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Review: Facsimile reissue of The Spirit of London (1935) by Paul Cohen-Portheim. A guest post by LH Member Hannah Renier.

SOL Cover175Paul Cohen-Portheim was born in Berlin in 1879 to Austrian parents with family in Vienna. He travelled all over Europe, spoke many languages well and settled in London after the First War, despite having spent the war in internment camps in the Isle of Man and Yorkshire.

He was an artist who became better known in Germany as a travel writer. This was his final book, finished (in German) not long before his death in 1932; in it he promises to show us ‘what London stands for and what it means’; for he ‘might almost be said to be in love with it.’

The text is full of interest, but it’s the 146 monochrome photographs of London and Londoners which add atmosphere. Working men wear flat caps; clerks and shop assistants, trilbies; and managers, bowler hats; but you see all of them at a football match. Most women in the pictures shingle their hair, simper under cloche hats and wear skirts to the knee, while older, poorer ladies wear flowerpot hats and layers of clothing that sag almost to the ground. (The population is almost entirely white.) At a busy junction, a horse and cart, a bicycle, a tram, a bus, a taxi, a motorbike and sidecar, a motor van and a small tanker-truck bowl across together and take their chance, for there are no traffic lights. Policemen really are burly, much taller than average, and here are two of them hoisting a pathetic drunk off to the station. Here, too, is a whole low-built city that is pretty much silent and faintly lit after midnight.

london bridge

London Bridge: The morning influx of city workers

university college

University College, Gower Street: The luncheon interval.

Portheim guides us through every district in central London like a perceptive friend. He loved the variety and enormity of the place. Over time London had ‘spread at ease and in any direction’ because it was not constrained by city walls, he said. This was his explanation for the house-with-garden set-up that he preferred to the apartment blocks of other European cities. Here, where there are no gardens there are well-tended garden squares, and chains of parks – Hyde Park, St James’s, Green Park, most of which (unlike the Tuileries) are allowed to look like countryside. Sheep still grazed in Hyde Park then.

He was an impressionist, not an academic, and he had an acute eye for the subtle social divisions that marked each area, and the way London was always alive and changing. In Bond Street, you might still occasionally see a smart horse-drawn carriage, with uniformed coachman, conveying an elderly lady to an appointment. He must have seen Park Lane’s ducal mansions pulled down (post-war debt had to be paid by enormous death duties) but he didn’t much like the hotels and apartment blocks that replaced them. The children of the rich had moved west to the wrong end of Knightsbridge, or shabby-genteel Pimlico, or pokey mews houses anywhere. Chelsea was fashionable and arty only at the Sloane Square end; closer to Fulham was poverty. Even Camden was ‘quite poor’. Picturesque, cosmopolitan poverty ended at Petticoat Lane and Whitechapel. The slums of Westminster were being ‘reclaimed’ after the flood of 1928 (replaced along the river by tall, unassailable stone frontages.)

Belgravia was for dowager duchesses. ‘Everyone fashionable’ lived in the West End; either Mayfair or, if you were an actor, theatreland. Portheim delighted in London’s theatres – Noël Coward, Tallulah Bankhead, Gladys Cooper, Jack Buchanan, you could see all of them and others just as famous any night of the week. He also appreciated panto, opera, the Yiddish theatre, and Music Hall, which was unlike anything he had seen abroad.

The public interiors he knew were the gentlemen’s clubs of London, the galleries, the theatre and the museums, the hotels and the restaurants. Department stores and the classier tearooms were for women. The City, Whitehall, the Inns of Court and other specialised workplaces fascinated him. He was astonished by London’s frequent juxtaposition of historic buildings from different eras. Sometimes appalled, too. The Adelphi Terrace was menaced and the Hotel Cecil had gone; the Shell building was rising between the Strand and the River. Some of Bloomsbury’s Georgian terraces, ‘simple and perfect’, had been replaced by slabs that loomed along the east side of Tavistock Square. As to the river, he observed ‘how neglected the Thames is.’ London turned its back on it; Londoners behaved as if it wasn’t even there.

Londoners who worked on the river saw it differently, and in Docklands even more so. But Portheim was not interested in the work dockers or watermen did. Limehouse, he observed, was ‘a disappointment’. Perhaps he had visited half-expecting to find the opium dens of the 1890s. Back in the West End, Covent Garden, with its huge carthorses, colourful vegetables and organised chaos of market porters was a lot more interesting.

kings cross

Bargains: King’s Cross.

He summed up other groups in a snap – ‘slum children’ and a few ‘negroes’ could be found anywhere; Indian students were conspicuous. Men of ‘faultless but conservative taste’ shopped in St James’s and Savile Row. Families of ‘affluent respectability’ lived in Kensington. Working people enjoyed themselves, after their loud jolly fashion, at the Elephant and Castle much as they did at Islington.

Individuals were stereotyped according to class, sex, race and nationality in reality, not just in Portheim’s head. American visitors really were richer than most. The writer himself? He lived in Bloomsbury, kept a small flat in Paris, travelled and wrote. He was charming, observant of all that did not bore him, and slightly lazy; he appreciated the galleries and museums but dismissed the Science Museum, the Geological Museum and the Natural History Museum as of interest only to scientific–read nerdy–types. He confused Imperial College with the Imperial War Museum and told readers that the Old Vic was in the Borough, ‘a very poor area’. A publisher’s note at the start of the book acknowledges, and apologises for, Portheim’s dated attitudes and occasional mistakes.

whitechapel

A Street in Whitechapel.

As to the long straight roads out of London–Vauxhall Bridge Road, Tottenham Court Road, Edgware Road–all led to ‘remote suburbs’ but there were things to see even there. He had suffered the dreary drive through ‘mean and poor quarters’ to Greenwich and was excited to come upon the baroque Palace (the Old Naval College), Hawksmoor’s church and the Observatory. He visited other outposts: Kenwood in the north and the Crystal Palace on the south side of the plain. The most advanced of modern architects, he noted, now admired the Crystal Palace, while to philistines it was an old-fashioned eyesore.

Ignorantly, I was confused by a couple of references to the London Museum in Stafford House. Was that somewhere near the Stafford Hotel? Yes. Lancaster House (which has gone on to greater things) was at one time called Stafford House, and that is where the Museum was.

Portheim tells us that he knew very few short-term Continental visitors who enjoyed their stay in London, although his friends included many settled foreigners who wouldn’t live anywhere else. London, he pointed out, had a tourist problem. There was no ‘hospitality’. There were expensive hotels and grand Station hotels, and Bed and Breakfast places, but not much at a reasonable price in between. There was no café culture. No pavement cafés either. You couldn’t pop into a pub for a decent lunch and a glass of wine. You could get something on toast at a Lyon’s Corner House or an ABC, or enjoy something expensive at the Café Royal or exotic at Veeraswamy’s, but outside the City–a largely male preserve–Simpson’s and Rules were the only places for good British food at lunchtime. There is no mention of fish and chips, winkle stalls or jellied eels, but visitors would never go east anyway.

As for night life–Jack Hylton’s band played all over, but everything ended at eleven or twelve, even the big dance halls like the Palais in Hammersmith. Nightclubs were only for the wealthy and fashionable (Ciro’s, the Embassy) or the utterly disgraceful. He doesn’t name the disreputable 43 or Murray’s or any of their imitators, licenced or underground, which had so delighted the Bright Young Things throughout most of the Twenties. Or for the less raffish, the Gargoyle. How was the foreign visitor to know they were even there? In London the best of everything is hidden, he said. And it seems to have been true; Londoners consorted only with people like themselves.

In 1932, Portheim fell ill in Portugal. Very sick, he was taken to his Paris flat, and there he passed away much too young. In the next three years, this book was translated and published in English by Batsford.

The welcome March 2021 reissue from Pavilion books reproduces the original cover picture by Brian Cook.

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The Spirit of London (224pp) by Paul Cohen-Portheim is republished on 4 March 2021 by Batsford imprint of Pavilion Books with a cover price of £9.99.

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