When artists go out on the town

What did your city look like 400, 300, 100, or even 45 years ago? In the first of a two-part series, Andrew John Davies compares and contrasts pictures of the past with the reality of the present to see how the urban landscape has developed
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Paying the piper and calling the tune is as true of the art world as of many other areas of life. And in the past, patrons simply did not commission pictures of towns and cities. The artistic hierarchy had laid down that historical and biblical subjects, followed by portraits, were deemed to be of much higher status.

At best, the well-off would sometimes ask for a "prospect" of their estate to accompany a group portrait of the family. The hired brush knew full well what was wanted: a rural idyll of peace and calm in which servants, labourers and any kind of distress were conspicuously absent.

Even in the late-18th century, when artists began to discover the romantic landscape of more far-flung and wild parts of the country, such as North Wales and Scotland, they stayed well away from city life.

Similarly, the great Victorian industrialists and manufacturers who had made their money in Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham certainly had no wish to be reminded of the urban squalor which their activities had often created. Instead, their walls were to be covered with picturesque villages and tranquil countryside, a kind of Disneyland version of a "never- never England".

As a result, "townscapes" were invariably produced by local and amateur artists painting primarily to please themselves or by professionals who were off duty.

Whatever the intrinsic quality of the works themselves - and there is still a wealth of material waiting to be discovered in local art galleries and museums - they offer fascinating insights into the way in which our towns and cities have changed or not changed over the centuries.

By contrasting past and present, our developing townscape comes vividly to life.

Joris Hoefnagel's A Fte at Bermondsey deserves pride of place because it was the first work ever to show a specific and identifiable location. Festivities are being held in the fields of Bermondsey on the south bank of the Thames, opposite the Tower of London and Wapping.

Hoefnagel himself was an itinerant artist (born Antwerp 1542, died Vienna 1600) who visited England in 1569. Bermondsey was then a village, famous for its market gardens, based around the church whose tower can be seen on the right.

Gradually, the spread of industrialisation, particularly the docks and the tanning industry, transformed Victorian Bermondsey into one of the most crowded, run-down parts of London. Hoefnagel's revellers would have been flattened by the traffic on Tooley Street.

Today, the demise of the docks and of inner-city industry is turning Bermondsey back into the kind of rural haven depicted by Hoefnagel. Riverside walks and parks are being re-introduced and the Thames is once again visible. Tower Bridge would have surprised Hoefnagel, who knew only old London Bridge to the west, and the church on the right is now the London City Mission.

Ironically, newcomers who have moved to the area's smart apartments are trying to recreate a sense of community, organising the kind of festivities Hoefnagel saw over 400 years ago.

Few British artists have depicted, let alone celebrated, manual labour. Which patrons wished to be permanently reminded that the luxuries and lifestyle they enjoyed depended on the sweat of someone else?

Ford Madox Brown's Work is one of the few exceptions to this rule. He moved to Mount Street in the village of Hampstead in 1852 and claims to have witnessed just such an episode taking place outside his own door.

His painting depicts various strata of Victorian society. Navvies putting in new drains are surrounded by the well-off on their horses, by flower- sellers and by vagrants. Madox Brown could not resist including a couple of "brain workers", one of whom is the historian Thomas Carlyle, watching idly on the right. In the distance, Heath Street winds away up to the Heath, blissfully free of traffic.

A century on, little has changed, even if Hampstead itself is now officially a part of London - which it was not in the painter's day. Mount Street, with its Georgian houses on the left is much the same, while Mount Square can still be glimpsed in the background.

Heath Street continues to pursue its devious route up the hill but has been tarmacked and is usually choc-a-bloc with traffic. Boutiques and cafs now dominate the area.

Norwich is still a medieval city par excellence, noted for the splendours of its churches, cathedral and market. The city has often generated a fierce sense of local pride, none more so than in the early 1800s when the "Norwich School" of painters was formed.

The leading figure was John Sell Cotman. Disappointed by his failure to establish a career as an artist in London, he returned to East Anglia and devoted himself to painting local scenes of the region.

The Market Place is one of his loveliest creations, showing Georgian Norwich at market with the church of St Peter Mancroft looking down on the hustle and bustle.

Nearly two centuries later, little has changed. The market has kept its vigour but is now held under brightly coloured canopies. St Peter Mancroft remains, although its tower now sports a small spire, which was added in 1895. The houses opposite are much the same.

The main change has been the demolition of the houses on the right, swept away for the City Hall, which was erected between the wars. The shop fronts on the left are not an improvement. The pretty Georgian windows with their tiny panes of glass have been replaced by plate glass and rather more ostentatious signs.

The artist associated above all with the industrial landscape is L. S. Lowry. Born in Manchester and brought up in Salford, Lowry worked as a rent collector, painting and drawing only in his spare time.

A lonely man, Lowry was drawn to the world of industrial Manchester with its factories, mills and a cloth-capped workforce who seemed matchstick- like in their insignificance.

Lowry's solitary walks often took him to Peel Park, Salford, where he would look down over the city. His unique way of looking at the world had been formed by the 1920s, and his view of the city never really changed. Smoking chimneys still appear in his post-war work, even though German bombing had destroyed many industrial buildings and Manchester itself led the way in introducing clean-air legislation.

Lowry often introduced motifs into his pictures even if, strictly speaking, they were not "there" in front of him. Here, for instance, the River Irwell has been turned into a pond, the Stockport Viaduct appears on the right, and the church is probably the Catholic cathedral in Salford, behind Peel Park.

The view from Peel Park today is rather different. Chimney, factory and mill have given way to department store and office block. The huge Arndale shopping centre is on the left. This changing cityscape confirms that the worker has given way to the consumer.