The History of London through Art

The History of London through Art

From the first painting of London to the Great Fire to unmade beds – here’s a brief look at the History of London through art.

c1630 – The First Painting of London

View of London from Southwark, Unknown Artist

No one is completely sure which is the first painting of London but it is believed to be a Dutch painting, ‘View of London from Southwark’ by an unknown artist. This painting is particularly interesting as it’s one of three paintings of London in existence before the Great Fire of London in 1666. The bridge in the painting is London Bridge.

1666 – The Great Fire of London

The Great Fire of London, Jan Griffier

Dutch artist Jan Griffier moved to London just after the Fire of London, which he depicted in many of his paintings. Griffier’s rich colours depict the devastation the fire had on the city.

1751 – Gin, Beer and Art

Beer Street and Gin Lane, William Hogarth

‘Beer Street and Gin Lane’ was William Hogarth’s artistic response to the Gin Act (1751) in which the British Government sought to reduce the consumption of spirits. The black and white prints depict the evils of drinking gin compared to the benefits of drinking beer. The drawings are said to be set in Seven Dials, near Covent Garden. These artworks were printed in the London Evening Post with the intention to shock the working classes into reducing their alcohol intake.

1834 – London’s Burning

The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, J. M. W. Turner

J.M.W Turner painted two oil paintings of the destruction of the Houses of Lords and Commons. When the fire started, Turner rented a boat and recorded details of the fire in his sketchbook. The view of this painting is from where the London Eye sits today.

1871 – Impressionism and London

The Thames Below Westminster, Claude Monet & Charing Cross Bridge, Camille Pissarro

Many Impressionist painted scenes of London. Claude Monet was a huge fan of London, and visited many times in his life. He often stayed at the Savoy Hotel to paint views of the Thames.

Camille Pissarro had a similar connection to London. Both of them first experienced the city when their families were fleeing the Franco-Prussian war in France.

Pissarro came back to live in London and had a home in South London. Monet and Pissarro were inspired by British paintings such as Turner and Constable and believed in painting in the open air rather than in a studio.

1890 – London and Van Gogh

The Prisoners Round, Vincent Van Gogh

Before picking up his paintbrush at 27, Vincent Van Gogh lived in South London as an Art Dealer.

While in London Van Gogh was shocked by the poverty and living conditions in London and was intrigued by the need for social reform. While in the Saint-Paul Asylym in Saint Remy Van Gogh created ‘The Prisoners Round’, which was directly inspired by Gustave Doré’s etching of prisoners exercising in Newgate Prison.

The prison was on the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey Street in the City of London. The Old Bailey Court now occupies much of the site of the prison.

1910 – London Landmarks in Art

Piccadilly Circus, George Hyde Pownall

George Hyde Pownall was a Nottinghamshire artist who regularly painted scenes of London, including Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and the Houses of Parliament. Being around a little later than the Impressionists, Pownall’s paintings capture the years in which horse carts and motor cars share the streets.

1911 – The Camden Town Group

Clarence Gardens by William Ratcliffe

The Camden Town Group only held three exhibitions between 1911-1912. Named after the area of London where many artists lived and worked, the group set out to capture the realities of everyday life in the city. The group included many famous artists including Walter Sickert, Harold Gilman, Spencer Gore and William Ratcliffe.

1921 – Constable and Mary Poppins

The Grove, Hampstead, John Constable

John Constable spent every summer in rented lodgings in Hampstead. During one of his first summers Constable painted this grand building, The Grove. The owner of the building was Admiral Matthew Barton who was said to fire cannons to salute naval victories. This man inspired the character of Admiral Boom in Mary Poppins, and the house in the film resembles this one.

1927 – Art and the Underground

The Lure of the Underground’, Alfred Leete

There was a time where Underground posters were a work of art in themselves. The Art Deco of the roaring 20s produced many iconic prints like the above. This poster was created by Alfred Leete who also created World War One’s ‘Your Country Needs You’ poster. This poster is more lightheartedly named ‘The Lure of the Underground’.

1941 – War and Art

Shelter, Henry Moore

Many know Henry Moore for his sculptures, however in the 1940’s his Shelter Drawings became official ‘war art’. These claustrophobic drawings depict people sheltering from bombing raids in London’s Underground.

1941 – Blitz in London

Night Air Raid, Wilfred Stanley Haines

During the Second World War some firemen used the long hours between raids to practice their painting. The rooftops they used for fire watching gave them a great platform to paint the city. The firemen’s art was highly publicised during the war and was exhibited at the Royal Academy. The scene of this painting is looking from Bermondsey North towards Wapping. Warehouses and docks were a prime target for German Bombers. The artist of this painting, Wilfred Stanley Haines, was tragically killed by a bomb.

1945 – Picasso in London

Dora Maar in an Armchair, Pablo Picasso

Despite a successful career in much of Europe, Pablo Picasso only became established in Britain after the Second World War. The Victoria and Albert Museum put on an exhibition of Matisse and Picasso to celebrate peace. Picasso only exhibited pieces of work that he had created during the war for this show. This was the beginning of Picasso ‘breaking Britain’.

In 1960 the Tate gallery put on a retrospective of his work which attracted almost 500,000 visitors.

1960 – Matchstick men

Piccadilly Circus, Lawrence Lowry

Lawrence Lowry is an iconic British artist from Manchester who was famous for depicting the working class with his ‘matchstick men’ and muted colours. Lowry holds the record for the most knighthoods ever turned down.

1967 – Music and Art

Sgt. Pepper Lonely Clubs Heart Band, Peter Blake

In the 1960s music and art really collided. ‘Pop’ was fashionable throughout the arts. Many faces of this scene used to hang out in London’s Carnaby Street. Pop Artist Peter Blake was commissioned to create the album cover to Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band – possibly the most iconic album cover of all time. Another Pop Artist, Richard Hamilton designed the cover to the Beatle’s White Album.

1999 – Modern Art

My Bed, Tracy Emin

Tracy Emin’s work ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With’ 1963–1995 was a tent appliquéd with the names of everyone Emin had ever shared a bed with. It was shown at Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition held at the Royal Academy. Two years later, Emin was shortlisted for the Turner Prize with ‘My Bed’ – an installation of her bed that she had spent several days in emotional turmoil due to relationship issues. The bed was sprawled with stained bedsheets, used condoms and dirty knickers. There was a lot of media attention around the hygiene of the installation.

2009 – Public Art in London

One & Other, Anthony Gormley

The Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square is one of the most famous public art commissions in the world. Since 1999 artists across the world have been invited to create sculptures to sit atop it.

Anthony Gormley created ‘One & Other’, where members of the public were invited 24 hours a day to stand on the plinth for an hour to do whatever they wanted. Some performed, some demonstrated and some reflected. This installation gained the plinth international attention.

2021 – Art Today

Thames Walk, Gordon Bruce

Today London continues to inspire artists from across the world. It certainly inspires all of us on the PopUp Painting and London Art Bar teams! Some of our favourite contemporary pieces of London include beautiful watercolour skylines by artists like Rebecca Hunter, and vibrant pieces like the above by Gordon Bruce (both of whom have been a great support to us over the years!)

You can see the timeline hung in our Art Bar in Holborn. Make sure you have a visit soon!


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