Charles Saumarez Smith's East London is a voyage of discovery into the richness and variety of an area in constant flux
At the outset let’s be clear what this handsome and intriguing book is not. It is not a comprehensive architectural and cultural history of East London. Nor is it a beautifully illustrated coffee table book, though Pentagram, the designers, have made a desirable object of it. It is an analogue recreation of the author’s online blog, tracing his aesthetically and historically informed journeys through his adopted quarter of London, illustrated with photographs taken on his smartphone. Some of the journeys trace his immediate home environment in Mile End and Stepney on his way to and from the grandeurs of the West End where he works, or, more domestically, going to the shops. Others are more extended weekend and holiday rambles to the further reaches of the eastern territories, alive with the anticipation of encounters with known but previously unvisited buildings and streets, or the surprise of the discovery of an unexpected alleyway, courtyard or vista.
Some of the photographs may not satisfy the eye of the architectural historian, hungry for detail. But when they are not clear, they are usually atmospheric. Collectively they will be a revelation to those who have an uninflected knowledge of East London. They will spring surprises on most pages for those who may think they know it well. To those sceptical of the culture of instantaneous and constant digital communication with a wide and anonymous constituency the casual style of the explicatory texts may grate at first. In this case familiarity breeds enjoyment. Although East London presents itself as a book to dip into, I found I got most out of it by reading it at a single sitting — the sense of a journey of discovery even into districts I thought I knew well, carried me forwards with relish.
Charles Saumarez Smith — currently Secretary of the Royal Academy and previously Director of the National Gallery — moved to the East End at roughly the same time as I did and for similar reasons. Thirty years ago we were both in search of an affordable Georgian house to restore and to settle our young families into. He ended up in mid-18th-century splendour in the Mile End Road, I in more austere neo-classical surroundings north of Victoria Park. I was faintly piqued that my own row of houses, described in a well-known book on London’s 18th-century architecture as “one of the finest brick terraces built in Georgian London”, doesn’t merit a mention. Nor does Sutton House in Homerton— one of the oldest surviving domestic buildings in London — where I was married and the author was a wedding guest — its Tudor panelled rooms then overlooking a car breaker’s yard. But Saumarez Smith’s book is not intended to be comprehensive, and perhaps the best secrets are the well-kept ones.
For Saumarez Smith East London was never homogeneous. He takes it manor by manor from Wapping, Shadwell and Limehouse down on the river to Hoxton, Haggerston and Hackney in the north, by way of Whitechapel, Aldgate and Spitalfields, just outside the City gates, successfully but lightly teasing out their physical and historical differences. Little connects culturally or architecturally the densely built-up Shoreditch or Spitalfields with the bleak flatlands of the Tower Hamlets and marshy Essex fringes. Change has been constant for a thousand years, its pace accelerating with waves of immigrant newcomers from the 17th century onwards, the rapid development of the London docks in the 19th, and hastened by the bombing of the Blitz, post-war redevelopment and the great building splurge of the Docklands Development Corporation in the 1980s and ’90s.
Neighbourhoods have prospered and then subsided into poverty or criminality only to rise again to affluence. In suburban Hackney market gardens, private schools and lunatic asylums gave way to Victorian terraces and furniture or garment factories, the latter now being turned into the fashionable loft-style apartments of the newly- named “Textile Quarter”. In Spitalfields wealthy silk weavers’ baroque mansions became slums and hideaways for the likes of Jack the Ripper and Peter the Painter, or later still turned into mini-cab offices and curry houses, before transforming once again into the elegant homes of bankers, lawyers and architects. All great cities are protean but East London is in constant flux.
The contemporary farmers’ markets, coffee houses, wine merchants, craft brewers, artisan breadmakers and cheesemongers of London Fields, the artists of Hackney Wick, the bearded hipsters of Shoreditch and Hoxton, the dot.com entrepreneurs of Old Street, the bankers of Canary Wharf and the tight-knit Bangladeshi community of Tower Hamlets, who are all celebrated here, are only the most recent manifestations of the continuous flux of this most vibrant section of London, which has hosted Huguenots and Jews fleeing religious persecution, as well as providing cheap lodgings for economic migrants, asylum-seekers, anarchists, criminals, communists, and good ordinary folk. The author has too little to say, perhaps, of the fate of the native cockney East Ender. A few survive. Our highly-regarded local house painter — brought up in Bow and a runner for the Krays when he was in his teens — still speaks the language of Sam Weller — “chimbelys” and all. Saumarez Smith evidences them visually through the very English names on the poignant, faded, hand-lettered pre-war shop signs revealed like palimpsests on derelict buildings.
Saumarez Smith is alive to the ironies and cultural contradictions of the gentrification of which we were pioneers. I have my own ambivalences about my adopted home of 30 years. My passion for 18th-century buildings was the product of an upbringing in a modernist house designed and built by my father in the leafy suburb of Highgate. He had been brought up in gloomy, cheap rented lodgings off Brick Lane in the 1920s and ’30s, and was only too happy to say goodbye to domicile in the East End in his post-war incarnation as a successful civil engineer. This included a period in the early 1950s as resident engineer at the “cathedral of sewage” — Abbey Mills pumping station at Stratford — about whose flamboyant Victorian architecture Saumarez Smith is particularly eloquent. My father chose to interpret his residency liberally and commuted from a flat in Hampstead.
He was also understandably glad to leave behind damp walls, sooty coal fires, gas lights, cornices, architraves and outside lavatories. While repudiating the insecurities and dingy surroundings of immigrant poverty, he retained an affection for the close communal life of his boyhood and we would often return to “his” parts of the East End at weekends. There were family visits to the Sunday markets of Petticoat Lane, Brick Lane and the Columbia Road flower market, lunch in the crowded, rude, busyness of Blooms now defunct kosher restaurant in Whitechapel — rightly lamented by Saumarez Smith — taking in an exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in the afternoon or an only half mock-reverential visit to the Passmore Edwards library next door, the alma mater of several generations of ambitious young East End autodidacts.
The pre-war cabinet-maker’s apprentice in my father understood my interest in restoring Georgian craftsmanship, though the rational, post-war engineer had made his own domestic and aesthetic choices. But he stymied my attempts to get him to support financially my project to buy a small early-18th-century house in Spitalfields (an area rightly given particularly close attention by Saumarez Smith) when they were still affordable. The residual socialist in him was offended by the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty that this entailed. Even though I explained that my next-door neighbour would be the Marxist historian Raphael Samuel my father was not to be assuaged.
He may have been right: the conspicuous wealth disparity in parts of East London has only been amplified by time. It was not until after his death that I moved to “Vicky Park”, a place that in his childhood he would have regarded as an unattainable bourgeois paradise.
Perhaps this story could be interpreted as a modest parable of the last 100 years of East End life. It is to Saumarez Smith’s credit that in his delightful and rather poetical book he manages to evoke with the lightest and most suggestive of touches the extraordinary cultural richness and variety of East London’s past and present without denying the contradictions and disparities. To those who have connections to this part of the city, the book may have a similar Proustian effect to that it has had on me. To those who don’t, it will surely stimulate the desire to get to know it.