Ornate streetlamps and balconies. Children and parents, in their weekly best, walking to or from synagogue. In the biggest, wealthiest, most powerful and most populous city on the globe, these were its poor, if not its destitute. There is pride in those faces. And curiosity in those of the children. Who was this stranger with his contraption?

Horses and waggon wheels are ubiquitous, yet in a handful of years to disappear from this urban landscape forever. This was the generation that – unbeknownst to them – would be scythed on foreign battlefields imminently. And those too young to fight would have their turn a generation later.

This show is deeply evocative and real. You can smell and taste the past here. The pixels below can only hint at what you’ll experience by seeing the images in large scale. Do go.

c a mathews

Crispin St, looking towards the Spitalfields Market. Bishopsgate Intitute/Jeremy Freedman.

Looking down Artillery Lane towards Artillery Passage. Bishopsgate Intitute/Jeremy Freedman.

Looking down Artillery Lane towards Artillery Passage. Bishopsgate Intitute/Jeremy Freedman.

Widegate St looking towards Artillery Passage. Bishopsgate Institute/Jeremy Freeman.

Widegate St looking towards Artillery Passage. Bishopsgate Institute/Jeremy Freeman.

The exhibition runs from 7 March – 27 April at Eleven Spitalfields Gallery, 11 Princelet Street. Weekends 12 – 6, weekdays by appointment. More here.

More pictures and thoughts by the Gentle Author at Spitalfields Life.

Justice on the Strand

A guest post by talented artist and London Historians Member, Liam O’FarrellAnd an offer to buy the painting or limited edition print at a special London Historians cut price rate. See below for details.

I am a member of London Historians, a group of like-minded London history enthusiasts. Director Mike Paterson invited me along to one of its tours: the Royal Courts of Justice in The Strand. I have a keen interest in history and am an artist who is enthusiastic about architecture so this tour was not to be missed.

I’ve often passed this imposing building while riding buses and the goings-on are a common feature on the TV news, ranging from infamous cases such as the Leveson Enquiry on the media’s alleged misdemeanours to the rather bizarre incident of Heather Mills throwing a jug of water over Paul McCartney’s lawyer, Fiona Shackleton. Heather was apparently dismayed at only receiving a £24.3million divorce settlement compared with the £125million which court papers revealed she had demanded. Life can be so very tough.

royal courts of justice, london, liam o'farrell

The building
The courts were designed by architect George Edmund Street. Work began on the huge 6 acre site in 1873 and was officially opened in 1882 by Queen Victoria. Over the years extensions have been added, so currently there are 78 courts within. There was potentially a great deal to get through and so our guide creamed the very best to put in our 90 minute tour.

The tour
Our guide for the day was Colin Davey, a qualified City of London Guide Lecturer, City of Westminster Guide Lecturer and National Trust Guide, as well as being a fellow London Historians Member. He has also spent many years as a practising lawyer so proved ideal for this tour adding much detail and knowledge beyond that of the average guide. We began our tour in the Great Hall. Colin initially gave us a quick overview of the building’s history and function.

the royal courts of justice, london, by liam o'farrell

I was surprised to hear that they do not hold criminal trials at the RCJ: these take place at criminal courts such as the Old Bailey or equivalent. In the RCJ they deal mainly with Civil Law, dealing with matters such as inquests, high value divorce proceedings as well as intellectual property and other commercial disputes. The Royal Courts are, however, courts of appeal, hence the necessity for cells on the premises.

Colin went on to tell us about the numerous paintings and statues of past judges and various other law related cognoscenti who have made a name for themselves over the years. We then moved around the corridors and rooms, learning about the functions and histories of each. Highlights included the ‘Bear Garden’ which neither contains a garden or – you will be relieved to hear – any bears either. It’s an elegant galleried Gothic room, called the ‘Bear Garden’ supposedly by Queen Victoria who said that the bickering barristers sounded like a bear pit or garden where the hapless bears were goaded to fight dogs. Adjoining this is the resplendent ‘Painted Room’ in glittering Victorian green, red and gold über camp. If Liberace were still with us this is where he would like to do lunch. It is however used as the judges’ robing room.

Once the tour was complete we continued the law theme with lunch at Middle Temple Hall on the other side of the Strand. It’s an original Elizabethan hall measuring 110 feet long and spanned by a blacked double hammer-beam roof. It has been in continual use as the eating and mooting hall of the Middle Temple since its inception in 1573. Shakespeare buffs might know that the first recorded performance of Twelfth Night too was played in the Middle Temple Hall.

This was a particular treat for us as the general public is not routinely allowed to walk in off the street. But Mike had booked one of the large refectory tables and we sat down for a hearty lunch at a pretty reasonable price. It is not often you can eat while musing over a collection of original Van Dykes staring down at you.

The tour of The Royal Courts of justice was a real treat and big thanks to Mike Paterson and Colin Davey for an excellent afternoon and plenty of subject matter for my sketchbook.

The painting

the royal courts of justice, london, by liam o'farrellI could have painted the whole of the building though I felt the characters would get lost in the immensity of it all, and it would somehow dilute itself in the process. After some musing I decided to paint the great arched entrance to the front façade. This is where much action takes place, a gaping mouth of a door where all the journalists, cameramen and crowds gather to get the latest on the progress within. It’s also where all the winners and losers spill out to give their side of the story or to dash off as quickly as they can to reassess their thoughts and wallets.

To begin my drawing I positioned myself across the street outside the George pub. I had the occasional company of the pub’s smokers and it also afforded me a little bit of cover as the weather was utterly foul.

I got the bones in of what I needed fairly quickly, I needed to hurry as even with my modest shelter the rain was still coming in and my paper was turning to soggy loo roll with my pencils either slipping across the top or gouging messy holes. This picture would have to be finished off in the studio. And so it was.

royal courts of justice, london, liam o'farrell

Yours to have
If you’d like to buy a print – or indeed the original – of Liam’s lovely watercolour, you may, as follows:

Signed limited-edition (100) print:
£120. London Historians Member price: £100.
Original mounted painting, glazed and in a brushed gold frame:
£560. London Historians Member price: £500
Dimensions: 37cm x 54cm with a white border surround.

Contact Liam O’Farrell directly by email liamo@liamofarrell.com, mobile 07812 191082.
See his other work on his website here: www.liamofarrell.com
ollow him on Twitter as @liams_art

Liam is also available to do commissions.


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