Monday, October 9, 2017

Society for Photographing Relics of Old London

On February 3, 1887, Frances Glessner wrote in her journal that her husband John brought home a large stack of photos of London.  These photos happened to be from a series by the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London.  Since the Glessners never visited London, the photographs, which are in the museum collection today, provided them with a picture of what the city was like pre-industrialization. 

In 1875, scholar Alfred Marks commissioned photographers Alfred and John Bool to photograph the Oxford Arms Inn in London.  The commission was an attempt to document the building before its imminent demolition.  Continuing this desire to document buildings in danger of destruction, Marks formed the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London.  Over the course of 12 years, Marks and the members of the society published 120 photographs (the majority of which were taken by photographer Henry Dixon) of buildings they deemed significant that were in danger of being torn down.  Although some of the buildings were destroyed, the complicated histories of three buildings photographed by the society prove that the passion Marks had for architectural preservation continued after the society published its last series of photos.


19: Temple Bar

This photo depicts the Temple Bar in its original location.  The location of the Baroque arch denoted one of the main entrances into London from Westminster, and held great importance throughout London’s history.  The structure photographed by the society is Christopher Wren’s 1670 design that covered the ancient road.  The gateway itself consists of many decorative elements, along with stone statues of Queen Anne of Denmark and James I on one side, and Charles I and Charles II on the other (the side from which the society’s photo was taken).  The gateway stood in this location for over 200 years, and infamously displayed the severed heads of traitors in the eighteenth century. 

Temple Bar at Theobolds Park

As London grew more industrial, the gateway became problematic, as the arch made the street under it extremely narrow.  At the publication of the descriptive letterpress in 1881, Alfred Marks noted that the Temple Bar was already demolished and replaced by a memorial.  However, Marks was unaware of the events surrounding the monument’s demise: instead of being destroyed, the gateway was taken down stone by stone and stored by the Corporation of London, where it remained for ten years.  The gateway was later purchased by Lady Meux, a woman from a wealthy family based in Theobalds Park, and she had the Bar rebuilt in her estate.  It remained there until 2004, when the Temple Bar Trust convinced the Corporation of London to fund its return to London

Temple Bar today

Since the original location still provided the same spatial issues as it did in 1880, the Bar was rebuilt in Paternoster Square in London, right outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Both the Temple Bar and its 1880 monument remain a fixture of downtown London.

Temple Bar monument


37: Charterhouse - General View

The most extensively photographed buildings in the collection are the Charterhouse Buildings.  The twelve photos of the structure document nearly all facets of the building, and Marks notes that “London has few public buildings of equal interest with the Charterhouse, in respect either of historical associations or of beauty.”  The Charterhouse was built in 1371 as a Carthusian monastery, which lasted until 1537.  It was then converted into a mansion, and housed visiting royalty including Queen Elizabeth I and James I.  In 1611, the building was purchased by businessman Thomas Sutton, who converted it once again.  This time, the building was to be a charity house and school, specializing in health treatments and schooling for those less fortunate.  The Charterhouse School moved out of the building in 1872, but the school itself still exists today. 

41: Charterhouse - Great Hall

42: Charterhouse - Great Hall

In addition to the fear of demolition that occurred around the time of the society’s photos, the building also endured World War II.  After extreme damage during the Blitz bombings of 1941, extensive renovations and repairs were undertaken in the late 1950s.  Today, the house remains an almshouse (supporting those in need of financial assistance), and also functions as a museum.

Charterhouse buildings today


Another building that the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London was especially interested in was Lambeth Palace.  The palace dates to 1262, and since then it has been the primary residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The society published three photos of this building, focusing on Morton’s Tower, Juxon’s Hall, and the Water Tower, respectively.  The history of its construction and development is extremely complex, and many aspects have been added since its original dedication.  The chapel in the church and its corresponding crypt are the only sections which remain from the thirteenth century, but many other aspects from later periods are equally impressive.  The majority of the building was constructed by architect Edward Blore in the 1830s with the goal of hiding the reminders of the English Civil War that marked the building.

73: Lambeth Palace - Gate-House

The subject of the first photo published by the society, Morton’s Tower (named after its architect), was built in 1490, and it remains in its original position to this day. 

74: Lambeth Palace - Great Hall

The second photo shows the Great Hall of Lambeth Palace, which has since been turned into a renowned library, and provides one of the site’s main attractions. 

75: Lambeth Palace - "Lollard's Tower"

Unfortunately, the subject of the third photograph, Lollard’s Tower, did not completely survive to the present.  Like the Charterhouse and many other buildings in London, Lollard’s Tower was damaged by a direct hit bombing in 1941.  The tower did not collapse and has since been reconstructed, but the original structure is incomplete. 

Lambeth Palace today

These three histories demonstrate the complications and difficulties involved in architectural preservation.  Many of the buildings photographed by the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London did not survive to the present day, but the photos ensure that the buildings are not lost in the past.  The histories of Temple Bar, the Charterhouse, and Lambeth Palace exemplify the amount of work, and, in some cases luck, necessary to preserve ancient buildings.  Despite the short life span of Alfred Marks and his society, their impact and the buildings they documented live on through their work.

Andrew Haberman is a history student at Loyola University Chicago and a collections intern at Glessner House Museum during the fall 2017 semester.

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