Sunday, October 23, 2016

Oil painting of the City of London before the Great Fire

The Museum of London has a very rare topographical oil painting of the view of the City of London from Southwark on the south bank of the Thames. It's very rare because it was painted BEFORE the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the City in 1666.

In fact it's one of only three known to be still in existence.  The other two paintings are at Chatsworth House and the Society of Antiquaries.

View of London from Southwark c.1630
in its frame at the Museum of London
It's thought to be a Dutch painting, probably produced around 1630 of the City of London as it was around about 1600 or shortly thereafter. Testing of the painting has tentatively dated the panel to 1625-1655.

The view is from Southwark - which is the area of London to the south of London Bridge - which is the bridge in the painting.

It's a topographical painting which may have been done from the top of of the tower of Southwark Cathedral with a few adjustments to get everything in!

I'm a big fan of the topographical tradition found within the paintings and prints of the past.  To my mind topographical painting is one of the greatly under-rated aspects of landscape painting and art in general.  These add to our body of knowledge of what our landscape and towns and cities looked like in the past.

To my mind it's a great pity that more landscape painters of today don't focus on recording the landscape. It's as if the invention of photography eliminated topographical painting - apart from those done by the urban sketchers of course!

Below are some closeups of different parts of the painting...

...however, first here's a Guide to the various buildings which can be clearly seen in the painting.

You need to right click and open this image in a new tab to see it full size and read the annotations

Guide to the buildings in the painting of the City of London c.1600

The Old St Paul's Cathedral

You can't see the St Paul's Cathedral we know today in the painting because of course it was built after the Great Fire had burned down the one in the painting.

What you can see is the old St Paul's Cathedral (built between 1087 and 1314) - at the top of Ludgate hill. If you look at the area around the current cathedral you can see where the walls of the old cathedral are marked out on the paving.

Old St Paul's Cathedral at the top of Ludgate Hill
Old St Paul's Cathedral at the top of Ludgate Hill

In the foreground, on the left is Baynard's Castle by the river - it was destroyed by the Great Fire and never rebuilt. It was situated on the site of the Puddle Dock offices of KPMG where I used to work!

The Tower of London

The Tower of London is very clear towards the right edge of the painting - plus the loop of the Thames around Rotherhithe and the Isle of Dogs.  The perspective on this side of the painting is somewhat compressed! I spent some time recently trying to spot where my home is...

Tower of London and St Olave's Church in Southwark

On the South Bank in Southwark is the stone built church of St Olave which was mentioned in the Domesday Book (when it was a timber church).

This is another special location for me as I used to work in the Health Authority HQ offices right next door in the mid 80s.

The Four Theatres on the South Bank

Many people will know that the National Theatre is now located on the South Bank.  What fewer people know is that the South bank of the Thames used to be home to four theatres in the 17th century.

In the part of the painting below, which shows the foreground of the painting - and the South bank in Southwark - you can see the four Theatres. Each has a flag flying above it. From left to right are

  • the Swan Theatre (built 1595), 
  • Hope Theatre (built 1613-14 on the site of an old bear garden), 
  • Rose Theatre (built in 1587 nearer the Thames) and 
  • the Globe Theatre (opened 1599).  The Globe Theatre has of course been rebuilt due to the project started by Sam Wanamaker.

What's special about the theatres are that they help to date this painting.

The Swan, Hope, Rose and Globe Theatres c.1660
The Swan, Hope, Rose and Globe Theatres c.1660

The Traitors' Heads

At the Southwark end of London Bridge was the place where the tar-soaked heads of traitors who had been beheaded were put on spikes above the bridge’s stone gatehouse - as a warning. This is clearly illustrated in the painting. Note the disparity between the size of the heads on the spikes and the size of the people in the street below!  One of the important aspects of topographical paintings is you can never quite trust the relative dimensions!

William Wallace, the Scottish Patriot who was executed in Smithfield was the first recorded head to be displayed on London Bridge in 1305. The practice of spiking Traitors Heads ended in 1678 - so was very much normal practice at the time of the painting.

Other people whose heads ended up spiked on this gatehouse included Thomas More (1478 – 1535),  Guy Fawkes (1570 – 1606) and Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658).

Traitors Heads on London Bridge

and finally...... why it's very special to me

This painting is pretty special to me because "he who must not be bored while I sketch" was the person who facilitated it finding a home in the Museum of London. In my home it's referred to as "his painting"!

The painting was found in the archives of a London Borough's Reference Library. It was realised that if it were an original it might be pretty special. My other half led on "what needs to happens next" for the Council. Professional advice was taken, negotiations were undertaken and due process was followed. The eventual happy outcome was that the painting is now in the ownership, care and protection of the Museum of London for the interest and enjoyment of all those who visit the Museum to learn about the history of London.

Why don't you see if you can find it next time you pay a visit? It's in the Tudor section.