THE CITY OF London – ‘the square mile’ – contains two principal museums, the Guildhall Art Gallery and the Museum of London. While there is some overlay in the collections, especially images of notable citizens and views of the Thames, they provide an extraordinary contrast, just a few minutes’ walk from each other. The Museum of London tells the story of the city from a chronological viewpoint; the Guildhall Art Gallery is a rather miscellaneous collection of pictures and sculpture, some with a London connection, others with none at all. The Guildhall collection has its roots in the hall’s ancient history of record and commemoration and is run by the City of London Corporation. Parts of its collection were merged with that of the Museum of London when the latter reopened in 1976 in a highly ingenious, especially designed building by Powell and Moya on a restricted City site bounded by London Wall and Aldersgate Street, close to the Barbican Centre and reached by an unpromising walkway. The Museum first opened in Kensington Palace in 1912 under royal patronage, containing paintings and related objects illustrative of the ‘archaeology, history and life of the capital’. When it gained its new home, it leapt into the late twentieth century with an up-to-date building and methods of display that blew away the taxonomical cobwebs of its earlier existence. This has now gone several steps further with the opening in May this year of an expanded Museum with a completely new sequence of spaces telling London’s story from the Great Fire to the present.1 It is unashamedly aimed at a multi-cultural audience with an appetite for the transitory, often ephemeral, objects of quotidian life which, nevertheless, are set within the larger context of economics, politics and national events. It is incredibly busy, not only through the close-packed seven thousand objects on show but from the accompanying touch screens, films and sound effects. The latter start hauntingly enough with suggestions of pre-Roman birdsong and reach a pitch of cacophony somewhere between the music of Vauxhall Gardens and broadcast bulletins of eighteenth-century news. The close sequence of nineteenth-century shops and interiors – a clerk’s office in which Newman Noggs might have worked,2 a stationer’s, a handsome marble urinal, a pub bar with an affecting soundtrack of laughter and snatches of talk – is especially well done and evocative (although the handsheet guide is not as fact-friendly as it might be).
The twentieth century not unexpectedly fuses public life – the suffragettes, the rise of Mosley, the Blitz – and private experience, with an emphasis in the earlier sections on the poor and deprived, mostly of East London (West London is not much in evidence). This segues into the post-Second-World-War period. Uppermost here are improvements to daily living, new fashions, gadgetry, the impact of the Festival of Britain and of the 1960s where the King’s Road, Chelsea, makes its bright inevitable appearance.
Much in these new rooms is specific to London, but curatorial ambition suggests a wider picture of social change in Britain. Underlying the total sequence – from animal remains found at Ilford to a 1960s Vespa and a squatted Hackney street of the 1990s – is the thread of continuity, layer upon layer, giving rise, perhaps, to an inescapable melancholy in this representation of millions of long-gone citizens by the teeming trappings of their day-to-day existence.
It is well known that the Museum has an extensive collection of paintings and examples are incorporated within the narrative. A temporary display called ‘Inspiring London’ in which paintings by ‘vulnerable people’ are shown alongside works that inspired them is a less happy attempt at inclusivity. It is here that one finds, shorn of order and historical context, some of the Museum’s most famous works – from Samuel Scott’s Covent Garden Piazza of c.1749–58 to G.W. Joy’s Bayswater omnibus and a telling Spencer Gore of a threadbare Camden Town back garden, hung at toddler level.
If the Museum of London is vivid and articulate, even garrulous, then the Guildhall Art Gallery is grandly hushed and, it might be said, somewhat without point, for its holdings, mostly assembled through capricious gift and loyal bequest, maintain no traceable theme. To be sure, London has a stop-start presence through portraits of past mayors and scenes of the Thames (and the great Roman amphitheatre can be viewed underground). But some of its finest possessions – its Constable of Salisbury Cathedral, its vast and magnificent J.S. Copley, some of its Pre-Raphaelite paintings – are scarcely touched by the city. Nor does it contain British art only, for there are paintings by Delaroche, Tissot and Fantin-Latour. Nevertheless, the Pre-Raphaelites are well represented and currently a perfect small display reveals the results of the recent cleaning and infra-red examination of Holman Hunt’s Eve of St Agnes. In contrast, the high meat of Victorian paintings can be savoured in the Grand Guignol of Collier’s Clytemnestra and Poynter’s Hollywood epic Israel in Egypt. The Gallery’s substantial twentieth-century holdings are at present resting and are represented by two rooms of paintings by Matthew Smith, whose estate is held by the Gallery. They are, for the most part, exactly the kind of works that remain unsold in a prolific artist’s studio.
It is worth mentioning here that the Guildhall Art Gallery is responsible for Lord Samuel’s bequest in 1987 of eighty-four Dutch (and a few Flemish) pictures. These are hung in a semi-domestic setting in the Mansion House, and can be visited once a week (Tuesdays at two o’clock, for a one-hour guided tour). The restrictions of the bequest are in some ways regrettable for, among much else, there are outstanding works by Frans Hals, Nicolaes Maes, Jacob van Ruisdael and Jan Steen. Perhaps one day these restrictions might be loosened and the Guildhall and Corporation will share more generously at least some of these treasures with the public.