Visiting ‘Lost London’ at Kenwood House in Hampstead reinforces how this city is an accretion of buildings constructed over hundreds of years. English Heritage has mounted a display of its photographic archive of buildings and streets that were brought down to the ground by bureaucrats and developers or destroyed under aerial bombardment. To see this accumulation of loss is to suffer a pang of sadness at the immense scale of unnecessary damage in the past 150 years. It’s true all cities are constantly remade, Paris being the ironic exemplar, so that buildings inherited from the past are occasionally superceded by better designs, but whenever a historic structure is lost all the traces of activity contained within it evaporate at the stroke of the wrecking ball. We lose contact with people who once inhabited or worked in these structures, the embodied of their values and experiences and which provided some form of access to the past.
Now we can never experience the grandeur and grime of the old Columbia Market built in Gothic splendour on a scale to rival St Pancras Station. Photographs remain a documentary record but are a poor substitute for strolling its market stalls. Such irresponsibility illustrates an extraordinary lack of appreciation of London’s legacy, it’s inhabitants and the value of their labour. That such a remarkable testament to the Victorian age could be cavalierly ripped down is frankly an assault on the spirit of anyone who values the legacies of history.
But what this exhibition staged by English Heritage demonstrates is the slow but concrete progress towards conservation in this country, that our past can be preserved while continuing to remain relevant to our lives today. You only need to think of Covent Garden’s brilliant transformation from redundant market to its respectful adaptation today to appreciate how we might regenerate London without ruining our collectiveinheritance. With its archaic sounding name, the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London was founded in the 19th century to use the new technology of photography in order to hold onto to something that might endure of London’s history.
Later in the 1950s and 1960s a slow reassessment of Modernism’s utopian impulse for shaping the future from the ground up, real conservation gradually took root. Too much of London’s fabric suffered destruction during the war, but the exhibition uncovers how bomb damaged structures provided the rationale for widespread post-war flattening of entire streets. Georgian King’s Square in Finsbury and Swedenborg Square in Stepney suffered the inevitable degradation of war but nevertheless survived largely intact. Instead of refurbishment, they were swept away in the rush to modernize housing. It seems so obvious today that renovation is so often preferable to wholescale demolition. Not until 1971 did listing buildings require prior consent before being altered or pulled down.
This is an exhibition that doesn’t simply focus on the lost artistocratic townhouses or great landmarks but also highlights slum housing and mundane, rickety commercial structures that accidentally survived the Great Fire of London. But the humble coaching inn, the tenement, the pub and the parish church lost to the wreckers are irreplaceable features of the city that once connected us tangibly to the lives of our ancestors and those subtle aspects of history embodied in brick and stone. Our losses in the past serve to impress upon us today that we needn’t carelessly allow the pressures of development to destroy the fabric and character of London or indeed any other city. ‘Progress’ requires a responsible negotiation with and respect for history.
The world’s oldest profession presents considerable challenges to an artist. Selling the body has a long history in art but in the past it has sometimes been alluded to subtly with a wink and a nudge. Visual codes were employed by artists like Jan Steen whose ‘The Interior of an Inn’ acts as a prologue to ‘Hoerengracht’ an installation by Ed and Nancy Kienholz made during the 1980s exhibited at the National Gallery. Steen depicts three men lewdly leering at a serving girl in a 17th century Inn. One grabs her dress while she lays her hand on his arm. Is it to reproach him or indicate that there are some ground rules to be observed? Another suggestively fills a long pipe with tobacco. But ‘Hoerengracht’ relies less on suggestion and more on full disclosure of the game of arousal and illusion employed by prostitution to lure punters into a snare.
By adding one letter to ‘Herrengracht’ the artists translate the name of one of the city’s best addresses into ‘Whore’s Canal’ in Dutch, a simulation of a district notorious for its honest marketing of women’s bodies. The Kienholz’s worked jointly on a project that took 5 years of labour to simulate the observed details of Amsterdam’s red light district and its working conditions. Using casts of real bodies, the Kienholz’s stage an uncanny simulation of prostitutes at work. There is no disguised allusion here as the visitor enters a murky, mocked up street scene faintly illuminated by red light bulbs and partially revealed rooms. Women loosely dressed for their trade either stand alert beckoning to potential street trade or appear languidly bored reading magazines or listening to the radio to pass the time of day. This installation plays with the revelation and discretion employed by prostitution. One disembodied head floats within a tiny window frame while around a sharp corner a woman sits slumped in stockings and underwear. Each mannequin is finished with clear resin that runs down the figure suggesting both tears and the glossy surface of seduction. Their faces are framed by cigar boxes, which imply the commodification of their bodies.
‘Hoerengracht’ is characteristic of other installations made by Ed and Nancy Kienholz that deliberately entrap us in a voyeuristic complicity. As the visitor wanders through this uncannily accurate re-enactment, we become participants in a game of hide and seek, drawn by the hunt for flashes of their bodies and faces performing in tiny spaces as stage sets for fantasy. Obscure but necessary details of domestic life intrude, ashtrays, grimy sinks and drying laundry which capture the banal details of long pauses between the main event. This is yet another variant of show-business and these grotty waiting rooms bear a strong resemblance to backstage dressing rooms of West End theatres.
But what this meticulously observant work fundamentally pleads for is a generous acceptance of the world’s oldest profession and a understanding of its rituals.
My hope for this blog is to write forthright but still informed pieces that may spur debate and provide some entertainment. In childhood my father would describe me as ‘opinionated’, a term I would wear with defiant pride. Sometimes this tendency to take a firm postion has landed me in trouble even to the point of provoking a surprisingly hostile response. I don’t aim to be needlessly offensive but simply want to use this forum to make a case, build some arguments and engage a readership.