London, World City - for External Consumption?

By Thorne, Robert | History Today, November 1992 | Go to article overview

London, World City - for External Consumption?


Thorne, Robert, History Today


Many visitors to London this year will have been disappointed to find that the things they were looking forward to seeing are not available. David Wilkie's great painting |Chelsea Pensioners reading the Waterloo Dispatch' is not to be found hanging at Apsley House. Many of the popular favourites at the National Portrait Gallery are not on display, such as Richard Westall's dashing portrait of Lord Byron and Samuel Drummond's depiction of Marc Isambard Brunel against the backdrop of his Thames Tunnel. And most mysteriously, Jeremy Bentham's body and its mahogany case have gone missing from their accustomed corner in the main corridor of University College.

To track down these, and hundreds of other paintings and objects, has meant a journey to Essen, where in the former residence of the Krupp steel-making dynasty a gigantic exhibition about London in the period 1800 -1840 has been on display.

Metropole London is at the Villa Hugel until November 8th, and there are no plans to transfer it to other places. But for those with neither the time nor money to dart to Germany before it closes there is a magnificent catalogue, edited by the exhibition's organiser, Celina Fox, which is available in an English edition (Yale University Press, 45 [pounds]). Complete with no less than fourteen introductory essays, this volume is one of the most thought-provoking studies of London to be published for a long time.

Essen is indelibly associated with the harsh world of heavy industry rather than the charms of exhibition-going, so a word of explanation is needed about why this celebration of London has taken place there. For a start, the reputation that the city is burdened with is now highly inaccurate. Essen has been renewed since the war as a typically smart, though rather bland German town, admirably located to attract visitors from throughout central Europe. Exhibitions at the Villa Hugel achieve attendance figures which must make the Royal Academy and the Hayward Gallery green with envy. The roots of the city's cultural enterprise are directly linked to its industrial past, notably through the investment of some of the Krupp fortune in the Kulturstiftung Ruhr, the organisation which masterminds the exhibition programme at the Villa. No exact figures are mentioned, but judging by the size of the present exhibition and the comparatively modest price of the catalogue, the sums available for each show are extremely generous.

Metropole London is the fourth of a series of biennial exhibitions at Essen about major world cities. The first three were about cities in what we used to call the Eastern Bloc -- Dresden, Prague, and St Petersburg. Under the old order it was presumably quite easy, once the authorities in those places had agreed, to assemble and transport the exhibits. in the case of London it has not been quite so straightforward. First there was a search for an English institution that was willing to help coordinate the project which ended, appropriately enough, in the enlistment of the Museum of London, but not before others had turned up their noses at the idea. Then there was the problem of persuading the owners of over 700 exhibits to part with them for at least half a year, for display at a venue far from home.

The Villa Hugel exhibitions do not attempt to tell the whole story of the city concerned, but instead focus on the most creative period in each city's history. Most people, if asked, would probably nominate the mid-Victorian period as the time when London really came into its own, with the Great Exhibition of 1851 as the main symbol of that pre-eminence. …

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