Tuesday, April 19, 2016

London, Beautiful London

In 1950, Phaidon published a book of photographs by Helmut Gernsheim entitled Beautiful London. Striking black and white images, 103 of them in all, show a city both grand and quaint. The stillness and the emptiness speak of a time modern but also so remote it’s hard to grasp. None of the ravages of the war appear, nor do the economic hardships of post-war Britain. Instead, big architecture and quiet streets fill the scene, speaking in calm tones of greatness departed. Compared to the bustling abundance of today’s global London, Gernsheim froze in time an empire in decline and what that looked like at home.

The foreward by James Pope-Hennessy explains the city this way:

The largest capital in the world, London is a city which was never planned. It has accumulated. For this reason, and also because its development was chiefly guided by mercantile considerations, London is no longer, at first sight, overtly beautiful. Haphazard and shapeless, it offers few fine vistas and has no kind of symmetry. Its complement boroughs seem self-contained and unrelated to each other, for once behind the ancient boundaries of the City proper and once outside the Government quarter of Westminster and Whitehall, London is nothing but a  mass of rural villages — Kensington, Tottenham, Paddington, Camberwell, Edmonton, Hampstead and so on — engulfed in the tide of two centuries of swift urban expansion. 
I found this book on a book seller’s table in Harvard Square early last Sunday morning. When was the last time you stopped at a book seller’s table? The joys of that alone evoke all the nostalgia of a time gone by. Much like this book.

Here is Gernsheim’s London, two plates 


The National Gallery and St. Martin's-in-the-Fields 
St. George's Church, Hanover Square

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