Take a look at how London has been immortalised through the art in our collection. Each of the following artists give us an insight into what our city was, is or can be…
Viennese photographer, Wolfgang Suschitzky, is best known for his photographs of 1930 and 1940 London, from Hampstead Heath to Charing Cross and all the way East to Stepney Green and beyond. As a stranger to the city, his fresh vision is perhaps what allowed him to ‘extract [the] atmosphere’ (Steve Chibnall, Get Carter: The British Film Guide, 2003) of the city. Here are the prewar glory days, long gone but strangely familiar; with the same grumpy faces at the bus stop and over excited sun-worshippers in the parks.
John Riddy finds grace in the unspectacular, capturing London’s bleakest places with poetry.
I hope that we occasionally can see them; the solid constructions that surround us, that we can defeat our expectations and leave behind the pessimism that says all worlds will look and feel the same. - John Riddy
London is defined by constant regeneration. Our skyline of cranes and mish mashed architecture, tell the story of a city in flux. Although ‘anarchy’ implies a rejection of order, it also tells of individual freedom and pushing for change. From punk to the YBAs, London has given birth to countless movements which have overthrown what went before. But the original rule-breaker was J.M.W. Turner, who was causing controversy as far back as the 1790s.
This work was a preparation piece for an oil painting of the Great Fire of 1834. This catastrophe was caused by the mass disposal of wooden ‘tally sticks’; an old accounting system which had stopped being used years before. In this sketch, a mass of onlookers stand at the front of the scene, whilst parliament roars with flames. Aside from the various anarchic connotations of this, the scene depicts the symbolic passing of an old order.
In this artwork Claes Oldenburg reinvents the commercial centre of London, Picadilly Circus. Amidst the sky high video billboards he places monumental towers of lipstick, a symbol of modern day sexuality and consumerism. The piece was made at the height of the ‘swinging sixties’, when Pop art first came to popularity.
My first grasp of London was the tide of the Thames, and the sense of constant rising and falling, ebb and flow… For me, London inspired phallic imagery which went up and down with the tide - like mini-skirts and knees and the part of the leg you can see between the skirt and the boot, like the up-and-down motion of a lipstick, like the cigarette butt …
Claes Oldenburg and Suzi Gablik, ‘Take a Cigarette Butt and make it Heroic’ in Art News, LXVI, May 1967
This iconic artwork by Richard Hamilton shows Mick Jagger handcuffed to the art dealer Robert Fraser. Their pose has since become synonymous with celebrity, as the rich and famous continue to try and defend their privacy from persistent paparazzi by lifting their hands in this way.
The work depicts Jagger and Fraser leaving court after a conviction of drugs charges. The title plays off the phrase ‘Swinging London’ and the swingeing penalty imposed by the judge. Hamilton captures the glamour of London’s 1967 music scene, whilst questioning the legal restraints placed on a person’s freedom of choice.
William Hogarth’s series A Rake’s Progress is the epitome of Victorian London. However his caricature of man’s corruption still holds true today as British people continue to be known for their high spirited debauchery. Hogarth’s character, Tom Rakewell, gives in to the various temptations of the city and ends up in prison and then in a mental institution. Through Rakewell, Hogarth tells the tale of a perillous urban landscape, riddled with moral tests, all of which Rakewell inevitably fails. In this scene, Hogarth lights up the sky with lightning as Tom takes the first step towards his self-destruction.
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