Saturday 3 October 2015

The Secret Victorianist at the London Metropolitan Archives: Victorian London in Photographs

Last weekend, I visited an exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives that brings to life the city as it looked to the Victorians, through a selection of photographs from the period.

London is explored here from many angles – there are shots of the city skyline (dominated by St Paul’s Cathedral), but also photographs of children in the city’s slums and portraits of famous actors and madhouse inmates.

The exhibition at the LMA (London Metropolitan Archives)
It’s a strange mash up of the unknown and the familiar. London has changed a lot and yet there are still photographs that feel instantly recognisable, albeit that all the images, of course, feel more distant due to the black and white colouring.

The patients of Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum are among the most ‘modern’ human subjects in terms of their appearance. With hair clipped short and in less restrictive clothing than most of their contemporaries, they don’t feel very different at all – making their incarceration for their mental – and, it appears at times, physical – disabilities all the more shocking.

Whitehall from Trafalgar Square (1839)
What’s most revealing about the exhibition is what these early photographers thought to take photographs of – what, for them, was worth memorialisation. There are images of buildings doomed for demolition, demonstrating an early interest in conservation (and not just the conservation of buildings considered grand or opulent). And one of my favourite selections of images was an album of children attending a fancy dress party at the turn of the century, all decked out in costume.

Perhaps the images of most historical interest are those documenting the construction of Tower Bridge (1886-1894) and those of the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace (1851). These latter photographs were particularly notable for me, as, although I’ve read personal and fictional accounts of the Exhibition many times, I’ve never been able to see its impressive scale for myself.

Workers at the Crystal Palace
Those with an interest in early photographic methods will also enjoy seeing the small selection of cameras on show, although I wish there had been some more explanation of how these worked. And the vast array of photographers’ business cards in the exhibition aptly demonstrates the growth of this newly formed and booming industry.

Those visiting the Archives seemed mainly to be academics or those investigating their own personal family histories, but, since the exhibition is free, if you find yourself in Clerkenwell, why not drop in for a visit? Taking these photos took more than the press of a button and the quick application of an Instagram filter, and they are a valuable time portal allowing us to experience Victorian London today.

Children in fancy dress
You can visit Victorian London in Photographs at the London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell until 29 October 2015.

Do you know of any New York City exhibitions you think the Secret Victorianist should visit? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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