Above: Looking south while standing in the middle of Smithfield.
“London in 1891”
‘Oh yes, I known where that is. Its Smithfield – but where are all the cars?’ You probably said something like that when you first looked at the picture. To anyone who knows London it is a very familiar scene but, somehow, its a lot more interesting because it was made well over 100 years ago.
Many of the buildings in London that are familiar to us today have sometimes been in existence for centuries but the removal of all the lorries and cars seem to transform the whole scene. Firstly, lets examine the buildings in the painting. We are situated at a point where we can look along almost the whole length of Giltspur Street, which is lined on the left by St Bartholomew’s Hospital. The ancient entrance to the hospital is to be seen – built of stone in three stories with a statue of Henry VIII standing over the entrance arch. The statue is not in evidence in the painting but the arch at ground level is still in use as the main pedestrian entrance to the hospital.
Almost in the centre of the photograph is a tall spire which is on the church of St Sepulchre, the largest church in the City of London. The collection of buildings facing the camera (one of them says ‘Shoe Depot’) are all gone, replaced by much larger blocks.
The railings enclosing a large round space (on the right) are still there. They prevent pedestrians falling into a large round ‘hole in the ground’. At the time of the painting that ‘hole in the ground’ had a slope within it where horses pulled carts in and out of a large underground area, conveying carcases of meat from a railway depot to Smithfield Market, just a few hundred yards away. It is all still there but the slope now leads to the same space which is used as an underground car park.
Remember, we are looking at a view from 1891 and so everything is geared to the horse. In London there were hundreds of thousands of them and therefore huge amounts of hay (for them to eat) and straw (for them to lie on) were needed on a daily basis. Nearly every two- and four-wheeled cart in this view is loaded with hay. It presents a strange sight to our 21st century eyes but to the figures in the foreground of this painting it was an everyday reality.
What makes the painting so alluring is not only the unusual objects in the view but also the very well composed angle from which the scene was painted. Today we just click the shutter on the camera of our mobile phones if we want to record a scene. We don’t take the time to carefully compose the objects as this artist has done. It ‘speaks’ to us of another ‘age’ entirely. As we pause to look at it we are almost immediately transported back in time to when everything operated at a much slower pace. Although many cars today can travel at 100 miles per hour on the open road, the average speed of traffic on the roads in London is still about 10 miles per hour which was the speed that horses could trot at in 1891.
Who was the artist?
The artist was William Loftie (1838-1911) who was born in Ireland but then lived most of his life in England and also in London. He took Holy Orders and his last job in the Church was as assistant chaplain at the Chapel Royal, Savoy – from 1871 to 1895. He had a keen interest in London, writing books on its history, producing many paintings of scenes in London and also maps. He was elected Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1872.