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dsc02112cIn anticipation of our live Water Music concert on the Thames this coming 17th of July, I’ve been boning up on George Frederic Handel (1685 – 1759), the German baroque composer who spent most of his life here in London. To give you an idea where he fits in, he was an exact contemporary of JS Bach (1685 – 1750) and Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741).

Handel left his home in Hanover for London in 1710, and stayed. He was employed by Queen Anne and various British aristocrats, notably the fantastically sophisticated 3rd Earl of Burlington. In 1714, his former boss, the Elector of Hanover, became George I, King of England. Awkward. The Water Music of 1717 is seen as a reconciliation piece. It worked.

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Handel, late 1720s, by Denner. NPG London.

The composer existed at the heart of London society, leading a highly productive professional life. Along with William Hogarth and other worthies, he was a founding governor of Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital, playing a key role in its early success. His home still stands in Brook Street, Mayfair, as the Handel House Museum.

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Handel lived here from 1723 until his death in 1759

The Best Of…
Like most of us I suspect, I knew what the famous bits of the Water Music * (1717) and the Messiah (1741) sound like. I had also heard the haunting Sarabande in D Minor (1733) without knowing it was by Handel. It featured heavily in Stanley Kubrick’s Georgian masterpiece Barry Lyndon (1975). I also would have not easily recognised Scipio from the three act opera Scipione (1719) which is the regimental slow march of the Grenadier Guards. Zadok the Priest (aka Coronation Anthem No 1) was written in 1727 for the coronation of George II. For obvious reasons there has been no official call for it in recent times. However, lovers of association football will recognise it from Champions League on the television. Never mind. But it is utterly mesmerising. If you’re ever feeling a bit low, The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba from the oratario Solomon (1748) should always raise your spirits. Finally (for now), Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749), hitherto for me known only by name. Turns out it’s an easily digestible 22 minute joy.

G.F. Handel. Wow. What a guy.


* Water Music, just the famous bit.


A selection of some of the Handel favourites above will be performed on the 300th anniversary of the Water Music by a live orchestra on the Thames on 17th July. Hosted by the Georgian Dining Academy and London Historians. Tickets are already selling briskly: don’t miss it.

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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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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

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alison balsomThe Globe Theatre, Sam Wanamaker‘s magnificent replica Elizabethan theatre on Bankside. I last attended a production here in 2005. The reason I remember this is because – just as now – the Ashes were on and I recall during the interval having to catch up on the score from Old Trafford.

Yesterday evening we were transported not backwards in time from Shakespeare’s London, but forward to the London of the 1690s, during the reign of William and Mary: Wren’s London, a London fizzing with  religious tension, the Catholic James II only recently having been shown the exit. The streets, houses, palaces and the Thames, of course, are the scenes for a brand new production by Samuel Adamson: Gabriel.

Gabriel is a large ensemble musical play. It is a play rather than a musical, really, because although there are songs, they are relatively few. It is, nonetheless, a play about music: Purcell’s music; baroque music; specifically music for trumpet. Along with the violin players, cellists, woodwind tooters and kettle drummer, the cast includes at least four trumpets, led by virtuosa Alison Balsom.

Early on, two of the comic characters – a fictitious, sickly Royal prince and an alcoholic trumpeter – assert that the trumpet can only be used for rousing, martial-like music. From here the production comprises a series of scenes and stories which serve to disprove this clearly simple-headed thesis, through the music of Purcell. These pieces are in turn rousing, sad, funny, tragic, bawdy. All are wonderfully done. The writing, acting, music and performing are all rock-solid and delivered with great confidence and panache, a wonderful achievement for the opening weekend. A special mention must be made for the costumes and, in particular, wigs. Fantastically over the top, yet realistic for the time. The leading ladies’ frocks are particularly stunning.

There is good swearing, boasting, joshing and violence from our friends, the Watermen who live up to their historic stereotype. There is some near total nudity (socks), unfortunately only male. A trumpet comes in handy in these circumstances. Another scene features a wonderfully written and delivered diatribe against lovers of the English Opera amid much farting (delivered, of course, via trumpet special FX) and giggling.

Just wonderful. Congratulations to all concerned.

More about the play, including interviews etc, and booking, here.

Gabriel runs until 18 August.
Until the 20 July, London Historians members can book tickets for just £10, saving up to £29, an astounding discount. If you’re a Member reading this, email admin@londonhistorians.org for the promotion code. And if you’re not? Go anyway, or join us in the tent.

globe theatre

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estuary museum of londonThere are different Thameses aren’t there? The Thames of Oxford and Henley through Windsor and all the way to Richmond conjures up summer days, pretty girls in frocks, tipsy young men laughing too loudly, stripy blazers and straw boaters. The Thames of Chelsea, Battersea, Westminster and the City is greyer, more business-like, lined with towers and amusements in equal measure; its world-famous bridges and citiscapes, instantly recognisable even by millions who will never visit us. These are the Thameses we all know. Then, familiar only to those who live in direct proximity – beyond Royal Greenwich and industrial Woolwich and Silvertown – is Thames the Obscure: the estuary. When London was the busiest port in the world, this part of the river was alive with shipping. Today it is populated mainly by gulls and ghosts. But it is celebrated in a highly evocative new exhibition at Museum of London Docklands.

Estuary features the work of 12 artists, photographers and film-makers, who follow in the footsteps of Turner and Constable who themselves drew inspiration from the lowest reaches of the Thames, as did Dickens and Conrad. All the works are beautifully and skillfully done but more importantly – thought-provoking: one supposes that is why they have been chosen. Those that appeal most to me are the ones which succeed in emphasising the vastness – the grandeur in a way – of this part of the world. As you enter,  you get instant succour from the huge canvasses of Jock McFadyen which deliver real breadth and sense of space. They are quite beautiful.

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Purfleet from Dracula’s Garden by Jock McFadyen. © Tate Britain.

Two other works succeed in the same respect and they are both film installations which take up a whole wall as you sit in the dark and absorb. Each runs for 15 – 20 minutes. The first is the one that’ll appeal most to historians. Thames Film by William Raban is a  stew of clips and stills judiciously edited together and with the words of Thomas Pennant from 1787 read by John Hurt. It employs the artist’s own clips of his journey down the Thames, following the route described by Pennant himself. These are intercut with historical clips and photographs mainly from the mid-20th Century. The whole work recalls the estuary’s denizens from days gone by. It is evocative, atmospheric, disturbing. One gets a sense of constant danger.

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Maunsell Forts, Thames Film by William Raban

The other big-screen number is Horizon by John Smith. It’s simply a series of fixed-camera clips filmed in and around Margate, then spliced together. So we see the open sea in a variety of lights and weather conditions. The water is mill-pond still occasionally, but mostly it is lively, sometimes angry. Humans and vessels occasionally intrude: a red cargo ship, a tanker, an inflatable RIB, a dinghy, a lifeboat, a container vessel. Sometimes the tide is out and we get a view of the beach, sparcely populated by pedestrians. The soundtrack assists to put salt on your tongue: breakers, gulls, muffled voices, a lonely foghorn, that sort of thing. Towards the end we are given a split sequence featuring the sun setting which is cleverly and beautifully done. This is such a good installation, it transports you there. Almost.

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Horizon (Five Pounds a Belgian) by John Smith.

Estuary, Museum of London Docklands

Children’s Scooter from The Golden Tide by Gayle Chong Kwan.

The opposite of these panoramic pieces is the micro, and a series of several dozen framed photos does exactly this: The Golden Tide by Gayle Chong Kwan. They are snapshots which the artist uploaded to Instagram over a period of time. They feature people interacting with the estuary landscape through the means of human detritus: toys, plastic bottles, shopping trolleys (of course!), tyres, wheels, wrappers, bits of broken glass, and so on.  It works brilliantly.

This excellent exhibition should take you about 45 minutes to an hour. If, like me, you haven’t been to Museum of London Docklands before, you’ll spend a further several hours enjoying fascinating displays about the history of our great river. I had high expectations of this museum: it effortlessly surpassed them.

Estuary runs until 27 October. It is free, as is entry to the Museum.

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A guest post by Rudyard Kipling.

Last week’s Poetry Please on Radio 4 featured a reading of The River’s Tale by Kipling, written in 1911. I’m so glad I caught it because I hadn’t heard it before. It celebrates London and the prehistoric Thames. But before reproducing the words, I must recommend two video clips of readings on the same work. Both are lovely and will make you tingle if you love London, even just a little.

This one has archive footage from the BFI.
This is a more polished number with super aerial footage.

Both these clips have had a paltry few hundred reads and deserve far more: let’s spread the love.
And finally, if you’re interested in London’s bridges, there are quite a few books, but I’d thoroughly recommend Crossing the River by Brian Cookson, London Historians Member.

Here’s the poem.

The River’s Tale by Rudyard Kipling

TWENTY bridges from Tower to Kew –
Wanted to know what the River knew,
Twenty Bridges or twenty-two,
For they were young, and the Thames was old
And this is the tale that River told:-

I walk my beat before London Town,
Five hours up and seven down.
Up I go till I end my run
At Tide-end-town, which is Teddington.
Down I come with the mud in my hands
And plaster it over the Maplin Sands.
But I’d have you know that these waters of mine
Were once a branch of the River Rhine,
When hundreds of miles to the East I went
And England was joined to the Continent.

I remember the bat-winged lizard-birds,
The Age of Ice and the mammoth herds,
And the giant tigers that stalked them down
Through Regent’s Park into Camden Town.
And I remember like yesterday
The earliest Cockney who came my way,
When he pushed through the forest that lined the Strand,
With paint on his face and a club in his hand.
He was death to feather and fin and fur.
He trapped my beavers at Westminster.
He netted my salmon, he hunted my deer,
He killed my heron off Lambeth Pier.
He fought his neighbour with axes and swords,
Flint or bronze, at my upper fords,
While down at Greenwich, for slaves and tin,
The tall Phoenician ships stole in,
And North Sea war-boats, painted and gay,
Flashed like dragon-flies, Erith way;
And Norseman and Negro and Gaul and Greek
Drank with the Britons in Barking Creek,
And life was gay, and the world was new,
And I was a mile across at Kew!
But the Roman came with a heavy hand,
And bridged and roaded and ruled the land,
And the Roman left and the Danes blew in –
And that’s where your history-books begin!

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Today I spent a pleasant hour or so loafing by the Thames with a pair of fine gentlemen, Mr Woolf and Mr Shepherd.

We were there to witness the start of this year’s Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race at London Bridge, the oldest continuous sporting event in the world. Five recently-qualified young watermen (there can be up to six) row as fast as they can to Chelsea. The winner is awarded a fine scarlet coat and a silver badge. The race dates from 1715 and originally celebrated the accession the Hanoverian dynasty. It was sponsored by the Irish theatre impressario Thomas Doggett, an ardent Whig. Doggett was keen on watermen, for they who would frequently carry him from central London to his home in Chelsea, what became almost the exact route of the race. Or vice-versa, of course.

Update 15/7/2014: Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race now has its own website.

dogett's coat and badge

In those days there was no way of traversing the river upstream of London Bridge until you reached Kingston Bridge, except by boat. London Bridge itself was a difficult enough crossing anyway, clogged up as it was by houses and shops. So watermen provided a vital service to Londoners – they were the black cab equivalent of their day, as garrulous and opinionated as today’s cabbies apparently are. There were around 2,500 of them in the early 18th Century.

While wandering the dusty far corridors of the web, I found a rather nice piece of verse celebrating the Thames. It’s by the 17 century waterman John Taylor, who called himself the Water Poet. It’s an extract from an enormous piece called In Praise of Hemp-Seed , published in 1630, but probably penned a little earlier. Taylor first compares the river favourably with any in the world, he then describes the bounty it bestows and finally laments how we neglectful Londoners pay it back with shit and ordure. One can only wonder what our 17C environmentalist would have made of it two hundred years later. Anyway, it goes like this.

The names of the most famous riuers in the world.

Maze, Rubicon, Elue, Volga, Ems, Scamander,
Loyre, Moldoue, Tyber, Albia, Seyne, Meander,
Hidaspes, Indus, Inachus, Tanaies,
(Our Thames true praise is farre beyond their praise)
Great Euphrates, Iordane, Nilus, Ganges, Poe,
Tagus and Tygris, Thames doth farre out-goe.
Danubia, Ister, Xanthus, Lisus, Rhrine,
Wey, Seuerne, Auon, Medway, Isis, Tine,
Dee, Ouze, Trent, Humber, Eske, Tweed, Annan, Tay,
Firth (that braue Demy-ocean) Clide, Dun, Spay,
All these are great in fames, and great in names,

But great’st in goodnesse is the riuer Thames,
From whose Diurnall and Nocturnall flood
Millions of soules haue fewell cloathes and food ;
Which from twelue houres to twelue doth still succeed,
Hundreds, & thousands both to cloath & feed,
Of watermen, their seruants, children, wiues,
It doth maintaine neere twenty thousand liues.
I can as quickly number all the starres,
As reckon all things in particulars :

Which by the bounty of th’All-giuing giuer
Proceeds from this most matchlesse, famous Riuer.
And therefore ’tis great pitty, shelfe or sand
From the forgetfull and ingratefull land,
Should it’s cleare chrystall entrailes vilefy,
Or soyle such purenesse with impurity.
What doth it doe, but serues our full contents,
Brings food, and for it takes our excrements,
Yeelds vs all plenty, worthy of regard
And dirt and mucke we giue it for reward ?

You can sift through the whole hemp-seed poem  here.

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