BOOK REVIEW / The sugar bowls of modern Babylon: London - World City 1800-1848 - Ed. Celina Fox: Yale, pounds 45

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The Independent Culture
'LONDON has surpassed all my expectations in respect to its vastness, but I have lost myself.' So wrote Heinrich Heine to a friend in 1827. The German poet was expressing the wonder felt by many visitors to the metropolis in the early 19th century, for London was not only the largest city in the world but also the leader in high technology and industry. Foreigners flocked here to study the new bridges and canals, the docks and suburban houses; they were drawn to London, as were many native Britons, because it was the centre of finance and the luxury trade and at the cutting edge of scientific research. Above all, they wanted to understand how a less populous, incoherently run country managed to defeat the France of Napoleon.

Despite its many drawbacks, London enticed people, often against their will. The young Charles Darwin resigned himself to lodgings in Great Marlborough Street in 1837, reflecting gloomily 'that no place is at all equal, for aiding one in Natural History pursuits, to this odious dirty smokey town, where one can never get a glimpse, at all, that is best worth seeing in nature'. For much of the 19th century, London was all things to all people: Cobbett's 'great wen' of congestion and corruption, Disraeli's 'modern Babylon', or 'the Rome of today' for Emerson. This informal nexus of money and influence acquired its own mythology in the pages of Dickens and the buildings of Soane and Nash.

London - World City chronicles the transformation from Regency capital into imperial power, and provides a marvellous account of a crucial phase in British history. It contains essays on major aspects of culture and intellectual activity, as well as a catalogue with hundreds of entries on everything from sugar bowls to theodolites, with strong showings in the plastic and decorative arts, documents, and even Jeremy Bentham's Auto-Icon from one of the radical foundations of the age, University College London.

As Celina Fox observes in her introduction, London was a commercial rather than a court centre. Foreigners remarked upon the absence of uniforms and decorations in the streets, the informality of manners, the lack of great palaces or any clearly articulated sense of the grandeur associated with other capitals. Instead of hierarchy, money dictated the terms on which things operated, but it was a two-edged sword. In terms of urban planning, the building acts furnished a detailed approach to planning with stress upon standard types of houses and the employment of district surveyors. Similarly, the construction of docks, factories, warehouses, and bridges relied upon the latest innovations in iron and cement as well as cladding in newly available Bath stone and granite.

Foreign architects, like Schinkel, paid great attention to engineering and industrial architecture but were less taken with more conventional works. This apparent indifference was largely a reflection of the paucity of great public buildings and projects, for while the age produced masterpieces in the Bank of England, the British Museum and the Houses of Parliament, the relationship of these buildings to any larger design was haphazard. Even the great central spine of the West End, Regent's Park, was less a decisive masterstroke than an inconclusive muddle.

The problem or paralysis in urban planning stemmed from the fine balance between power and administration as the debacle over Buckingham Palace showed. Indecision over the scale and functions of the palace merely reflected the ambiguity of the Crown's position, and no one had the courage to grasp that particular nettle. By the same token, the parsimonious attitude to public spending is a recurrent theme throughout the book, whether in the field of science, the arts, or even the city's infrastructure. Waterloo and Southwark Bridges were funded by joint-stock companies - a fact which amazed foreign commentators - and both made heavy losses, Southwark Bridge actually contributing to the bankruptcy of its ironwork suppliers.

Fortunately, there was enough private money around to fund any number of initiatives, especially in the field of science and what would now be termed information technology. Kew Gardens, the Zoological Society, and the Royal College of Surgeons were all founded in this period; new disciplines such as geology, stellar astronomy came into being, not to mention more rapid forms of communication through trains and the telegraph. Even the word 'scientist' first made its appearance in 1833. London mattered here because its size and diversity meant that enough like-minded people could meet to discuss issues or assemble data.

But science was not a detached sphere, and even within the Royal Society there were heated debates about the meaning and aim of science. William Herschel linked scientific reform with political and legislative change, and the radical Richard Carlile turned lectures on comparative anatomy into tracts for political subversion. Meanwhile the secular London University, founded in 1826, was already experiencing cash-flow problems, and professors were encouraged to give profit-making lectures and increase student numbers.

The range and diversity of London - World City admirably captures its subject. Celina Fox and her colleagues are to be congratulated on producing a collection of essays that is sure-footed in its scholarship and engagingly fresh in presentation. By allowing the evidence to speak for itself, the authors present a vivid image of a great age. No one will put the book down without recognising that many of London's problems are embedded in decisions dating from the early 19th century.

(Photograph omitted)

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