Learning to see through their eyes

The detailed observations of early artists offer an insight into the destruction, and preservation, of cities. Andrew John Davies continues his series on art and the transformation of the urban landscape
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The Independent Culture
Much of the damage inflicted on our cities since the Second World War would have been thwarted by a visually literate people.

If architects, councils and property developers had been confronted by residents confident enough to have questioned the use of concrete, inappropriately tall buildings or the lack of decoration and detail, then the Britain around us would be a more friendly and harmonious place.

We have a strong sense of literary place - Dickens's London, Hardy's Wessex, Betjeman's suburbia, the Wordsworths in the Lakes slip easily off the tongue - but when it comes to the evidence of our own eyes, we are visually uneducated.

By looking at "then" and "now", we not only experience the pleasure of recognition but, in some cases, a feeling of anger at what has wantonly been lost - and the determination to ensure that it never happens again.

Comparing past and present increases our chances of making Britain a finer place to live in.

JMW Turner was typical of his breed. Although he was a Londoner born and bred, his restless journeying all over Britain drew him to the country rather than the town.

In the early 1800s, he spent much time in the Thames Valley region, being attracted by Oxford in general, and Christ Church and Merton colleges in particular.

Here, Turner offers a panorama of Oxford at dusk, as viewed from the meadows. In the distance can be seen, from left to right, the spire of St Aldate's church, Sir Christopher Wren's Tom Tower, the spire of Christ Church cathedral and the spire of St Mary the Virgin in the High Street.

Nearly 200 years on, little has changed. The four landmarks are still clearly visible, showing how successfully the "gown" has the kept industrial town to the suburbs. The railway station has been banished to the outskirts of the city. The horizon remains (blissfully) free of skyscrapers and tower blocks.

Few architects have been so criticised and yet left such an indelible mark on the London cityscape as Sir George Gilbert Scott.

The work of this great Victorian "Goth" is to be seen everywhere, from parish churches to the Foreign Office and the Albert Memorial.

But his most splendid creation was St Pancras station and hotel which, as John O'Connor's painting vividly shows, has all the romance of a fairytale castle complete with turrets, pinnacles and princesses waiting to be rescued.

It dwarfs King's Cross station, which had been built nearly 20 years earlier and whose clock tower can just be glimpsed towards the right. Horse-drawn trams and hansom cabs make their way along Pentonville Road past smoking chimneys and St James's church with its bell-tower and weathervane.

Today St James's has gone, replaced by Grimaldi Park, named after the famous clown who was buried here. The little houses and shops suffered badly during the Blitz, and now housing estates stretch away to the left. Pentonville Road is still used by commuters, who today favour the internal combustion engine rather than the horse as a form of transport.

Most important of all, however, despite threatened demolition, St Pancras is still with us, its blackened stone recently cleaned to reveal the original soft red tones.

The word "Georgian" summons up images of gracious living, of Chippendale, Wedgwood and elegant town houses in Bath and Hampstead. No doubt this was how some people experienced 18th-century England but for the majority life was nasty, brutish and short.

William Hogarth's engraving Gin Lane depicts the squalor and depravity of the St Giles district in central London. An inebriated mother is oblivious to the fate of her child. A beggar and a dog share a bone. Buildings topple and fall. Everywhere is mayhem and death. In the distance stands Nicholas Hawksmoor's church, St George's, Bloomsbury.

It was the Victorians who got rid of Gin Lane by employing their usual method of slum clearance, namely building a main road straight through the offending area. And so New Oxford Street was born. In the 1960s the remnants of the old St Giles High Street were wiped out by the construction of the huge Centrepoint tower block. Shops and offices have replaced the Georgian slums, while buses and cars career along what were once alleys and gloomy passages. Everything now seems quite different.

But is it? The neighbourhood is still frequented by the homeless who gather in the shadow of St George's, drinking not gin but cans of Special Brew, and sharing scraps of food with their dogs.

In the 19th century, Liverpool's wealth was centred on its docks, which handled both human and inanimate cargo. Few of the city's tycoons wanted to commemorate this trade.

One artist who did portray the Victorian urban milieu was John Atkinson Grimshaw, a self-taught railway clerk who established a thriving professional career. At the end of the 1870s, however, the painter experienced financial mishap; in his determination to make more money, he turned to a range of novel subjects.

Fascinated by moonlight and the contrast of dark and light, Atkinson Grimshaw produced a dazzling series of riverside pictures showing Whitby, Hull, the Thames and Liverpool.

Here, for instance, the painter is clearly fascinated by the hansom cab on the cobbled streets, the bright glow of the corner shop, the advertising posters on the hoardings and the proximity of the ships with their masts and rigging.

Today, the docks are given over to different kinds of cargo. The pubs and brothels have been ousted by restaurants and bistros. The harsh industrial surroundings now seem just picturesque and prove ideal as a backdrop for television police series. Tourists and film extras now meander along the same quays once frequented only by dockers, sailors and prostitutes.