EXHIBITION REVIEW: Victorian London in Photographs

By: Maria Ogundele | Date 02.09.2015
Victorian Britain saw huge constructional changes alter the fabric of London. Advances in photography enabled photographers to record effects of these significant changes, some of which can be viewed at London Metropolitan Archives.
Looking south down Whitehall from Trafalgar Square, 1839 and is thought to be the oldest photograph of London.(©London Metropolitan Archives)
Britain was a mass of rural villages for centuries where agriculture dominated, it had altered little prior to the age of the railway during the eighteenth century – but the invention of the steam engine changed everything. As the industrial revolution firmly grasped the reins of Victorian Britain with both hands, the country was transformed.

Exhibition visitors will find row upon row of monochrome visuals lining the darkened walls, all relating to the effects this rampant, social and economic revolution had on London’s history.

Without these photographic gems, any visual record of pre-industrial times would be non-existent. Thankfully, just as London was undergoing an era of social and structural change – photographic technology was also evolving, enabling effects of the changes to be viewed for centuries to come.

Discussions about the Victorians rarely revolve around the terms: daguerreotypes; calotypes, carbon or albumen but these are processes which actually help define the exhibition almost as much as the photographs; so visitors will find themselves becoming familiar with this photographic terminology from the start.

One of the show’s opening images of Trafalgar Square and Whitehall is believed to be the first picture of London. Taken during 1939 by Frenchman M de. St Croix, who was here promoting the new daguerreotype photographic process, it’s world’s away from the area as we now know it, but other images on show do carry striking parallels between Victorian London and the London of today.

Victorian Britain saw London’s status as the world’s most powerful trading city take hold. It became an immigration magnet: the population soared; housing was problematic as was poverty. The gap between rich and poor widened significantly and affluence and poverty existed side by side. Testament to this is revealed in two opposing slide shows - one entitled: Grand Boulevards; the other: Back Streets and Alleyways.

Similar to today, the well-heeled flocked to the upmarket shops, fine streets and grand hotels in areas such as Piccadilly, Knightsbridge and Park Lane. But those less well-off may have found themselves in the overcrowded run down areas of Lambeth or Finsbury, or cheek by jowl in cheap timber-framed homes of Westminster.

As more and more individuals flocked to the city, the increasing population saw rises in rents, slum life, crime and life threatening diseases like smallpox, cholera and typhoid. Abandoned and orphaned children also became a huge burden, Ragged schools were started to help tackle the problem. Many of these schools legitimately organised the emigration of abandoned children to countries like Canada and Australia for work purposes. In one slide show entitled The Ragged School Album, of the ten or so images of young boys, only one manages a weak smile; adorned in smart but ill-fitting three-piece suits, the rest wear tired expressions - heavy with the weight of the difficult times experienced in their formative years.

Advances made in photography weren’t important just from a historical point of view - new processes such as the calotype (that followed on from the daguerreotype) enabled development of prints from a negative – which meant repeatable images. The exhibition’s Theatrical Portraits section represents how photography was used by actors (such as celebrated performer Sir Henry Irvine, pictured as Shylock from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice) to create collectable, lasting mementos for audiences and also to (hopefully) advance their careers.

One photographer taking advantage of the new photographic processes during this era was Henry Dixon; a founding member of the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London – its aim was to provide historical photographical records of buildings soon to be torn down, such as: old houses of Drury Lane, the churchyard of St Bartholomew and the Gatehouse of Lambeth Palace. The society continued to snap and preserve the memories of many buildings for over a decade. Several of its images are on display.

With so many changes occurring to improve movement within the fabric of London, building of new constructions like the Blackwall Tunnel, the Metropolitan Railway and Tower Bridge were underway. The final part of the exhibition focuses on the building of the modern city.

But the most moving part of the exhibition by far is the slide show featuring patients admitted to the Colney Hatch Asylum which opened during 1851. The asylum was the largest of its kind in Europe and patients were usually photographed as they entered or left the establishment. Looking at these portraits it’s sometimes difficult to tell which stage of their treatment these fragile patients were at.

The building closed its doors during the 1990’s, only to be transformed years later into a mass of luxury apartments across thirty acres of land. Premier League footballers and members of bands such as One Direction have resided there during the past few years.

It’s easy to end up seeing parts of London in a different light after visiting Victorian London in Photographs. Entrance is free and it’s well worth a visit.


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