What is London? 10 definitions of the Smoke

In my attempt to understand the character of London through the eyes of the people who live here, I’ve looked back at some of my own photos from this year and picked out 10 unashamedly filtered shots that have captured something unique for me.

Further down the line, I’ll pick out some writers’ definitions of London-ness (with no Samuel Johnson “tired of London” quotations, I promise), but, for now, here’s my view…

London is what the commuter sees through the window of a rain-flecked train…

An early morning view of Queens Road Peckham on the commuter train to London Bridge
A bleary-eyed early morning view of Queen’s Road Peckham on the commuter train to London Bridge

London is Byzantine…

Westminster Cathedral was built in a neo-Byzantine style at the turn of the 20th century
Westminster Cathedral was built in a neo-Byzantine style at the turn of the 20th century. It’s always a surprise to come across the turrets of this mini Hagia Sophia amid the office blocks of Victoria

London is the world’s meat market…

A butchers' and grocery in the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre
A butcher’s and grocery in the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre

London is waiting at a Tube station in the dusk…

The Wells Terrace exit of Finsbury Park Tube Station in a rare lull
A tunnel exit at Finsbury Park Tube Station in a rare lull

London is a design capital with no design…

Afternoon sun cuts a cool line across the Design Museum's Thames-side home
The afternoon sun cuts a line across the Design Museum’s Thames-side home in a former banana warehouse

London is a mishmash of sash…

An amazing array of windows at the back of the Jerusalem Tavern in Farringdon
An amazing assortment of sash windows at the back of the Jerusalem Tavern in Farringdon

London is St Paul’s illuminated after the rain…

St Paul's from Southwark Bridge
St Paul’s from Southwark Bridge

London is a series of unexpected Underground encounters…

A dog descends to the Jubilee Line at London Bridge
A dog and his owner descend to the Jubilee Line at London Bridge

London is layered with runes…

A graffiti covered doorway by the Old Vic Tunnels at Waterloo
A graffiti-covered doorway by the Old Vic Tunnels at Waterloo. The tag has undoubtedly been sprayed over countless times since this photograph

London is where commoners entwine in royal parks…

This tree in Kew Gardens forms an oddly provocative tableau
This tree in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew forms an oddly provocative tableau

What is London to you?

All images © knightswrites. Read more about the author…

Bridge: how artists view London and its river crossings at the Museum of London

Yesterday I was at the Bridge exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands to see how artists have imagined their city through the many structures that span the winding Thames.

View of the building in progress at Blackfriars Bridge 1763 by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
An etching of Blackfriars Bridge in construction by Piranesi

The first images you see are two glowing film stills from “Sleep Walk Sleep Talk” by Suki Chan – they’re night-time shots of London, and we’re in city-never-sleeps territory, the lights of the roads and railways like the pulsing circuit-boards of a robot giant. The elevated vantage point of the first image shows the railway lines passing through London Bridge station, and crossing the river to Cannon Street and Charing Cross, as if the train cars are the mechanised descendants of watermen ferrying passengers across the Thames in wherries.

Opening up the city

The exhibition’s introduction notes that “artists have always been attracted to the Thames because it opens up the city” and, short of ascending a church spire or skyscraper, it’s true that the river and its bridges are the best way to get a sense of perspective on London. But how often do we look?

One of the displays is dedicated to the crowds of commuters who cross the river on their way to work. C.R.W. Nevinson’s “The Thames from Blackfriars” (1922) shows London’s workers as scratchy black silhouettes, processing head-bent across Blackfriars Bridge while around them the trees are skeletal, the city smoky, the sky hopelessly hazy. Ah, the joy of working in London!

And in the photographs, too, the commuters crossing London Bridge seem trapped in a process, the briefcase-carrying blood cells of mercantile London, or the living dead who flow across London Bridge in T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”.

Piranesi in London?

I was surprised to find a print of Blackfriars Bridge by the 18th-century Italian etcher Piranesi, who is known for his views of Roman ruins and imaginary subterranean prisons. I didn’t think he had come over to England, and it turns out he hadn’t, rather he produced the etching in Rome for his former student, Robert Mylne, the bridge’s Scottish architect. Naturally, the ruin lover Piranesi depicts the bridge in construction, rather than complete, and the complexity of the interlocking wedges and beams that support the bridge’s arches bring to mind the same kind of insane intricacy of human endeavour that you find in his prisons.

Lost property

A subject I plan to return to in this blog is the nostalgia London evokes for its lost buildings and streets, and the quests Londoners go on to seek out these absences. The Bridge exhibition has some good examples, as you’d expect from the Museum of London’s photographic collection, and one such treasure is Fox Talbot’s 1841 salt print of Hungerford Bridge, when it still linked the South Bank to the produce-selling Hungerford Market on the northern side.

Other Londoners quest for secret spaces, and the hidden face of the city is represented by Lucinda Grange’s photograph of the service tunnel that threads through London Bridge, as well as an unusual shore-side view from Crispin Hughes’ “Unquiet Thames” series.

A bridge that never ends

On the whole, the Bridge exhibition’s prints, paintings and photographs feel more literal than impressionistic, and only a few works stood out to me as transformative: Charles Ginner’s thickly daubed oil painting, “London Bridge” (1913), which captures a quiet, lonely moment in a city of industry; Julian Bell’s “Arrest at Nevada Bob’s” (1999), which shows the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford looping vertiginously across the Thames into the endless distance like a huge questioning “Q”; and, most movingly, John Bellany’s “The Thames (Nocturne)” (1988), which depicts a viewpoint from St Thomas’ Hospital, where the artist was being treated for a life-threatening illness, showing the two sides of London, and the bridges we use to cross to them, in restless, bleeding monochrome.

The Bridge exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands runs until 2 November

Beginning to imagine London

Inside-Monument-London-©-knightswrites
The staircase inside Hooke and Wren’s Monument to the Great Fire of London © knightswrites

I’m a short story writer who sets his tales in London. This is a city of infinite possibility – and that presents the writer with great freedom and a great challenge.

In this blog I hope to capture what I’m learning from others who are imagining their city: whether that’s writers and artists, or walkers, explorers, gardeners, cartographers, gamers, protesters, revellers, technologists or any other characters who are fashioning this city with their creativity.

What is London?

I’ll also try and answer the question: what is London? A body… a palimpsest… a network… a jungle… a forge… a prison… There is, of course, no perfect answer. But let’s have fun trying to find one.

What images and feelings are unique to this city?