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Review: Mr Barry’s War by Caroline Shenton.

mrbarryswar“What a chance for an architect,” exclaimed 39 year-old Charles Barry as he observed personally the 1834 fire which destroyed the old Palace of Westminster. This was the subject of Caroline Shenton’s previous award-winning book, The Day Parliament Burned Down (2012).

And now the sequel. It’s all about how Barry won the bid to design and supervise the building of a new Parliament. Little did he know what troubles lay ahead, hence the title of this book, published today.

Sir Charles Barry was thoroughly a Westminster person, man and boy. Son of a local stationer, he was born a stone’s throw from the ancient parliament and the Abbey: he knew the area intimately. Orphaned at 10, he was raised by his stepmother and apprenticed to an architect’s practice. Substantial travel through Europe and the Near East combined with his natural talent turned him – by the mid 1830s – into one of the leading architects on the scene, a rising star. Sir John Soane by this time was on death’s door and Barry was clearly the superior of Robert Smirke, the man best positioned politically to win the job of rebuilding Parliament.

But it was decided to have a competition for the project. This involved the customary procedure of competitors submitting anonymous sealed designs. Barry won. His entry was Number 64 and his accompanying rebus – the diagram on all his drawings – was a distinctive portcullis with chains. This logo device featured heavily in the decor of the designs and eventually became the official logo of the Houses of Parliament to this day. That’s one of many interesting things I learned from this book and I shall try and keep further spoilers to a minimum.

From here, the narriative of Mr Barry’s War, takes us through the challenges, problems and obstacles that were the architect’s constant companions for the next 20 years and more. The first, and as it turned out probably the easiest, was about engineering. How to build an integrated four-storey estate with two massive towers on the swamp that was Thorney Island? Barry sorted this with brilliant common-sense solutions which worked but nonetheless drew criticism that he didn’t know what he was doing, it wouldn’t work etc. This was a taste of what was to come.

Barry’s problem and the main narrative of the book was to do with having over 1,000 masters: the MPs and Peers who waited impatiently for their new accommodation. He found himself answering to a great many of them in addition to corporate the strangely-named Office of Woods (which became the Office of Works late into the project), the Fine Arts Commission and over a hundred select committee enquiries. They meddled, they carped, they criticised. While royal visitors, heads of state, journalists, newspapers and the public were full of enthusiasm for the building; while RIBA presented Gold Medals and the queen bestowed a knighthood, many insiders were openly hostile to Barry (and indirectly, Pugin). For running over budget, for making alterations without informing anyone, and hundreds of other perceived shortcomings, large and small.

Much of the budget overspend and delay was entirely due to the demands of the critics themselves, but they didn’t see it that way. Barry did have supporters in Parliament, of course, otherwise he couldn’t possibly have won through. But his chief antagonists were Ralph Osborne MP and Joseph Hume MP, who never missed a chance to slight Barry in the House (but rarely outside). Then there was the ventilation expert, Dr Reid, appointed without Barry’s approval or reference. The Scotsman was responsible not only for ventilation, but also heating in winter. Unless the two men worked completely in harmony, delay and cost would escalate. They were barely on speaking terms throughout. Reid was eventually replaced, but too late.

In addition to all of this, the project encountered an all-out strike by the masons, the Great Stink of 1858. And managing Augustus Pugin.

Central to the story is, of course, the partnership of Barry and Pugin who largely uncredited and underpaid undertook most of the decor of the palace. Utterly reliant one on the other, the two in the main got on remarkably well considering their wholly contrasting personalities. Pugin was constantly fractious, lovelorn, angry and often emotional as the author demonstrates liberally with extracts from his letters to Barry, but more tellingly to his confidante and supplier John Hardman.

“I am almost wild… I will not go on as I have been – I will either give up altogether or I will not be the servant of a set of architects who get the jobs & leave me to do their keyholes.”

But Barry was always able to soothe the bruised Pugin with charm, flattery, kind words and fulsome praise – genuinely meant, one feels. But ultimately they both shared the same vision so completely that they were chained together, prisoners to the project, literally unto death. After a spell in Bedlam and other institutions, in poor Pugin’s case.

The historical backdrop to this story is also very influential of events. Chartism is at its height and organised labour is emerging (mason’s strike, above); railways have just arrived and London’s great termini are rising from the streets; the old regime under Wellington, Peel is leaving the stage as Gladstone and Distraeli begin to loom.

There are walk-on parts from many leading or interesting players of the time: the queen, Prince Albert, John Ruskin (hostile), Edmund Beckett Denison M.P. (a truly mediocre amateur architect with massively inflated self-worth: great character), Joseph Bazalgette, Thomas Wakley (founder of The Lancet), and more. But one of my favourite bits of the book was Barry’s tour of the country with geologist William ‘Strata’ Smith in search of the perfect stone for the palace. They visited dozens of quarries: thorough doesn’t nearly cover it. The stone they eventually selected was subsequently thought not to be the exact stuff they actually meant to order, but unbeknownst to them!

This is a wonderful tale, brilliantly told. I shan’t ever look at the Houses of Parliament quite the same again and can’t wait to visit soon with new knowledge from this exceptional book.


Mr Barry’s War: Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament after the Great Fire of 1834 (288pp) by Caroline Shenton is published by Oxford University Press. Cover price is £25. Kindle edition available. It is London Historians book prize for September and there’s a special price offer for London Historians members coming up in next newsletter!

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Exhibition at the Museum of London 23 July 2016 – 17 Apr 2017.

DSC04194cIt’s known of course as the Great Fire of London. So great in fact that more generally it is simply called the Great Fire. It raged for four days from 2 to 5 September 1666, destroying most of the Square Mile and a substantial area immediately west of the city wall. This being the disaster’s 350th anniversary, it is being commemorated with sundry events in many ways and places. Nobody is better equipped to deal with this than Museum of London with its vast collection of contemporary objects.

The overall design of the show is immersive and atmospheric, that is to say dark and quite noisy, but not intrusively so. This makes complete sense. The fire started at night and virtually all known paintings of it are nightscapes (at least three of which are on display). The first section is narrow and claustrophobic to give you the feel of the medieval London streedscape: it works.

Thereafter the the spaces open out to accommodate more object displays which take us chronologically through the before, during and after phases of the Fire.

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The technical stuff shows us just how pathetic was 17C fire-fighting equipment. Most risible of all were the squirts, a couple of which are on display. A beautifully-restored fire engine – also hopelessly inefficient – is one of the centrepieces of the exhibition.

The firesquirt. Just a large syringe.

The firesquirt. Just a large syringe.

17C fire engine. For effectiveness, it flatters to deceive!

17C fire engine. For effectiveness, it flatters to deceive!

A very large proportion of the objects feature the everyday – tiles, bricks, household objects. These quite obviously resonate the most and where the museum has a huge supply, not least via years of archaeology through MOLA and its predecessors.

Hoard of 17th-century glass found underneath burnt debris during excavations of a cellar on Gracechurch Street.

Hoard of 17th-century glass found underneath burnt debris during excavations of a cellar on Gracechurch Street.

There’s lots of interactivity that will prove popular with children (of all ages!). Microscopes to view in detail carbonised articles; pushbutton x-ray reveals of encrusted household objects such as locks, keys, knives; interactive computer game of saving buildings with a choice of methods – firehooks, gunpowder etc.

X-Ray of melted iron key found at Boltolph Lane. Museum id BPL95[119] This image may be used free of charge to promote and review the Museum of London Exhibition 'Fire Fire' 2016-17. All other uses must be cleared with the Museum of London picture library

X-Ray of melted iron key found at Boltolph Lane.

In addition, of course, there is no shortage of the paperwork: documents, diagrams, plans, panoramas, books. These could be an exhibition in their own right. And almost especially for me: old pub signs! Five of them!

The Monkey and Apple.

The Monkey and Apple.

The final phase of the exhibition shines a light on the aftermath and ramifications of the tragedy. For me and for many historians I suspect, this is the most absorbing part of the show because it reveals a clear break from many things medieval. It tells us of how Robert Hooke and his team along with voluntary Fire Judges decided who owned what;  how the leading thinkers of the day – Wren, Evelyn and others – came up with new plans for London (none was implemented: London had to get back into business asap); the birth of insurance; modern building regulations.

The Fire Judges' table.

The Fire Judges’ table.

Fire insurance. If you had cover, you'd attach the badge to the front of your building.

Fire insurance. If you had cover, you’d attach the badge to the front of your building.

One of Wren's drawings for the new St Paul's.

One of Wren’s drawings for the new St Paul’s.

Given the subject matter and the inventory at the museum’s disposal for a show such as this, the task would seem an embarrassment of riches for any curator. But in a way, this actually makes the task more challenging. Meriel Jeater and her team have surpassed that challenge to plan, design, assemble and deliver a wonderfully balanced and evocative exhibition of one of London’s greatest calamities. Do go.


Fire! Fire! runs at the Museum of London from tomorrow until 17 April 2017.
Tickets from £8 adults (when booked online).
More information and booking. 

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panoramaSamuel Leigh (1780 – 1831) was a bookseller based in the Strand during the early decades of the the 19th Century. He specialised in travel guides. In 1829 he published an extraordinary book: Panorama of the Thames from London to Richmond. It mainly comprised a 60 foot long sheet which folded out concertina style, although some editions were made up of a series of individual sheets. On this ribbon of paper was printed a hand coloured aquatint of both banks of the Thames, facing one another, so one bank is always upside-down, depending on which way you hold the book. Approximately 15 miles per bank, 30 miles in all. This was, of course, immediately before the railways and almost half a century prior to Bazalgette’s embankments. Bridges across the river were still relatively few. It is therefore a marvelous visual record of the Thames of the late Georgian era.

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Fast forward to the early 21st Century and we find a man called John Inglis doing a very similar recording project, except, of course, using photography. His idea was virtually the same as Leigh’s, except – remarkably – at first he was blissfully unaware of the earlier work. Once Leigh was brought to his attention, it fundamentally transformed his own project in a most exciting way. Using rapidly improving web technology, the old and the new could exactly mirror each other in a tool that could prove both invaluable and entertaining to everybody from curious Londoners to serious historical researchers. This of course involved a massive increase in the workload and extension of the project timeline. With meagre funds, the project has relied on a dedicated band of volunteers.

One of the challenges was to obtain a best possible digitised version of Leigh. Using six surviving copies, the team took high resolution shots of the best bits of each, and then digitally repaired them for colour correction, staining, cracks, folds and so on.

This done, the team has now reached a key stage of the project: the book. Panorama of the Thames: A Riverside View of Georgian London by John Inglis and Jill Sanders is now published by Thames and Hudson. Apart from some nonedescript countryside parts of the riverbank, this book contains all of Leigh, both banks. The authors have departed from Leigh by treating each bank separately. This is something of a sacrifice it can be argued, but I think the correct decision. It has freed up space for text entries describing all notable buildings and structures, many of which no longer exist. The panorama has been divided into sections, with short introductions. The overall result is image rich with text relatively light and for me, that balance is perfect.

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The tome is large, quite weighty and simply wonderfully produced. Lavish. There is great pleasure between its covers. This is more than a book: it is a treasure. Treat yourself.

Westminster, just five years prior to the Commons and Lords being destroyed by fire.

Westminster, just five years prior to the Commons and Lords being destroyed by fire. ©2015 Panorama of the Thames Limited

Hammersmith Terrace.

Hammersmith Terrace. ©2015 Panorama of the Thames Limited

The short-lived Millbank Penitentiary, now the site of Tate Modern.

The short-lived Millbank Penitentiary, now the site of Tate Britain. ©2015 Panorama of the Thames Limited

A beautiful panorama featuring St Paul's and old Blackfriars Bridge.

A beautiful panorama featuring St Paul’s and Rennie’s Waterloo Bridge, then very new. ©2015 Panorama of the Thames Limited

Panorama of the Thames: A Riverside View of Georgian London (256pp) by John Inglis and Jill Sanders is published by Thames and Hudson with a cover price of £30. It’s available on Amazon and Waterstones.

This publication is the first book from the project. More are planned. The ongoing Panorama of the Thames project is here. Check it out; have a play.

 

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james-gillray-1-sized200This year is the 200th anniversary of the death of the London cartoonist James Gillray (1756 – 1815). He’s one of our best-known illustrators, usually mentioned in the same breath as Hogarth, Tenniel and Shepard. Like Hogarth earlier in the century, Gillray trained as an engraver and followed that trade for a short while before discovering his métier.

That profession was the vicious lampooning of prominent persons, primarily politicians and royalty. So rich were his ideas conceptually that they have provided templates for cartoonists ever since, but primarily during our own times. He’s imitated more so even than Hogarth because his illustrations are more punchy, more precise, less cluttered.

This frequent habit of cartoonistic homage down the years forms the basis of a new exhibition celebrating the Gillray anniversary: Gillray’s Ghost, at the Cartoon Museum. It features about 70 items: original hand-coloured prints by Gillray, alongside the modern equivalents by the likes of Steve Bell, Peter Brookes, Chris Duggan, Martin Rowson, Dave Brown, Nick Garland and others.

The most fecund of these, and the headline illustration of the show, is The Plumb Pudding in Danger from 1805 (pre Trafalgar), featuring Pitt and Bonaparte carving up the globe. Food and gluttony are, of course, a common trope for cartoonists down the years. There are at least half a dozen variants of this in the show. Here, using  David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon, is Steve Bell’s.

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The Baked Bean in Danger. Anniversary homage by Steve Bell. © Steve Bell.

To my mind, the most famous of all is A Voluptuary, the image of the Prince Regent, leaning back languidly, picking his teeth with a fork, not a care in the world. Chris Duggan’s cartoon shows a select committee absentee, ditto.

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Gillray CD Voluptuary 500

A Select Committee Absentee under the delights of an Expense Account, Chris Duggan, Times, 8 April 2009

Here we have Pitt, Fox and Adlington wrestling each other while Bonaparte is about to assassinate Britannia from behind a curtain. Britannia Between Death and the Doctor’s (sic). Dave Brown’s version shows Brown and Clegg as the doctors with Cameron as Death.

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Britannia between Death and the Doctors, Dave Brown, Independent, 6 May 2010 © Dave Brown

And so on. The exhibition is well conceived and nicely executed. As ever with the Cartoon Museum, thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Gillray’s Ghost runs at the Cartoon Museum until 17 January 2016. The exhibition is included in museum entry of £7 adults. Friends of the Museum and Art Fund members enjoy free entry.


London Historians Private View.
Monday 16 November, 17:30. Introductory talk by Cartoon Museum director, Anita O’Brien. Glass of wine included. All tickets £12.50 + fee. Book here.

A Taste of Gillray
26 November, 18:30. Presented by the Cartoon Museum and the Georgian Dining Academy (as it so happens, run by a pair of LH Members). An evening of convivial conversation, gin punch, 18th century cuisine and top Georgian entertainment. £40. LH Members £35 (if that’s you, contact us.)
More information.

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A guest post by London Historians member John Boughton, who writes the wonderful Municipal Dreams blog.

modernist estatesModernist Estates, written by graphic designer Stefi Orazi with an introduction by architectural critic Douglas Murphy, does what it says on the tin. It’s a simple concept – a series of lavishly illustrated case studies of twenty-one modernist housing schemes, each prefaced with a brief historical and architectural description and concluded by an interview with contemporary residents – ‘the buildings and the people who live in them today’, as the book’s subtitle explains. There’s plenty to interest a London historian. All but two of the case studies are located in the capital and some of its most celebrated twentieth-century housing feature – the Isokon in Belsize Park, the Barbican and Balfron Tower in Poplar, for example – as well as some lesser-known examples.

Modernism is, in architectural terms, a slippery concept but maybe two central dictums summarise its essence – that form should follow function (design is simple and unembellished and derived directly from a building’s purpose) and that materials should be treated honestly (as is most obviously the case with so-called Brutalist buildings of concrete construction). To a layperson, what stands out in the wide range of schemes covered is their cleanness of form and their light and airy interiors.

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Beyond the aesthetic, however, looms something larger, well discussed in Douglas Murphy’s excellent introduction: ‘underneath this stylistic question there are deeper cultural issues, about who builds housing and for what purpose, about the role of technology in the fabric of daily life, and about how humanity should address the future’. This was an era of ‘soberly optimistic considerations of what humans were capable of, and how they might live together’.

That is best illustrated in the fact that two thirds of the estates covered were built by local councils. The searing disjuncture with our present politics is demonstrated by the fact that Orazi’s interviewees – the present residents – are almost uniformly of the white, professional middle classes and generally owner-occupiers not tenants. Orazi is far from oblivious to the contradiction here– the betrayal of social purpose and the loss of affordable rented housing for ordinary people – but this will make the book uncomfortable reading for some. For that reason, the interview with Neave Brown, the architect of several of Camden’s superb housing schemes of the 1970s featured in the book, is the most powerful as he captures both the ideals and ambitions of that era and their dissolution.

As the author of the book would acknowledge, this is a niche work but it’s a niche with growing appeal. After the denigration and, in the case of some of the council estates, the demonisation of modernism, there is an increasing interest in both its architecture and ethos. Architectural and housing specialists and those such as myself whose interest in housing is more ‘political’ might wish for more detail and context but, in its own terms, the book succeeds well. Its attractive design and high quality production match its subject-matter and its photography is first-rate. As a small coffee table book for those with an interest in modernist housing and the contemporary life-styles which go with it, I’m happy to recommend it.

Modernist Estates: The buildings and the people who live in them by Stefi Orazi (192pp) is published by Frances Lincoln. Cover price is £25 but it’s available for less.

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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.

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

 

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