Well, that was fast. Just yesterday I started fominating about ending the French Revolutionary tyranny of measurements, and today I see this:
The story of Lost London is straightforward: a largely Georgian city with medieval survivals was swept away in successive clearances. Streets, squares, courts, tenements and alleys were demolished wholesale for roads and railways, disappeared in grand Imperial redesigns and were flattened by the Blitz. What Philip Davies’s book – a collection of photographs from the English Heritage archives, spanning seventy-five years from 1870 to 1945 – provides is a chance to see how it used to look. The solemn static images of the city and its inner suburbs, taken from an unshowy vantage point with the aim of recording streets and buildings on the point of demolition, evoke a solid sense of place; they also offer, in the groups of people standing in front of their familiar places, an unedited glimpse of the dispossessed.
“What sort of lives did they lead?”, the author asks about these men in bowlers and flat caps, women in aprons and children in pinafores who are gazing expressionlessly at the unfamiliar photographer. Davies’s curiosity runs through the book’s scholarly captions, as he reads the details for us, pointing out things we might pass over: a shop sign boasting “Progressive Tailors”, a newspaper placard proclaiming “Coal Crisis. A Fruitless Day. Bill Postponed. Gloomy Outlook”, the red globe lantern of a “SurgeonAccoucheur”; the menu of O’Connell’s Coffee and Dining Rooms in Little Prescott Street (cleared for the Tower Bridge approach) offering a rasher and two eggs for 4d. As well as architectural descriptions, dates and incidental details of weatherboarding, stonework and paving, Davies points out in the depth of the pictures’ accidental elements, such as a curious woman looking out of a window, a policeman unobtrusively on guard, a horse and cart, a cat in the sunshine; and he notes the “absence of clutter” and the quiet emptiness of the streets. In his long introduction, he attributes the dignity of these streetscapes – the harmony between the buildings and their occupants – to the use of imperial measure: “Neighbourhoods were laid out by surveyors who used acres, furlongs, rods and chains – measurements which had been in common usage for marking out arable land since the 9th century”; the scale of the squares and streets was based on the human form: “The builders used rules divided into feet and inches, or fathoms (the length of outstretched arms)”. A human feel also came from the use of timber and brick and from a creative intermingling of “polite” urban architecture and long-established rural traditions.
That sounds rather beautiful, doesn’t it?