We may not notice it on a day-to-day basis as we walk past a tower block or sit on a park bench, but some of London’s simplest scenes can be transformed into the most thought-provoking with the right brushstrokes. We’ve rounded up some poignant images artists have created of the capital over the last few hundred years, but rather than focus on specific places or monuments, these works depict contrasting aspects of the city, from the daily grind to pretty landscapes, social issues to fashion movements.
William Hogarth – Gin Lane, 1750
Hogarth created this infamous drawing for a campaign to restrict the sales of gin. At the time the spirit could be cheaply distilled by anyone who had a bathtub (sometimes using toxic substances in the process) and its low price meant abuse was rampant. The tawdry scene depicted in Hogarth’s work is set in Bloomsbury, featuring characters who have seemingly lost their lives to the drink. For maximum impact, Hogarth drew a semi-naked woman too drunk to realise her baby is about to fall to its death, a baby impaled on a stick, and a hungry child struggling to steal a bone off a dog. The campaign was successful - in 1751 the Gin Act was passed, which placed restrictions on where gin could be produced, leading to an increase in quality and a reduction in consumption.
Turner – The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 1835
One of the most influential British painters, J.M.W. Turner was labelled “the painter of light” due to his penchant for brilliant sunsets and vivid skies. In The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons he pits fire against moonlight resulting in a dramatic play on light; the buildings themselves are quite secondary. Turner witnessed the fire from a boat on the Thames but he also walked through the distressed crowds who had gathered to watch the disaster, hence the addition of swarms of people at the bottom of the painting. Yet despite the subject matter, the painting manages to be beautiful rather than tragic.
Claude Monet – Hyde Park, 1871
The scenes most favoured by Monet during his stay in London were the Houses of Parliament, the mist surrounding Westminster Bridge and the Thames, but he also found time to paint Hyde Park, in simple yet realistic depictions of green grass, pathways and well-to-do strollers. The French Impressionist was an expert at creating serene, aesthetically pleasing images, and his portrayals of London’s most famous park were no exception.