Simon Costin’s Dickens Diorama
Just recently, I took the 42 bus from Liverpool St Station down to Camberwell to visit Simon Costin where he was working on the top floor of an old scenery warehouse, recreating the nineteenth century city out of cardboard boxes for the new exhibition Dickens & London which opens tomorrow at the Museum of London. It sounded such a hare-brained scheme – a zany childhood fantasy writ large – that I could not resist going over to take a look, and I was not disappointed because I was confronted with a creditable terrace of tottering cardboard towers, even as I walked in the door.
Simon and his team of four were busily cutting up cardboard boxes, sticking storeys and roofs together, slicing out panels for windows and doors, and attaching tiles and bricks individually. Scattered around were books of old photographs that served as references, yet this was no literal architectural recreation but rather a dreamlike impression of the monstrous shambolic city which Dickens knew and that we all visit through his novels. As each edifice was completed, Simon proudly carried it across the room and added it to the quickly-growing warren of structures he was assembling, shuffling and swapping his property portfolio critically, like a whimsical land magnate.
Just as Charles Dickens’ London was a location of mystery, an unknowable labyrinth of human life, so Simon Costin has brought his own story to the cardboard diorama through referencing the work of his great-great-grandfather, William Pettit Griffith, a forgotten architect. Only the almshouses in the Balls Pond Rd survive today out of Griffith’s work built in London in the nineteenth century, though he was also the architect who fought to save St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell and conceived its renovated form that we know today.
In family lore, William Pettit Griffith was a shadowy figure who died in obscure poverty but Simon discovered a direct relationship with his long-gone forbear through an unlikely encounter with a stranger who revealed herself to have second sight. Two elderly women approached Simon in the tearoom at the Royal Academy. One explained that the other was blind yet blessed with a psychic gift and she saw a guardian angel at Simon’s shoulder. The figure she described was a Victorian gentleman with unusual hair that curled on both sides of his head, just as William Pettit Griffith’s hair does in the only portrait, which you see below.
This uncanny experience led Simon to research his enigmatic ancestor and he found they had lived in close proximity – as if they followed each other around London, one hundred and fifty years apart. Simon once squatted in a flat at 67 Guildford St and Griffith had lived at 117. Then, Simon moved to a flat that turned out to be around the corner from Griffith’s practice in Bermondsey. Next, Simon had a studio on Wharf Rd in Islington, close to Eagle Wharf Rd where Griffith had lived, and now Simon lives five minutes from the almhouses, the last Griffith building standing.
Dickens’ novels are full of long-lost relatives reunited through chance. A phenomenon that both confirms the dislocation of people in the teeming city, yet reveals the underlying connections which are usually hidden. Simon’s discoveries have brought him into a personal relationship with the nineteenth century city, and he has envisaged his nocturnal diorama of London as a place of wonder, of horror and awe.
Gustave Dore’s London
Simon Costin’s London.
Part of the diorama at the Museum of London, seen from London Wall.
Simon Costin, great-great-grandson of William Pettit Griffith
William Pettit Griffith, Simon Costin’s great-great-grandfather.
From the notebook of William Pettit Griffith
Simon Costin was assisted in creating his diorama by Jenna Rossi-Camus, Rachel Champion, Russell Harris and Yasemen Hussein.
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