Sunday, 13 July 2014

Gustave Dore: Images of Victorian London

Victorian London was the largest, the most prosperous, and the most fashionable city in the world. A vibrant and flourishing place, the hub of commerce from around the Empire the streets of which it was said were paved with gold. But it had a dark and sinister underbelly.

Whereas the residents of the West End luxuriated in their wealth, attended their clubs, visited the theatre, frequented the boutiques and salons of Oxford Street and were waited upon by servants within walking distance of the peacock pomposity of gilded grandiloquence lay the East End of the city, a place of filth, squalor, and degradation..

A place in the popular Victorian imagination of beggars, drunkards, opium addicts, prostitutes, and thieves. Somewhere best forgotten about let alone visited.

One man thought otherwise and was determined to frequent its narrow streets, dark alleyways, and illicit dens of vice and sin, and to record what he saw, though he did so wearing rough working men's clothes and under police escort.

He was the French artist and engraver, Gustave Dore.

The result of Dore's excursions into the lesser known London was his book of 180 images and engravings - London: A Pilgrimage (1872).

It was to prove a commercial success but it was not to be without criticism:

Why did Dore focus so much on poverty? Was it the natural antipathy of a Frenchman towards the English?

He was accused of not depicting what he saw but rather scenes from his own clearly disturbed imagination.

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