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The Spirit Of London, 1935

March 1, 2021
by the gentle author

Paul Cohen-Portheim’s The Spirit of London of 1935 is republished by Batsford Books this week with a new introduction by Simon Jenkins and the original cover design by Brian Cook.

Cohen-Portheim was a German-born Austrian artist and travel writer who was interned here during World War I yet, improbably, his enforced stay made him fall in love with Britain and, in particular, London.

London Drizzle

‘No one knows exactly where London is, where it begins and ends, or how many people inhabit it.’

Ludgate Circus

‘In London, the past is not dead, the City is alive, and alive its Abbey and Cathedral, and its Georgian squares and Victorian clubs and houses of legislature or law. As alive as the latest white concrete cube or super-cinema, and as much of the present as of the past.’

St Paul’s and the spires of Wren’s City churches

‘It is because Wren’s churches had to remain hidden in narrow alleys that he gave all his thoughts to their spires, and as a result the City possesses what no other city in the world can show: a co-ordinated group, a harmony of all its church spires conceived by one master builder.’

St Paul’s seen from the Thames

Pool of London

Billingsgate Market

Lombard St in the City of London on Sunday morning

‘No other capital knows such uncanny emptiness and quiet as that of the City on Sunday’

Commuters crossing London Bridge

‘It is most fascinating to watch the human masses pouring in from railway and tube stations and over the bridges’

Unemployed people sleeping in Hyde Park

‘There is nothing to prevent the most ragged from lying down on the grass where the chairs of fashion stand.’

Clerkenwell ice men

‘It is the poor foreigners who are noticeable, for their numbers are very great and they congregate in certain districts, and it is these foreign settlements which make London a cosmopolitan city.’

Watercress barrow

Dining Rooms

Aldgate Pump

‘The City ends at Aldgate and the East End begins’

Petticoat Lane

‘Sunday is the best day for this pilgrimage. You will find the Lane not only alive but teeming, swarming, screeching and bellowing on its market day. The older inhabitants retain their dress of Russia or Poland, the younger are gaudily elegant, and all are immensely busy and boisterous.’

A street in Whitechapel

‘The East End is one of the most mysterious places in the world, it looks mean and drab, and this impression is chiefly due to the lack of height in its buildings. Apart from the great main roads, it is just a maze of alleys of little low brick houses of darkened brick.’

A court in Shoreditch

‘It is the people who give interest to the East End streets. On Saturday nights, Whitechapel Rd is thronged with people parading up and down.’

Demolition in Stepney

At the Prospect of Whitby in Wapping

Clapton dog track

Cover design by Brian Cook

THE SPIRIT OF LONDON is published this week by Batsford 

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12 Responses leave one →
  1. Herry Lawford permalink
    March 1, 2021

    Fascinating observations

  2. March 1, 2021

    Probably a superb facsimile book about the pre-war period!

    Love & Peace

  3. Pauline Taylor permalink
    March 1, 2021

    Thank you GA for another reminder that I am of London, I have never lived there but it is in my blood and I know it. So many ancestors and so much history, from the Archbishop’s watermen and the sextons at St Mary Lambeth who would have been responsible for the burials of the Archbishops recently found in a previously undiscovered crypt under the chancel, to John West, money scrivener to Samuel Pepys and a witness to his will, who, together with his wife, owned so much property in London that I am still entitled to a pension that he set up for his ‘poor’ relatives. One of my ancestors was the first to benefit from that when she was widowed as was my 3xgreat grandmother who was also widowed at a young age, In the 16th century there was Richard Tyro who was Clerk of Works for Inigo Jones at the Queen’s House at Greenwich whose father in law was given one of the King’s paintings in lieu of wages (he was the Royal glazier) at the time of the Commonwealth. That painting now hangs in the Louvre in Paris. Not to mention John Beard who must have been a member of the Beard family at Hampton who was discovered by Handel in the Chapel Royal and went on to sing all the major tenor parts for Handel, he also became the manager of Covent Garden and married a young society widow which was the scandal of the time, I particularly like that association as there is a letter from one lady to another in which she hopes that someone will invite the young newly married Mrs Beard to tea as she herself will provide the arsenic to put in her cup.

    So much of London history and those ancestors who lived there to think about today and a tribute to pay to Frederick Greenwood in these troubled times as he, as editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, challenged the behaviour of every government and played a not insignificant part in the politics of the time attending regular weekend political gatherings at Highclere Castle. He it was who was responsible for this country buying the shares in the Suez Canal from the Khedive of Egypt thus pipping France at the post, Disraeli bought the shares, at Frederick’s prompting, with money lent to the country by Baron Rothschild and that action brought in a fantastic revenue for many years to come. Oh how dull my life seems compared to theirs but at least I hope that no one will be wanting to put arsenic in my tea !!

  4. Mark permalink
    March 1, 2021

    Mesmerizing photographs.
    Like Antonioni’s Blow Up in the 60’s, Cohen-Portheim’s studies of London have a distinctly “foreign” flavour to them and are none the the worse for that. Tempted to splash out for the volume. Bloody marvellous. Thanks!

  5. March 1, 2021

    A dust jacket by Brian Cook! — Surely one of the best recommendations ever. I have always been dazzled by his book covers……crisp elegant color blocking, poster-like images, tone-on-tone shadows, that unmistakable Cook style.

    A style that captures an era — yet never looks
    dated. I call THAT the mark of a great illustrator!

    Well-done, GA. Stay safe, all.

  6. paul loften permalink
    March 1, 2021

    Thank you for these incredible photos that capture the essence of pre-war London!
    Oh the photo of Clapton Dog Track ! We moved to Nye Bevan Estate in the early 60’s to a brand newly built flat in Millfields Road directly opposite the main entrances this Dog Track. It was mayhem every Thursday night with parking and cars being towed away. They once tried to tow away my fathers little Ford Anglia parked in the road outside . He forgot to move it. I recall him rushing out to stop them. It was the former ground of Clapton Orient, now Leyton Orient ) in the 1930’s. Occasionally we would go over and watch the dogs race but I never saw it ever being as crowded as that photo. It attracted thousands of East Enders and my mum would joke about them all coming out having lost their trousers to the bookies. I used to keep an eye out for a punter coming out of the exits in his underpants, but never did see any. I think the attendances declined in the 60’s and the dog track was demolished to make way for another council estate . By then we had moved again back to Stoke Newington so I do not know exactly when it closed.

  7. Linda Granfield permalink
    March 1, 2021

    Wonderful photo of the spires ‘popping out’ of the cityscape. That picture is a nice follow-up to your “Spires of City Churches” posting of a couple of days ago, GA.

    So many hatted gentlemen! I think my father’s work days of the 1950s and 1960s were the last time men daily wore a felted hat (his, a fedora)? Now it’s all baseball caps, if anything, on the head.

  8. March 1, 2021

    GA, fabulous pics from 1935. The first one, in drizzle four folks with umbrellas, is a classic black ‘n white study.

    “St Paul’s and the spires of Wren’s City churches” can not be replicated today what with the sea of glass and steel that now define the City. Love Wren’s spires, especially St. Brides in Fleet Street.

  9. Saba permalink
    March 1, 2021

    Stunning quality throughout! I would be interested in knowing what the city streets looked like when Wren designed the churches. How does the overall mix of buildings and steeples differ now from the mix then. GA, might this be a topic for a future post?

  10. Stephen Barry permalink
    March 4, 2021

    What wonderful pictures of 1930s London, particularly of an East End now largely gone. Like Paul Loften, we moved into the newly-built Nye Bevan Estate by Clapton Dog Track in the early 1960s. I remember they allowed free entry for the last race so there was a large exodus from the flats just before then. According to Greyhound Times the the stadium was built on the site of a former fireworks company. This was levelled in 1896 and became known as Whittles Recreation Ground, which hosted athletics, football and whippet racing. The dog track opened in 1928 and the last race meeting was in January 1974. It was demolished in the early 1980s.

  11. Penny Gardner permalink
    March 16, 2021

    Not so very different from my 1950’s childhood.
    My great grandfather (Fishy Dick) was a porter at Billingsgate before emmigrating to Canada.
    I remember very dusty streets .

  12. January 8, 2022

    These are truly fantastic photographic images. And now having purchased a copy of Portheim’s book I will be able to flick through these images over and over again. Many thanks GA.

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